Last night I watched Jesus Camp: one of the scariest films I have ever witnessed (if I can be allowed to use the word “witnessed” in this context). Pastor Becky Fischer, Pentecostal minister, runs a summer camp for the children of evangelical children, in North Dakota. Some are as young as four or five. Using a mixture of old-time preaching, demonic ranting, passionate advocacy, and strident invocations of evil and the devil, Fischer strides around her wooden barn. She shouts, she cries, she pleads. She reduces most of the children to tears. In the most chilling sequence of the movie, she rants directly to the camera, away from the children, about how Palestinians taught their young children how to use grenades and guns. We ought to be able to teach our children to lay down their lives for Jesus too, she argued, in total seriousness. I thought that was gruesome enough, but it got worse. It was followed by her directly asking the children, in a high pitch, “Are you willing to die for Jesus?”. “Yes,” the children shouted. “Are you willing to lay down your lives for Jesus?” she screamed.
This film is a study of what Richard Dawkins has termed “child abuse”. It is thoroughly abusive to plant the seeds of hatred and blind obedience into very young, impressionable minds. This indoctrination process has nothing to do with improving the children, protecting them, or making them good citizens. It has everything to do with control, power, and advancing the political agenda of right-wing demagogues. At one stage, quite hilariously, an assistant dragged a cardboard cut-out of President Bush onto the stage. She had the children praying to God for his good health. I am confident that even Bush himself would have found the scene profoundly disturbing. Inevitably, that was followed by an invited guest preacher lecturing the poor children (remember: these were as young as four or five) on abortion. He produced a wicked little box of tricks: a box with plastic representations of tiny foetuses. “No more, Jesus, please, no more!” squealed one child, crying her eyes out. It was truly horrifying to see the torment and fear in the eyes of these innocent children.
Filling children’s minds with horror, sin, the devil, temptation, evil-doers, and abortion, and then convincing them of the total righteousness of their beliefs, is nothing short of systematic child abuse. It denies these young people any chance of a normal life, full of the joys and simple thrills of an innocent childhood. It negates whole swathes of human experience, including an appreciation for other cultures, a love for knowledge, and an unfolding engagement with the world as a rational, learning individual. Whatever about the rights and wrongs of mainstream Christianity (and there are huge debates here), this form of Christinianity does a disservice to all tolerant people of religious persuasion. This distortion of Jesus’s message into such a narrow, rigid, ancient horror of a religion: this is wrong.
And then there was Reverend Ted Haggard. I had seen him before, being interviewed by Richard Dawkins, when he threw Dawkins out for calling his children “animals”. (It should be said in his defense that he had no formal links to Pastor Fischer’s summer camps.) The final credits of the film confirmed it all. Ted Haggard resigned in November 2006 after being caught hiring a man for gay sex. He was guilty of at least five of his own self-preached sins, simultaneously: lying, hypocrisy, paying for sex, taking drugs, and having sex with a man. Now if that isn’t proof positive that the man is a lying, cheating, hypocritical, cheap, nasty charlatan, I don’t know what is.
More seriously, the children featured in the film started off as bright, well-meaning, good children. They seemed to have all the attributes of future good citizens. But with their minds infected with the clap-trap, barmy and half-baked nonsense of evangelical Christianity, they have no chance.