A Portrait of Desecrated Childhood

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A still from the documentary Jesus Camp

They're cute kids in an average sort of way: bouncy and bright-eyed, with stuffed animals, goofy-sized T-shirts and, of course, unformed minds that can be bent into strange shapes by determined mentors. It is the latter quality that preoccupies Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, co-directors of the well-made and very disturbing documentary, Jesus Camp.

Its star — if that's the word we want — is a large, cheerful woman named Becky Fisher, who runs the "Kids on Fire" evangelical religious camp every summer at Devil's Lake, North Dakota, without, as the cameras are concerned, acknowledging the irony implicit in the location's name. Fisher is, so far as we can tell, monomaniacal. She can't walk through a toy store, for example, without noticing some object that she can use to vivify her message. In the film she takes particular pride in some molds that can turn Jello into a model of the human brain. She uses these, she says, to demonstrate how dark thoughts and bad words can worm their way into the human cortex. Before the summer session begins, she blesses her camp's fairly sophisticated audio-visual system to make certain the devil doesn't get into it and make it go blooey at some inopportune moment. One of the high points of the week's merriment is the introduction of a life-size cardboard cut-out of George W. Bush, which is frankly treated as if it was something like a communion's wine and wafers — a transubstantiation of a living God.

It was, I think, at that moment that my smug — oh, all right, liberal-minded — chuckles began to gag in my throat. Although other viewers of this film may find their laughter dying earlier, possibly when a home-schooled child is being instructed the earth is just 6,000 years old and that its warming is, like evolution, a myth perpetrated on the faithful by mad science. Or when Harry Potter and the gang at Hogwarts are talked about as the devil's disciple.

What we witness here are young children, not yet in touch with their own sexuality, being turned into anti-abortion fanatics, carrying little model fetuses around in their hands and weeping over the unborn souls. Which says nothing of Fisher's conviction that her Jesus Camp is an anodyne for similar institutions in the Muslim world where, she believes, children are being trained as suicide bombers.

The movie reports all this quite objectively, using only a liberal Methodist radio talk show host named Mike Papantonio, to answer the fundamentalists. But Papantonio's main point is that the tie-in between fundamentalism and political agendas violates America's fundamental church-state separation. This is self-evidently true and at a moment when a church in Pasadena is under investigation by the IRS because a liberal, election-eve sermon was preached from its pulpit, while no one looks into the doings at Devil's Lake or at the churches of the evangelical ministers who endorse them, his is a worrisome point. But it seems to me the main point only in a rather technical, legalistic sense.

Jesus Camp seems to me most interesting (and poignant) as a portrait of denied and even desecrated childhood. I am not myself a religious believer. That said, however, I think parents who do believe have an absolute right to introduce their children to whatever religion they follow — but gently so. Sunday school is fine. So are the instructions for confirmation that all religions offer. But the explicit politicization of religious belief that this film shows taking place is wrong. So is the fact that it appears to make religion the sole metaphor through which they apprehend a complex world. And that leaves out of the discussion all the time they need to read what they care to read, see what they need to see at the movies and on television — to experience the materials that have at least the possibility of nurturing their imaginations and whatever odd ambitions that might, in a few cases, make them into extraordinary scientists or writers or musicians or thinkers.

What is recorded in Jesus Camp is an hysterical anti-educational effort — an attempt not to open young minds to the possibilities of the world, but to close them down, to breed a generation of fanatics. You witness weeping, wailing, even talking in tongues, you witness ministers whipping up passionate frenzies, both agonized and ecstatic, in 9- and 10-year-olds who cannot possibly understand the emotions they are venting or reasonably control them. You also see in these children the beginnings of dangerous paranoia which is the most mysterious aspect of the film.

For these kids are not the wretched of the earth. The camera shows their backgrounds to be lower or middle class. They live in suburbs, they have pleasant-appearing, even kindly, parents. The devil — in the form, let us say, of a crack dealer — does not live next door. The kids are, as far as we can see, perfectly normal young Americans. And, indeed, the politicians their parents overwhelming favor have been in power for six years. So one begins to wonder: What are the sources of that powerful sense of disenfranchisement that drive these parents to abet this robbery, this travesty, of childhood?

Jesus Camp cannot answer that question; no movie can. If there is one faint ray of hope in the film it flickers briefly in a dorm discussion of Harry Potter. Most the kids say the J. K. Rowling books are forbidden in their homes. But one little boys admits, quite cheerfully, that when he is staying with his divorced father, he is permitted to read them. Let us not wonder if it was religious differences that drove his father forth. Or if religious belief is one way his former wife compensates for a broken marriage. Let's instead concentrate on the enveloping power of secularism in America, the way it seeps in everywhere, no matter how many towels you stuff under the door. It is, of course, an essentially unstoppable and hydra-headed power, which is probably why it makes the fundamentalists so crazy. It is, believe me, often as stupid and vulgar to me as it is to them. But it is also full of vitality and it is eventually bound to assert, for at least some of their children, the seductiveness of the forbidden. Lindsay Lohan is not going to save them. But some of them, someday are going to get hold of Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye — one of those books mom and pop are trying to get banned from the school library — and it's going to make all the difference to those kids. And maybe to the rest of us as well.