Jesus Camp

Onward Christian soldiers
Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Becky Sharp, Ted Haggard, Mike Papantonio
The Setup: 
Documentary about Pentecostal children’s programs.

This documentary got fair amount of acclaim, was nominated for an Oscar, and was supposed to be somewhat eye-opening. I don’t know why I promoted it to the top of my list, but suddenly there it was.

We open with a note saying Magnolia Films DOES NOT hold the views expressed on the commentary. I thought this was interesting, as usually companies say they may not necessarily hold the same views… was this purposeful, or just a matter of wording?

Okay so we open with scenes around Missouri. Remind me never to move to Missouri. We hear a radio show talking about how politics is being mixed with religion, and see a kid’s performance where their faces are painted into camouflage, are wearing fatigues, and dance in a militaristic fashion. Then this woman Becky Sharp, a Pentecostal children’s minister, is giving a standard sermon, when all of a sudden she and the kids start speaking in tongues! This was THE most interesting part of the film, as it makes you wonder: what do these kids think they’re doing? Are they just imitating adults? Have they convinced themselves that they’re feeling something, and if so, what? Are some of them just faking it? Obviously my view is a little skeptical that any real connection with any spirit is taking place.

Then Becky talks with astonishment about how Palestinian children are better trained in religion than American kids, which she seems to find frightening. Throughout the film we will hear about how important it is to catch kids at a young age as they will probably retain their views for life, and so they can continue to spread their views which will give them a political advantage.

We then start to get to know some of the kids. We get a factoid that Pentecostals must be born again, and that 43% of them are born again before the age of 13. We then meet this kid who says he was born again at the age of five, because he was deeply dissatisfied with life. At FIVE. What does he mean by that? What was his experience? What were his parents like? Sadly I’m afraid we don’t find out very much about any of this from the film.

We see a kid being home schooled—there was some statistic about the large amount of Pentecostals that are home schooled—and it really seems to be a training programs, just drilling answers into his head. His mother trains him what to say when someone suggests that the world is being transformed through global warming. His prepared response is that the average temperature has “only gone up 0.6%”—actually a fairly large amount—and his mother says “It’s not really a big problem, is it?” Then the guy on the radio expresses what many Pentecostals feel—that it doesn’t matter that we’re changing the world, because humans aren’t going to be on this world forever. So we should use up all the trees—that’s what God wants—and apparently as the last tree is being chopped down, that’s when the rapture will happen.

More sermons. Becky suddenly turns on Harry Potter and says that warlocks of any kind are enemies of God and if it was in olden times Harry Potter would have been put to death. She calls on the kids to repent while some woman to the side is wailing loudly into a microphone. There is much encouragement for the kids not to “sell out” and give up on their beliefs when they become teenagers, and how they shouldn’t be “a promise-breaker, be a history-maker.”

Throughout there is much content showing the explicit connection between Pentecostalism and extreme political conservatism, and at one point a cardboard standee of President Bush is brought out and the kids are ordered to bless him. There was the global warming talk and there is also anti-abortion talk. Then Pastor Ted Haggard—the guy who was later outed as patronizing a gay prostitute—comes on to lecture against homosexuality. He truly looks like a strange individual. Is there anything to the fact that he uses the word “Fabulous” twice during his short time on screen? Can the word “Fabulous” actually be considered a secondary sex characteristic identifying gay men?

The movie ends with footage of the kids being taken to Washington D.C. and standing in protest with red tape labeled “Life” over their mouths. Perhaps this is supposed to be the shocking culmination of how these kids are being used as political pawns, but for me, at least, we’ve already established that and thus the movie seems to just dribble to an end.

I was unsatisfied. It covers an interesting topic and gets some good footage, but I don’t think there is anything special about the film’s assembly. The stuff that interested me the most—about the psychological state of these kids—was given short shrift, and the point that the filmmakers seem to be trying to make—that these Pentecostal groups are training an army of youngsters to fight their political war—is clear by 30 minutes in and becomes redundant. And while the footage is interesting, if you are a person who reads the New York Times or the New Yorker or Harper’s or the New York Review of Books or any other news magazine of depth, none of this is going to be particularly revelatory. This is not a waste of time, but I really can’t fathom why this garnered all the acclaim it did.

If you, like me, enjoy perusing the evidence of other people’s idiocy, the IMDb comments for this film will provide you with much head-shaking grim mirth. Perhaps more than the film itself. I was particularly fascinated by filtering by “Hated It,” and wondering at the sheer amount of people who can’t distinguish between a film’s TOPIC and its VIEWPOINT. They hate this movie because they hate the Pentecostals, apparently unable to conceive that the film is being critical, or at least is taking a distance on, it’s subjects. We’re in trouble, folks.

Should you watch it: 

If you want. How revelatory it’ll be will depend on how much you peruse quality journalism. I don’t, that much, and I still felt like I wasn’t hearing much I didn’t already know.