Studying the Religious Lives of Children in Jesus Camp

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.)


Phil said…
Thanks for this enlightening review Kelly. I'll have to take a look at the documentary very soon.

It sounds as if, on the one hand, the film perpetuates the stereotype that *all* evangelicals fit the Religious Right mold, while on the other hand seen or read in conjunction with other literature on this subject it could serve to animate the diversity of views among evangelical folks. I didn't know until today that the camp closed down; that makes the whole story much more interesting.

I also like the questions you raise about lived religion, and studying the lives of children. It is a fascinating research question.

On a related note, I wonder if anyone has read or seen some of the recent memoirs by pastors' kids (now in their 20s and 30s) and other discontented souls (e.g., Sarah Cunningham, _Dear Church_; Dan Kimball, _They Like Jesus But Not the Church_), some of whom grew up in the passionate contexts Jesus Camp highlights? From what I've seen, ambivalence reigns now in their relationships to the Christianity of their childhood. It might be good correlative material for the kinds of discussions your good questions beckon.
DEG said…
I heard Orsi speak at a conference about the importance of children's religion, and it was quite the compelling talk. I believe his upcoming book will expand on the ideas expressed in Between Heaven and Earth.

Regardless, I second Phil's comments. Histories of modern evangelical youth cultures are badly needed, particularly one that traces the relative success of evangelicals at getting their kids to stay in "the fold" (however their parents define that). The pursuit of youth loyalty drives a significant part of the efforts and budgets of evangelical churches and communities, and it's a huge part of the evangelical business world (Veggietales? Focus on the Family? Bibleman, anyone?). Having grown up in the evangelical culture, I can assure you that the "cradle to grave" mentality never died out, even if it doesn't mean the same thing it did for my grandparents' generation.
Joshua said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joshua said…
I also plan on seeing the film _Jesus Camp_, partially because from what I've read about it, it gives a glimpse into the unquestioning role of religion, especially in a revival setting (which I presume much of the film to take place).

Debby Applegate's now famous biography of Henry Ward Beecher (_The Most Famous Man in America_) provides some insight into the religious life of a young person, and more importantly, how his understandings of Christianity and Calvinist doctrine affected his personal religious "evolution" of sorts.

As Applegate's work suggests, I'd be curious to see if and how these children still keep to their roles in the "cosmic theater" (to borrow a term from Robert Abzug) to really influence anything. Beecher was perhaps the most equipped person in America to assist his father in bringing about the Millennium, but to my understanding his personal changes in theology (e.g. abandoning the concept of hell) ran his father's dreams into the ground.
Randall said…
I conducted an interview In Historically Speaking. about a year ago with Orsi on the state of the field and his new work on children:

He made some interesting comments about Beecher.

He's moved to Northwestern, where he's taken a chair in the religion dept:

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