You'll never think about summer camp the same way after you've seen how they do things in "Jesus Camp." And that's not the only illusion this unsettling documentary shatters.
Though most Americans like to believe that what we have in common unites us more than our differences pull us apart, the uncompromising zeal of the charismatic branch of evangelical Christianity portrayed in the film — God's soldiers determined to "break the power of the devil in this nation" — calls that into question.
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who did the excellent, empathetic "The Boys of Baraka," "Jesus Camp" has presented itself as an evenhanded look at the growing evangelical movement and one particular Kids on Fire Summer Camp run by children's pastor Becky Fischer in (no joke) Devils Lake, N.D.
But though the film takes no overt Michael Moore-type swipes at anyone, "Jesus Camp" is more likely to afflict the godless than comfort the God-fearing, who already know what's going on. Whether you are a religious, churchgoing person or not, if you are the least bit liberal or tolerant in your world view, this has got to be one of the most unnerving films of the year.
For one thing, the charismatic evangelicals depicted in this documentary (and it's not clear what percentage of the estimated 80 million Americans who describe themselves as evangelical are this hard-core) are confident, organized and goal-oriented in their determination to "stand up and take back the land." If smugness were something you could eat with a spoon, the attitude of the Rev. Ted Haggard, head of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, would rob anyone of his or her appetite.
The part of this plan "Jesus Camp" concentrates on is the tools evangelicals use to indoctrinate their children at a young age to both share their parents' beliefs and act on them. "Jesus Camp" tells us that 75% of home-schooled students are evangelicals. "Our children are on loan to us from God," one mother says. "And some day we're going to have to answer to him."
As with many sentiments expressed by the film's evangelicals, some of these ideas are ones that non-believers might embrace. The notion that children should be focusing on "things of beauty" rather than terrifying each other with ghost stories at camp is also admirable, as is the concept of empowering children to believe they can change the world.
What is more difficult to witness is the unmistakable exclusionary intolerance that comes from people who are quite candid about saying, "We have the truth." Fischer, the film's central figure, has no hesitation in defending evangelical indoctrination by saying "Islam is doing the same thing." But for many, the problem with radical Islam is not how God is worshiped but the disregard for other viewpoints.
Because Fischer admired what Ewing and Grady accomplished with "The Boys of Baraka," the filmmakers were given exceptional access to the young evangelicals, their families and the Kids on Fire experience.
A trio of earnest children is the film's initial focus. Levi, 12, was saved at 5 years old and is already intent on being a preacher. Tory, 10, is a fan of Christian heavy-metal music. Most intense is 9-year-old Rachael, a young person who so strongly feels the "evangelizing spirit" that we see her approaching a decidedly secular-looking young woman at a bowling alley who she feels needs spiritual guidance.
The largest part of "Jesus Camp's" time is spent at the facility itself, where the young campers are instructed in everything from the evils of reading "Harry Potter" books ("In the Old Testament times, he would have been put to death.") to the horrors of abortion, a talk complete with tiny models of embryos.
Most difficult to watch are the boot-camp techniques used to compel backsliders to acknowledge the error of their ways. "We don't have phonies in the army of God," the tykes are told, and they give way to crying and wailing as they confess their juvenile sins and promise to do better.
"Jesus Camp" does venture off the property to interview various social observers, one of the most unexpected being Air America's Mike Papantonio, an active Methodist who is troubled by the "entanglement of politics with religion" that he thinks the evangelicals represent. The colloquy he has with Fischer, a caller to his show, is one of the film's high points. "These liberals," Fischer says at one point, "have got to be shaking in their boots." As well they should be.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some discussions of mature subject matter
A Magnolia Pictures release. Directors Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing. Cinematography Mira Chang, Jenna Rosher. Editor Enat Sidi. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
In selected theaters.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times