Rachel is only nine years old, but she dreams of becoming a manicurist since she can preach the Word of God to a captive listener. Levi, twelve, was born-again at age five because he claims he needed more out of life. Ten year-old Tory likes Christian hard rock, but warns, “when I dance, I really have to make sure that’s God because people will notice when I’m just dancing for the flesh.”
These are the children of the Christian Evangelical movement, which has experienced staggering growth and influence over the last decade, reshaping American society and government all the way up to the White House. At about 45 million strong in the U.S., Evangelicals aren’t solidly defined as a single group, but most agree that children are the key to cementing fundamentalist Christianity into the courts, government and schools of the United States — what many of them say is a God-given duty to reclaim America for Christ.
Children’s minister Becky Fischer is the creator of “Kids On Fire,” a North Dakota Pentecostal camp for Evangelical youth which is the subject of Jesus Camp, opening at Doc Soup on Wednesday. Fischer makes no bones about her mission to “take these prophecies and do what the apostle Paul said and make war with them.”
Like many contemporary Evangelicals, the undeniably charming Fischer subscribes to the notion that Christians are in a culture war against non-Christians, and that Evangelicals can learn lessons from Middle Eastern fundamentalism. “I want to see [young people] radically laying down their lives for the Gospel as they are over in Pakistan, in Israel and Palestine,” she enthuses, “because, excuse me, but we have the truth.”
The sight of the kids in Fisher’s camp writhing on the floor, fainting and speaking in tongues is familiar to most as an adult domain, often highly visible at televised revivals. Tears flow — many — and children as young as five convulse in the Holy Spirit as if being electrocuted, a stream of nonsensical gibberish spewing from their lips. “Hooking-up with the spirit,” Fischer calls it.
“I can go into a playground of kids that don’t know anything about Christianity, lead them to the Lord in no time at all, and just moments later, they can be seeing visions and hearing the voice of God because they’re so open … [children] are so usable in Christianity.”
Jesus Camp also chronicles the rise of the theatrical within modern megachurches. Wearing army fatigues, face paint and brandishing spears, a youth group performs a warlike dance routine before the crowd. A Pentecostal arena in Colorado Springs boasts concert lighting, live bands, impeccable sound, and multimedia. Children are called to dramatically smash ceramic cups with a hammer to symbolically drive the “enemy” (non-Christians and liberals) from righteous government. A cardboard cutout standee of President Bush is welcomed, caressed, and prayed-to in what almost seems like a violation of the First Commandment forbidding idolatry.
Relatively even-handed, the two directors of the documentary, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, frame the footage with a moderate voice in the form of Mike Papantonio, the host of the Ring of Fire radio show on the left-wing Air America network. He is shown on-air in his studio, providing exposition and taking callers, most notably opining how Evangelicals have elbowed their way into “the White House, Congress, and the judiciary for a generation,” even at one point taking a call from Becky Fischer and warning her that God has a special place for people that mess with children.
Of particular interest is young Levi, who was “saved” at five. The charismatic boy wants to become a preacher himself, and is actually given his first chance behind the mic at twelve. To non-Evangelicals, the choice to be born-again at such an early age seems bizarrely immature, but 43% of Evangelical Christians are born-again before they hit thirteen.
Levi is frustrated that he feels different from other kids, claiming that if everyone else just did their Christian calling as God requires, they’d be just like him. Fundamentalist Christian parents are also frustrated, which is why three fourths of home-schooled kids are Evangelicals, with their own special texts and curriculum.
In one of the more alarming segments, we see Levi and his brother being schooled in their Missouri kitchen by their mother. Reading from a creationist “science” text and watching slick children’s videos on creationism (also known as intelligent design), Levi is frankly told that science can’t be proven and that creationism is the only possible answer to all the questions. His textbook states that global warming doesn’t exist (Evangelicals believe that they are mandated by God to reap the spoils of the earth now, since Armageddon approaches and they won’t be here for long). “It’s a huge political issue,” appends his mom.
Levi’s brother chimes-in with his thoughts that “Galileo made the right choice by giving up science for Christ.” It is unclear whether or not the science texts explain that Galileo was persecuted by the Church as a heretic and died under house arrest for sticking to his (correct) theories on heliocentrism.
In what cheekily might be referred to as a divine act of retribution, the film takes an interesting turn when preacher-hopeful Levi attends service at Colorado Springs’ New Life Church. Here he meets head pastor and President of the National Association of Evangelicals Ted Haggard, who would later become mired in a massive scandal involving crystal meth and a male prostitute (another New Life youth pastor, Christopher Beard, would resign soon after for vague admissions of sexual misconduct, and the church currently has a discreet call to root-out any more skeletons in their staff’s closets).
Haggard takes a moment to meet Levi, throwing in a fey “fabulous!” that holds a kind of dark humour today. When the scandal hit after the movie was completed, Haggard originally lied about his involvement with the prostitute, most notably to his highly visible wife and children. In an eerily prescient clip, Haggard sermonizes, “We don’t have to debate about what we think about homosexual activity; it’s written in the Bible!” He turns to the camera and points with a wry smile. “I think I know what you did last night. If you send me a thousand dollars, I won’t tell your wife.” This short clip would go on to become a YouTube phenomenon.
Explaining the Ted Haggard scandal to young followers might seem like a sticky task, but the film shows us exactly how savvy Evangelical children are becoming to traditionally adult issues. The kids protest against abortion on Capitol Hill, and pray to God that He will shift the courts to the righteous. They pledge allegiance to a flag, but it’s the Christian flag. Religious children in the U.S. are firmly indoctrinated against homosexuality from an extremely early age, and ten year-old Tory who loves to dance feels she has to explicitly manage its obviously carnal effects.
These kids clearly are straddling a difficult line between childhood desires and adult interests. “I feel like we’re kinda being trained to be warriors, only in a much funner way,” says little Rachel, who has a penchant for reading fundamentalist Jack Chick tracts. She even boldly approaches a total stranger in a bowling alley, claiming a sudden signal from God that this woman was on His mind and that Rachel needed to inform her of His special plan for her.
“Way to go, Rachel,” her dad praises when she tells him of her sermonizing. “Way to be obedient!” She hugs him with a grin, basking in his approval.
Jesus Camp is evenly-balanced enough that Evangelicals should feel driven by it, while others will find horror in the behaviour of these precocious children. Pastor Becky Fisher has praised the film, despite its minor contradictory bias. She sees Jesus Camp not only as a tool to promote her ministry, but as a shot across the bow to non-Christians and the American left-wing. When describing the concern liberals might have watching her kiddie congregation thrash on the floor, slain in the spirit and speaking in tongues, Fischer explains again that the kids have to be snagged while young for maximum success.
Fischer gleefully believes liberals ask themselves a question that excites her but sends chills down the spine of social progressives: What are these kids going to be like when they grow up? If all goes according to plan, they will be God’s active warriors on a Christian planet.
Jesus Camp plays during Hot Docs’ monthly Doc Soup series at the Bloor Cinema, Wednesday, January 10 at 6:30 and 9:15 PM. The filmmakers will be in attendance and admission is restricted to ages 18+. View the trailer or visit the official site.