Winter 2007, Vol. 9, No. 3

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Articles in this issue

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Faith and Values Down the Tube

The GOP's Religion Problem

There's a Muslim in the House

Onward Christian Soldiers

Status Kuo

Warsaw Loses an Archbishop

The Pope Takes a Dive

The Gospel According to Hugo

Borat's Religious Provocations



Onward Christian Soldiers
Reid Vineis








In April 27 of last year, the Tribeca Film Festival in Lower Manhattan premiered Jesus Camp, a dispassionate documentary about the lives of three evangelical Christian children from Missouri. By the end of the September, a television news blitz and the global reach of YouTube had turned the film into a culture-war icon—though very few people had, or would, see it.

Produced and directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, Jesus Camp’s most striking scenes deal with Kids on Fire, a children’s summer camp in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, run by a Pentecostal pastor named Becky Fischer. There, 7-12-year-olds from around the country are portrayed getting their spiritual jump-starts via sermons, Christian dances, and confessions.

The boys and girls are also shown praying at the feet of a cardboard George W. Bush, chanting for righteous judges to end abortion, and, fatigue-clad, marching together as what Fischer calls the “Army of God.” To balance the point of view of Fischer and other conservative evangelicals, the film offers the talking-head criticism of Mike Papantonio, a liberal Air America radio host and outspoken mainline Protestant (Methodist).

Calling the film’s portrayal “astonishing,” New York Sun reviewer Nicholas Rapold wrote May 5, “The religious fervor of these children, rare to see on screen, is as moving as it can be bewildering and disturbing. But the movie’s coup is its devastating exposé of faith twisted to political purposes.”

Jesus Camp won a special jury award at Tribeca and, in June, a grand jury award at the American Film Instititute’s Silverdocs documentary film festival in Silver Spring, Maryland. On the strength of the positive reaction (and the directors’ previously well received documentary, Boys of Baraka), the commercial distributor Magnolia Pictures picked up the film.

Lest Jesus Camp be typecast as Christian-bashing, Magnolia wrote a letter to radical filmmaker Michael Moore requesting (unsuccessfully) that the film not be shown at his Traverse City Film Festival in August. “It’s just that in this media age, Michael Moore’s endorsement is going to turn off tens of millions of people,” Magnolia president Eamonn Bowles told Daily Variety August 7. “For a lot of them, it’s a little north of getting an endorsement from Satan.” Magnolia decided to try out the film with audiences—and movie critics—in more evangelical-friendly locales. On September 12, the film had its first public showing in Colorado Springs—“ground zero for conservative Christians,” as Ewing and Grady put it. Yet very few people attended the screening.

Over the next week, Magnolia showed the film at 13 other locations in Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas, with no less disappointing results. Bowles told Steven Rosen of the website indieWIRE September 19 that he thought instructions to stay away had been put out to the evangelical community by (not yet disgraced) Colorado Springs megachurch pastor Ted Haggard, who makes a cameo appearance in the film. “He thinks maybe he doesn’t come off so well,” Bowles said. “He looks a little flip and maybe that’s some of that.”

In a September 15 article on the film, Denver Post religion writer Eric Gorski highlighted Haggard’s dislike of the film, quoting an email from him that claimed that it had “a strong agenda like any Michael Moore film with the cinematography of ‘The Blair Witch Project.’ It does represent a small portion of the charismatic movement, but I think it demonizes it….Secularists are hoping that evangelical Christians and radicalized Muslims are essentially the same, which is why they will love this film.”

His own sensitivities notwithstanding, Haggard clearly had a better feel for the pulse of the culture than Magnolia Films did. On September 17, Jesus Camp became the featured story on World News Sunday, introduced by anchor Dan Harris with: “And in the ‘Spotlight’ this Sunday, ‘Jesus Camp.’ That’s a new and in-your-face documentary that came out this weekend. The movie’s about a Bible camp called Kids on Fire, where the pastor says the children are being groomed to be soldiers in God’s army. This movie is raising eyebrows, raising heckles and raising questions about evangelizing to young people.”

MSNBC got into the act a week later, with Tucker Carlson devoting a portion of his September 25 talk show to interviewing Papantonio about the film. In an exchange that could be interpreted as indicating which way the wind was blowing in the 2006 election season, Papantonio brings the conservative host around to his point of view.

CARLSON: Mike, here’s my complaint. That secular filmmakers or left wing filmmakers have a vested interest in making Christianity look scary, making conservative Christians look like nut jobs. And isn’t that what’s going on here?

PAPANTONIO: Not really at all. What’s happening is we forget the point that when religion, any religion, whether it’s Christianity, fundamental Islam, whatever it is. When they attach themselves to a political movement the religion rises and falls according to the success or failures of that political movement. Christianity is no different. As a matter of fact, C.S. Lewis, great theologian, about 1930s and 40s, he said that any time you look at injustice in Christianity it has always taken place when that Christian movement attaches itself to politics.

CARLSON: That’s right, that’s undeniably true.

PAPANTONIO: We can do better as Christians if we allow the grace of God which is the very heart of Christianity to show itself in ways that evangelicals all over this world, Tucker, everyday, they clothe people, they feed people, they give people housing. That’s the message for Christianity. That expands—if we want to expand Christianity, that’s what does it.

CARLSON: Well I agree with you.


On September 27, Becky Fischer and filmmakers Grady and Ewing were interviewed by Soledad O’Brien on CNN’s “American Morning,” and Fischer and Papantonio by Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” by A.J. Hammer on CNN’s “Showbiz Tonight,” and by Joe Scarborough on MSNBC’s “Scarborough.Country.”

Jesus Camp, Sawyer remarked, was “electrifying the culture wars.” Scarborough remarked after viewing a clip from the film, “I mean, obviously, a lot of people would look at that scene and they would be concerned, saying, My gosh, they’re sending little kids up there after brainwashing them.”

And on it went. The following day, “Good Morning America” was back on the case (Sawyer: “We return now to the topic of Jesus Camp and the culture wars raging once again.”), while MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann used a report on the film as a lead-in to an interview with former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges about his forthcoming book, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. Across the country, local television stations aired brief stories on the now “controversial” film.

Sufficient curiosity was generated that by the end of the month more than 200,000 people had checked out the Jesus Camp trailer on YouTube, sending it to the top of the video sharing site’s hit parade. Not bad for a documentary that now was not officially scheduled for release until October 6.

The trailer itself (uploaded to YouTube August 27) gave the impression that Jesus Camp was consumed with the militant indoctrination of children. It ends with Fischer shouting to the assembled campers, “This means war. This means war. Are you a part of it or not?”

Fox News took note of the commotion October 7 in a roundtable of “Quick Takes on the Media,” where the likes of James Pinkerton and Cal Thomas took turns assailing the film’s liberal bias. But the most pertinent remark may have come from Jane Hall, who asked, “Is it a major story? It’s only in something like 30 theaters. So it’s a major controversy, but is it a major movie?”

Jesus Camp actually showed in 44 theaters on its official opening weekend, October 6-8, grossing $120,944, according to Daily Variety. Grosses then declined to $61,344 October 20-22 and $32,335 November 10-12.

For their part, the newspapers didn’t completely buy into the culture-wars story line generated by television. “Jesus Camp could be interpreted as saying that Bush’s Christian supporters are dangerous loonies,” wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Phil Kloer October 6. “Or it could be interpreted as supporting Fischer.” Writing the same day in the Detroit Free Press, Terry Lawson declared, “Jesus Camp does what documentaries ought to do: It poses serious questions, then steps out of the argument.”

And the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Colin Covert put it this way: “Jesus Camp is scrupulously unbiased. It doesn’t editorialize, let alone demonize its subjects. They clearly trusted the filmmakers, giving them open access and behaving unguardedly. As a result, viewers from all religious persuasions and either end of the political see-saw can find their own meanings in the film, without nudges from the people behind the camera.”

However they judged the filmmakers’ intentions, most reviewers did find the images of indoctrination disturbing. Noting that the film presents itself “as an evenhanded look at the growing evangelical movement,” Kenneth Turan wrote in the Los Angeles Times, that while it “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.”

“Heartbreaking and enraging, Jesus Camp focuses on an evangelical Christian youth summer camp,” wrote Philip Martin in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette October 20. “More than once while watching it—for instance, when the adults at the camp tell the kids they are ‘phonies’ and ‘hypocrites’ until their faces are streaked with hot tears—I muttered that what I was watching was tantamount to child abuse.”

On October 26, Becky Fischer told Karen Herzog of the Bismarck Tribune that she had decided to hold no more camps at Devil’s Lake. The angry phone calls denouncing her for “brainwashing” children into right-wing zealots were bad enough, but then she’d returned from a publicity tour to find that camp buildings and the local Assemblies of God Church had been vandalized.

“People have no idea of the viciousness of some people’s reaction,” Fischer said. “I have a responsibility to keep the children safe.” Rev. Winston Titus, the administrator of the facility, said he had received phone calls from both opponents and proponents, threatening a boycott if it did, or didn’t, rent to Fischer’s group. “Right now, we just want it to be over,” Titus told Herzog. “Any publicity just stirs things up.”

On November 2, the day after a gay prostitute went on a Denver radio station to charge that Ted Haggard had regularly paid him for sex, Magnolia Films uploaded to YouTube a selection of scenes from Jesus Camp featuring him—scenes that were widely broadcast during subsequent coverage of the Haggard story.

On January 23, Jesus Camp was nominated for an Oscar.



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