Welcome to Evangelical Christian Camp for children in Missouri. Created as an attempt to stimulate small children into accepting Jesus Christ as their savior, the camp is a successful mesh of magical fancy and old-fashioned churchgoing guilt. Some kids may come largely for summer-camp fun, but most are there for Jesus.

Morgan Morel
Tears for heaven. (Courtesy of Magnolia)

“Jesus Camp” is not fiction. Documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (both best known for 2005’s “Boys of Baraka”) attempt to leave out their own bias, but their concern with the subject matter is apparent nonetheless. The film frequently forces its point with overbearing music and well-edited talking-head segments. Sure, some of the kids might be having fun, but why must they be taught to borderline worship a cardboard cutout of George W?

“Jesus Camp” depicts how capable Evangelicals have become in competing for the soul of middle America by using both educational and social methods, looking to step up their influence in public schools, popular cartoons and children’s toys. Parents of this sub-sect understand that we are living in a visual age – they have their kids watch the “Creation Adventure” series and hug “Adam & Eve” dolls. A summer camp is just the next step.

The film demonstrates how these children learn it is sinful to swear, lie or enjoy “devils’ magic” (i.e. “Harry Potter”). They sob over the worries of hellfire and damnation. They are taught to scoff at the idea of evolution and global warming. They speak in tongues.

And they learn to reject Satan through the smashing of a mug. It’s all nicely ironic. One of the camp’s main organizers, Pentecostal children’s minister Becky Fischer, derides “schools in Palestine teaching children how to put on bomb-belts,” but then ponders why Americans don’t use that same intense training for their children. By running this camp, she hopes to enlist children in her “army of the Lord.”

Strangely enough, many of these children are so well-trained as to be hyper-articulate (behavior almost bordering on OCD and ADD-related disorders) in their pontifications on the joys of Christian Rock and spreading their religion. But, the film asks, is their religious devotion their own, or the product of shameless exploitation?

“Jesus Camp” excels in its earnest attempts to explore that fine line. The film probes questions of consequence for organized religion in today’s world, whether it’s a force of good or a detrimental zealot movement. The film attempts to investigate that balance, focusing especially on the young children who are its target audience and the political propaganda that makes up a large part of the curriculum. Such truths and tricky borderlines permeate “Jesus Camp,” even if no answers are ultimately found.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Jesus Camp
At the Michigan Theater

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