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This Movie Will Scare the Jesus Out of You

I took in a showing of Jesus Camp last night. Holy crap. The best line of the movie was from the children's preacher, when she thundered during the evening worship service: "Warlocks are the enemy of God! If Harry Potter were in the Old Testament, he would have been killed!"

This documentary is a small window into the lives of fundamentalist evangelical families living in Missouri. To those of us outside of that world, the scenes and rhetoric come off as shocking, ignorant, and unbelievable. But for the folks living that reality, so does anything a baby step to the left.

The filmmakers do a great job of presenting their subject as unbiased as possible. Chances are, someone who resonates with the families or the preachers in the movie would not find it offensive or taking shots at them. I was in a theater of folks who would never send their kids to the North Dakota camp, so we all had quite a few laughs while watching.

After watching the film, you see how ridiculous it is to brand an entire religion based on the extreme minority. Thinking that my wife and I practice the same brand of Christianity is exactly like thinking that Muslims everywhere love what Osama Bin Laden represents. In fact, the people in this film don't even represent all of evangelicalism. The campers and Christians in this movie are an extreme minority with a rigid set of views who have a defined enemy. They train their children to combat this enemy with weapons like prayer, worship, religious pamphlets, and votes.

But these families aren't alienated from my world just because they staunchly vote Republican and attend a church where a cutout of President Bush is brought on stage for children to pray over. They home school. The go on religious vacations to sing outside of the Supreme Court. They speak in tongues. They don't tell ghost stories. It's a completely different way of life.

I used to work at a Christian camp. In fact, that's where I met my wife and made lots of friends. I had a great time. When we were leaving the movie, I said to her, "Our camp was never like that." "No," she said. "It never had the political undertones."

And for me, that's what is most dangerous. When you equate political and religious success, you also by default equate political and religious failure. When you tie your Christianity to a political party, there is no more line between church and state. You sell out. And your faith will be the victim.

This is why you've yet to hear an evangelical celebrity speak out against the recent actions of Representative Foley. And this is why you do hear fundamentalist talking heads decrying liberalism and the Democratic Party. They have aligned their Christianity with an issue, and the two cannot seem to divorce. In Jesus' name, they rail against abortion while people die of hunger less that 25 miles from their homes. Consistency politically has become more important that consistency religiously.

Thus, saying that one is pro-life only means having to stand against abortion (traditionally a Republican concept) and not against the death penalty, war or poverty. In contrast, to stay consistent religiously, one would need to decry all forms of violence. Some of this is not even very far removed from the families in the film, who have fathers and husbands at war.

But it does seem to be far removed from the guys like Ted Haggard, who comes off as arrogant, sly and greasy in his ten minutes on the big screen. Men like him seem to take their positions in order to protect the wealth and power they've amassed, in a sense, victimizing these children. (Also, Nashville's own Jerry Sutton also gets play as he has the last lines of the film.)

Is it brainwashing or training?
This distinction is spoken to in the film, and I feel there is an element of both. I don’t have children (yet), so I can’t speak to how kids 'ought' to be raised or even how (well) I'll raise mine (my plan right now is to dump them at my mom and dad's as often as possible - kidding). My main hope is that I won't screw them up so they'll feel compelled to steal cars or sell kidneys on the black market in response to something I said when they were 6.

But, if the kids in this documentary buy into a belief system at seven years old, and later have an event thrown their way (as life is prone to do) that shakes their worldview, they'll be left confused, questioning, and hurt. If they are told that they HAVE to make the world a better place, and the world doesn't get better, they may feel that they are to blame for missing opportunities to remedy society. That's a lot to put on the shoulders of a fourth grader.

Go see the movie. It's well made. But it should not worry you that one day your neighborhood will be filled with preteen doorknockers and lobbyists. Extremists are so named because of their inability to win over large numbers, and they eventually become either extinct or irrelevant.