Tongues of Fire

'Jesus Camp' Illuminates the Political and Religious Education of Evangelical Christian Children

The Washington Post/September 29, 2006
By Ann Hornaday

One of the most moving documentaries to arrive in Washington theaters this year was "The Boys of Baraka," an intimate account of several African American middle-school students who left their inner-city Baltimore neighborhood to spend a life-changing year at a boarding school in rural Kenya.

"Baraka" co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have once again turned their lens on young people. This time, though, even if their subjects are geographically closer to home, culturally they are worlds away. In "Jesus Camp," Ewing and Grady enter the lives of America's evangelical Christians and the churches, revival meetings, antiabortion demonstrations and summer camps where they educate their children. With extraordinary access to a community that is largely unknown to outsiders, the filmmakers have once again created a candid and compelling portrait of young people forging their identities at the physical and psychic extremes.

"Jesus Camp" opens with an unsettling sequence, during which young Christians -- dressed in camouflage and with their faces painted brown and green -- enact a warlike ritual dedicating themselves to fighting for God. Soon after, we meet the film's stars: 12-year-old Levi, who wears his hair cut short except for a rat's tail, declares he was saved when he was 5 "because I wanted more out of life," and now aims to be a preacher; Rachael, 9, who longs to be an evangelist and is practicing spreading the Word at her local bowling alley; and Tory, 10, who loves to dance but shamefully admits that sometimes she doesn't dance only for Jesus, but also "for the flesh." And we also meet Becky Fischer, the outgoing, charismatic leader of a youth ministry in the kids' home state of Missouri, who serves as a counselor at a summer camp called Kids on Fire in (wait for it) Devil's Lake, N.D.

Bookended with news reports about the resignation of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and the announcement of the nomination of Samuel Alito to take her place, "Jesus Camp" takes as its subject the most colorful arm of Christianity, that of charismatic Pentecostalism. Although firm numbers are difficult to nail down, research from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicates that Pentecostalism may account for between 15 and 20 percent of evangelicals, who number around 52 million adults in this country, and who in recent years have emerged as a powerful political force.

"Jesus Camp" is composed of images of kids being radicalized spiritually and politically that will be heartening or chilling depending on the viewer. There are moments sure to set secular humanists' teeth on edge: when Tory's mother, who educates her kids at home, dismisses global warming and declares once and for all that creationism provides "the only possible answer to all the questions"; or when Becky excoriates Harry Potter to nervous-looking youngsters ("Warlocks are enemies of God!"). And it's hard not to feel a little frightened watching Becky and her fellow leaders goad their young charges into speaking in tongues, or joining in chants like "This means war!" and smashing coffee cups that symbolize secularized government.

But those who find "Jesus Camp" frightening, Grady says, may be missing an important lesson. The evangelicals are "not doing anything illegal," Grady explained recently in a phone interview. "In fact, they're embracing and utilizing democracy to its fullest potential. There's no office too small, no political position that's insignificant [to them]. If I were to say I was scared of these people, then I'm scared of the very tenets of our political system."

Indeed, according to Ewing, the families and activists in the film "don't consider themselves as political. To them, they're just living a moral upright life in an organized way, and to us that looks political. . . . They think it's their duty to encourage the culture to live the same, and that means engaging civically."

Still, when a congregation gathers before a life-size cutout of George W. Bush to pray for an antiabortion Supreme Court justice, it's clear this is a movement that feels it has a friend in the White House. Ewing believes that confidence explains why this evangelical community gave Grady and her such close access. "I have a feeling that under [Bill] Clinton this would not have been possible," she says. "With what's gone on in the last few years, they feel they're winning the culture war, they feel the majority of the country agrees with their values and how they're raising their children, they find popular culture vile, and they're kind of like, 'Bring it on, come on in.' "

Grady, who grew up in Washington and Takoma Park and attended the reform Washington Hebrew Congregation, and Ewing, a Catholic, say that Fischer gave explicit instructions to the children and their families not to proselytize the filmmakers. "Although honestly, Rachel has been getting Jews for Jesus stuff for the past six months," Ewing notes wryly.

The filmmakers say that the subjects of "Jesus Camp" have seen the film and liked it, while audiences in New York, where the movie opened a week ago, have been alternately amused and appalled. (National Association of Evangelicals President Ted Haggard has released a statement on the organization's Web site saying, "This movie manipulates facts like a Michael Moore film and works the camera like 'The Blair Witch Project.' " He may be dismayed that his constituency is represented by what some regard as an eccentric fringe, or he may be unhappy with his big scene, in which he takes young Levi aside and advises him to "use the cute kid thing until you're 30 and by then you'll have content.")

For Grady, the experience of making "Jesus Camp" has taught her that the political rhetoric about Two Americas is distressingly true. "Heidi and I travel all over the world for our work and go to all kinds of exotic communities and societies and cultures, and then, just 2 1/2 hours away, there's a parallel world going on that we didn't know about because of our own ignorance," she says.

"The country may be big, and there might be a lot of us," she concludes, "but we have to break through a little. Because we're so polarized right now, we're paralyzed."

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