Below is Kelly Baker's post on the film Jesus Camp. Just a pre-script -- besides the film itself, I highly recommend the directors' commentary included with the DVD of the film. They provide a fascinating window into the making of the documentary, and have some interesting things to say also about Ted Haggard, who appears briefly (and not very likably) in the film. Anyway, Kelly provides some good thoughts below on studying the religious lives of children, so enjoy!
Kelly Baker -- “Don’t be a promise breaker, be a history maker”
The documentary, Jesus Camp, explores the evangelical camp, “Kids on Fire,” and the lives of some of the participants. Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal children’s minister, runs the camp because of her belief that children are so “open and usable” in Christianity. Throughout the documentary, Fischer’s dictum about children seems to play out (sometimes painfully). We also follow Levi, Rachel, and Tory in their experiences of camp as well as their renderings of both their faith and their nation. Levi, who wants to be a preacher, is home schooled. His mother is his teacher and proponent of Creationism. Rachel shows the most enthusiasm for evangelizing and bowling, and she combines the two when witnessing to a young woman at the bowling alley. Tory listens to Christian heavy metal and dances for God rather than the flesh. Throughout their journeys at camp, the children embrace Fischer’s opinion on sin, abortion, and the decline of America. Levi preaches a sermon in which he tells the other children that they are the “key” generation to bring about the Second Coming of Christ, and Tory sobs when the camp counselors discuss the need to break the power of the enemy -- I suppose these are non-evangelicals, or the American government. What was most striking about the documentary was the reaction of children as they were being trained to be an army of God. Children sobbed over their supposed hypocrisies, raised their hands quickly to give their lives for God, and confessed while weeping how hard belief really is.
I watched most of this in a strange state of awe and discomfort. I was fascinated by the raw emotions of the children at the same time I had empathy for their self-loathing and tears. They were just kids after all. Yet as an American religious historian, I could not help but wonder if this film actually provided an accurate portrayal of the lived religion of these evangelical kids. Were these boys and girls always committed to becoming soldiers? Did they understand the red “LIFE” stickers adults placed over their mouths? Were these kids always so serious and committed? There were occasional glimpses of the children having fun from dancing exuberantly to Christian rap to boys scaring the wits out of each other with ghost stories. (The boys were reprimanded by adult, who suggested ghost stories were not quite holy).
Moreover, this film made me think about the religious lives of children. In his Between Heaven and Earth, Robert Orsi examined the religious lives of Catholic children among many other topics, and he argued that “[c]hildren are uniquely available to stand for the interiority of a culture and to offer embodied access to the inchoate possibilities of the culture’s imaginary futures” (78). Children, then, are often the place markers for a culture to present the future. To repeat Becky Fischer, children are “usable.” The counselors and the parents strived to create foot soldiers for the evangelical movement to take back what “rightfully” was a Christian nation. Yet with our great hopes for children also comes the possibility of failure. They might raise their hands, but they still want to tell ghost stories. For American religious historians, children pose an interesting problem. We have to realize how they represent the “interiority of the culture” while also seeing the children for themselves. How do we differentiate between the expectations of Fischer and the child’s own desires and needs?
For me, Jesus Camp was more an interesting exploration of the lives of evangelical children. Many were shocked and awed not only by the children’s behaviors but also the political message. The political message was not necessarily shocking, and I think it was handled (slightly) better by Michelle Goldberg in Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. The more confounding puzzle is still how to study the religious lives of American children because as Fischer rightly noted children are future “history makers.”
(Interestingly, Fischer has closed the “Kids on Fire” camp due to the negative response associated with the documentary.)