Friday, January 11, 2008

A Must-See Movie in the Political Season: Jesus Camp (2006)

So, this evening I have been catching up on my Netflix, and I watched Jesus Camp, a little gem of a movie directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady that was released in 2006. It is about a children's ministry run by Becky Fischer, a ministry intended to prepare young people in North Dakota for their role as political Christians and as soldiers of God. It demonstrates a multi-generational strategy for cultivating a political coalition of born-again citizens who are willing to devote their lives to bringing the nation back into alignment with the Scriptures and God's Word. I think it does a great job of covering multiple topics that students would need to think about to understand the resurgence of political Christianity in the late twentieth century. It also answers what has for me been a difficult question: who are those people that account for George Bush having any approval rating at all at this point in his presidency?

Now it would be tricky to teach this film, in part because if your students are unfamiliar with the material -- home schooling, speaking in tongues, the radical pro-life movement, intelligent design -- they will exoticize the subjects of the film, miss what they are really saying, and fail to take their status as believers seriously. I think teaching it as an ethnography would move students away from knee jerk reactions, pro or con, and toward a more nuanced discussion about the intersection between conservatism, nationalism and religion. But part of what's great about this film is that there is virtually no commentary, except by a Christian radio talk show host who challenges the role of religion in politics and a few little factoids pasted on the screen. And the children are incredibly compelling and sincere.

Queer people and those who are allied with them, will particularly like the segments with the now-disgraced Ted Haggard of the New Life megachurch of Colorado Springs, Colorado,where, according to the movie, there are more evangelicals per square mile than anywhere else in the nation -- who knew? You see film of this guy and you wonder -- how exactly did anyone miss it that he was struggling with being gay?

Here's a clip to get you interested:


Dr. Virago said...

Coincidentally, I also watched this movie for the first time this week. I was particularly impressed with how even handed it was, how it was designed to let the subjects speak for themselves. (Granted, editing plays a big part in shaping a film like this and what we see, but even there I thought the touch was light.)

And I was really impressed by and fascinated with how articulate this kids were -- and then equally disturbed by how easily their enthusiasm slipped into intolerance for anyone who didn't believe exactly as they did (including other Christians).

And I agree with you that the film would work as a kind of ethnography, as a way of understanding where some political Christians are coming from.

But here's what bugged me about the film: it elides "evangelical" (the term it uses throughout) with Pentecostal, the particular denomination of evangelicals it depicts. These are not one in the same. Evangelical is a much bigger category and covers all sorts of political and apolitical Christianities. And many of the elements of Pentecostalism that one might see as "exotic" -- as your students might -- are particular to it and other charismatic denominations (e.g., speaking in tongues).

Now, Pentecostalism is one of the largest and fastest growing denominations of Christianity, despite its relative youth (just over 100 years old)but it's only one kind of evangelical Christianity, and the film did a poor job of making that clear.

Tenured Radical said...

Good point, Virago: I was disturbed by that too, and I think that the film makers could have used some interview material to talk about Pentecostalism, as well as speaking in tongues.


Anonymous said...

Just as an aside, Jesus Camp has been running for a long time in Dakota. About ten years ago I had a friend from North Dakota who told me she met her husband at Jesus Camp there-he was a Palestinian Muslim exchange student at the time. They've been married and living in the Middle East ,as do I, for the last 35 years. Small world. Apparently, he loved it, although he didn't convert.

Anonymous said...

i teach in a small liberal arts catholic college. i have a lot of very religious students. any hints on how to approach their response to such a film?

Tenured Radical said...


I guess where I would start is where at least one of the comments is leading: the specifics of pentecostalism, and why political engagement means something specific in that context. I myself am considering teaching it with the 1980 papal on the family, which argues for the family as a political unit. I am also looking for a text that makes a strong argument for the establishment clause: maybe the 1962 Supreme Court case that outlawed school prayer.

Another way to go would be to teach it with Lauren Berlant's essay in Queen of America on the Simpsons, and talk about it in relationship to child citizenship.


Anonymous said...

i appreciate the fact that the movie’s makers let the people interviewed do all the talking; over all, there is some truth in this flick as long as it's taken with a grain (or maybe a bucket) of salt

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