Sunday, November 19, 2006

Jesus Camp

A few nights ago I and a bunch of Michigan grad students went to see Jesus Camp, a documentary about a summer camp that trains 9 and 10 year old children, many of them home-schooled, to become good young religious fundamentalists. The subjects of the documentary, with only one exception, were happy about how they were portrayed, and that didn't surprise me. The film wasn't heavy-handed with its view of the events, and the participants are probably the proudest of some of the events that struck me as the most dangerous. (The one exception is disgraced megachurch pastor Ted Haggard, filmed long before his scandal broke. He and the anti-abortion activist who comes to speak to the kids are probably the two creepiest characters in the film.)

Many of the movie's most striking moments involve its central character, children's pastor Becky Fischer, who runs the camp and is open about the fact that she's trying to create a new generation of voters and activists who will increase Christian dominance of our country. She warns the children away from Harry Potter, telling them how in the Old Testament, warlocks would be put to death. There's a scene where an adult leads a bunch of kids in a strange version of the Pledge of Allegiance -- not to the American flag, but to the "Christian Flag". In another scene, churchgoers worship a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush.

To me, the most memorable characters in the movie are the kids. Jesus Camp shows us the beginnings of lots of stories -- the rat-tailed boy whom the camp is grooming for a job as an evangelical leader someday, the 10-year-old girl into Christian heavy metal who talks about how she tries to dance for Jesus and not for "the flesh", and the small boy who tearfully admits in front of everyone that it's hard to believe in God because there isn't any real evidence of his existence. Since the camp only lasts a summer, and the movie ends somewhat abruptly, we really can't get a good idea of how these stories play out. Perhaps they'll make a sequel in twenty years and we'll know the answer.

In the meantime, I'm going to be including the argument from design and the problem of evil in the introductory philosophy classes I teach. The philosophy classroom is a unique place in the world, a place where reason and open discussion have the opportunity to dissolve indoctrination of all kinds. Becky Fischer has made her move, and it's my turn.