The feverish spectacle of a summer camp for evangelical Christian kids is the focus of Jesus Camp, a fascinating if sometimes alarming documentary. (Shortly after its release, the movie gained a new notoriety when Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who appears near the end of the film, resigned his post amid a male prostitute’s allegations of drug use and sexual misconduct.)
For most of the film, we follow a charismatic teacher, Becky Fischer, as she trains young soldiers in “God’s Army” at a camp in North Dakota. Some of the kids emerge as likable and bright, and eager to continue their work as pint-sized preachers; elsewhere, the visions of children speaking in tongues and falling to the floor in ecstasy are more troubling. Even more arresting is the vision of a generation of children home-schooled to believe that the Bible is science, or Fischer’s certainty that America’s flawed system of democracy will someday be replaced by a theocracy. (In one scene, a cardboard cut-out of George W. Bush is presented to the children, who react by laying their hands on the figure as though in a religious procession.)
Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady maintain neutrality about all this, maybe too much so (they throw in some interviews with radio host Mike Papantonio to provide a liberal-Christian viewpoint) and one would like to know more about the grown-ups presented here. Power broker Haggard is the creepiest person in the film, an insincere smooth talker whose advice to one of the young would-be campgoers comes across as entirely cynical. Time will tell whether the film’s Christian soldiers will be marching onward.