After the 2004 election that returned George W. Bush to the White House, untold numbers of shell-shocked Americans, including me, traded a quickie Web gag: a new map of North America that showed the East and West Coasts as being part of "The United States of Canada" and the remaining heartland labeled "Jesusland."
The essential new documentary Jesus Camp is a dispatch from Jesusland. But while some footage stokes the worst fears of the secular left, the picture that emerges is of a complex social movement that defies easy stereotyping and contempt. Jesus Camp, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, is a mostly fair, even-handed film and, despite a few heavy-handed music cues, not a cheap-shot Halloween movie for liberals.
The film's framing device is a broadcast by Air America host Mike Papantonio, a practicing Methodist and a lawyer who is deeply concerned about the escalating political influence of the evangelical movement. However, the film is built around the formidable personality of Becky Fischer, a thoughtful and savvy children's minister who leads a popular summer retreat for children called Kids on Fire, located at the evocatively named Devil's Lake, N.D. (Those few who saw Todd Solondz's brilliant 2005 fable Palindromes will experience a jolt of recognition: Fischer is a real-life embodiment of that film's Mother Courage, a character Solondz called Mama Sunshine.) In Jesus Camp, we see Fischer rallying a group of children in Missouri, excoriating "this sick old world" and exhorting her young disciples to fix it. She tells the children about their counterparts halfway around the globe: "Muslims train their children starting when they're 5 to fast during Ramadan." While Fischer's aim is to raise an army of believers to combat the Islamic tide, it's clear that she marvels at the religious fervor in the East.
The filmmakers introduce us to three children in particular. There is Levi, the most overtly ambitious one who aspires to lead a mega-church one day; Rachael, something of a preteen Martin Luther in her proselytizing energy and disdain for sedate, rote religious worship; and Tory, a blond fireball with impressive dance moves. While Levi sometimes comes off as a calculating proto-politico in the Ralph Reed mold, the girls seem sincere, if frighteningly precocious in their fervor.
While engaged in a short-term job in Oklahoma City recently, I had the opportunity to work in close quarters with some evangelicals, white men who spend their spare time proselytizing in West Africa. Despite their appalling politics, I realized that these part-time missionaries take more of an interest in Africa and the well-being of its inhabitants than most Americans, including me. Indeed, our workplace included several Ghanaians who had immigrated to Oklahoma as a direct result of exposure to the missionaries.
Despite a scene in the film in which children pray to a cardboard cutout of President Bush, the adult evangelicals disavow an overt fealty to the Republican Party. While liberals may wring their hands at the electoral power of evangelicals, the fact remains that evangelism is a populist, self-generated movement with an organizing energy unmatched by any leftist caucus. It's also worth noting that a key early moment in the evangelical movement, the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles a century ago, was an inclusive, multi-racial gathering; that inclusiveness is reflected in Jesus Camp, which features many black faces and powerful women.
Evangelicals' aversion to homosexuality, abortion and modern science aside, much of their reaction to modern life is similar to the revulsion felt by liberals: They share an abhorrence of relentless consumerism and the coarseness of popular culture. A recent example is the common cause found by North Carolina secular liberals and Christian rightists in opposition to state-sponsored gambling. While it may be impossible to reconcile certain liberal values with evangelism, it is imperative that leftists locate common ground with them. Jesus Camp makes it clear that they're not going away.