There’s a scene towards the end of the recent documentary Jesus Camp in which one of the Pentecostal families we’ve been following throughout the film pays a visit to New Life Church, the Colorado Springs congregation where, until last fall’s scandal, Ted Haggard was pastor. He comes across as kind of weird, directly addressing the documentary camera during his sermon. And, yes, in a moment of unsurpassed irony-in-hindsight, he talks about how Christians all know that homosexuality is wrong.
Haggard has nothing to do with the ostensible subject of the film, which is a group of kids who attend a Pentecostal youth camp in North Dakota. However, he has everything to do with what, unfortunately, becomes the subject of the film: namely, the influence of the Christian Right in U.S. politics, most particularly in the nomination and confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Alito.
Jesus Camp never tells us why the Pentecostal family is visiting New Life Church, which is not Pentecostal (typically lower or lower-middle class, often either urban or rural, but not in-between, ecstatic in manifestations of the Holy Spirit), but rather comfy and suburban, upper-middle class evangelical. The biggest problem with the film is that it conflates these different religious traditions and social classes into one Republican evangelical lump. It may not be inaccurate that they all have contributed to the most recent resurgence of the Religious Right, which used to be more the domain of the suburban evangelicals. But what I want to know is why. How were these very different groups of people able to put aside the issues and backgrounds that divide them and unite around common political causes? What made it possible now, as opposed to any other time?
A friend suggests that abortion is the one issue holding the Religious Right together, that otherwise factions would break off over differences in prioritizing issues (as in, “Should we tackle gay marriage or evolution first?”). Certainly abortion is the issue we hear most about in Jesus Camp. But, again, there’s no analysis of why.
I find the whole political framework of Jesus Camp very sloppy, but the portions that are shot at the camp are genuinely interesting. Youth pastor Becky Fischer, who runs the camp, genuinely cares about the kids, though sometimes her language about “using” them for a cause is troubling. She also genuinely believes that children are significant in God’s work, and you can see the kids glowing in this affirmation of their importance.
Some reviews have spoken of Jesus Camp as the scariest movie of the year; I can imagine how it would be terrifying for people who haven’t seen charismatic expressions of faith. Yup, there’s some speaking in tongues, some slaying in the Spirit—and it can be rather startling to see a nine-year-old with tears flowing down her face as she repents of her sin. I’ve certainly seen the former, and so it doesn’t really bother me, but the latter . . . . I mean, I believe in original sin and all, but it is disheartening how much emphasis the camp puts on sin and repentance and how little they talk about the goodness of God’s creation and the wonder of Christ’s Incarnation. Again, though, that could simply be how it’s been edited. At least I didn’t get a sense that the filmmakers were exoticizing or criticizing the charismatic behavior.
Anyway, I think Jesus Camp tells us more about the filmmakers’ interests than about evangelicals in America. It was an interesting film, but not one that shed new light on anything for me.
2 comments March 20th, 2007