The Art of Christian War: Revisiting Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp

Caroline Collins makes a passionate, forceful case for revisiting Ewing and Grady’s documentary film Jesus Camp in light of recent political developments. 

‘God hears the cries of children. It makes me want to cry’.[1] Pentecostal children’s minister, Becky Fischer, chokes back tears while reviewing footage of American Charismatic Christian leader, Lou Engle, covering children’s mouths with red tape and ‘LIFE’ inscribed on each piece in Sharpie. Fischer coos as Engle tapes a child named ‘Allison’ and remarks, ‘you look great with that tape over your mouth’.[2] Engle is then the epicentre of a sea of moans from the children, now un-taped, attempting to speak in tongues and their hands are raised with foetus dolls bound to their palms as nails marking their hour of death.[3] The dolls were Engle’s sermon illustration for the children to see their ‘friends’ whose hours of death were determined by abortion. These ‘friends’ are mourned over by Engle and the children, ‘friends’ who never ‘had their chance to receive the gospel here’. ‘Here’, being the Evangelical summer camp, Kids on Fire, the focus of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Academy Award-winning documentary Jesus Camp (2006).

Jesus Camp is a haunting, albeit necessary revisit, that captures the history (as far back as the 1940s-50s)[4] of White Evangelicalism’s enmeshment in American politics and answers the question of how the United States ‘got here’ post-Trump presidency, the January 6th Capitol Insurrection, and Roe v Wade’s overturn. The key to grasping Jesus Camp’s haunting, artistic poignancy is the relationship between the private and public domains and how Ewing and Grady’s cinematic storytelling incorporates a narrative double helix, where each strand serpentines within the public/private relationship, personifying the progress of the Religious Right.

Ewing and Grady establish the private and public by beginning the narrative journey of the Evangelical children of Lee’s Summit, Missouri in the private world of home and church to the public world of politics and policy, even capturing pilgrimages to New Life Church in Colorado Springs[5] and the White House. Kids on Fire is the bridge that connects the two spheres; its teachings of a trickle-down theology aim to equip campers for their political, missional life to come, warning about everything from the Devil ‘himself’ to ‘his’ tactics to influence the individual, i.e. the demonization of aborting what ‘could have been’ a prophet to the nations (Jer 1:5).[6] The brilliancy of Ewing and Grady’s artistic juxtaposition exposes the circular fallacy of children’s adherence to anti-abortion homiletics while simultaneously being expected to lay down their life for the gospel. However, interpreting this fallacy as spouted nonsense in a ‘semantics game’ is a mistake, for the first strand of the double helix demonstrates the pro-life/child martyrdom paradox as the road to Calvary that the Lee’s Summit children are being primed to take. Ewing and Grady authenticate the gravity of this paradox in the first ten minutes of the film with Fischer’s first Jesus Camp interview. She begins her interview on this haunting note, ‘[Children] are so usable in Christianity,’[7] and she expounds upon this argument with her desire for Christian children to deploy the same level of religious commitment as Muslim children, disguising her Islamophobia as inspiration: ‘No wonder people want to kill themselves for the name of Islam’.’. The unsettling portrayal of children’s impressionability is a precedent Ewing and Grady force their viewers to digest, in which the gradual desensitization, even acceptance, of a bleeding life in a religious war is a result of the Religious Right’s private grooming[8] of children becoming public, political soldiers for ‘God’s army’.’.[9] The most surreal example of this is in the joint interview of Rachael (9) and Levi (12) after their White House visit, whose romanticization of missionaries killed in the field as ‘martyrs’ aids them in stifling their own fear of death, so that they, too, will be ready to die for their cause if necessary.[10]

Throughout Jesus Camp’s narrative progression, interspersed clips of Mike Papantonio, host of the progressive-proclaimed radio show, ‘Ring of Fire,’ counterbalance the Evangelical voices consisting of Fischer, pastor and frequent interlocutor of Bush and his advisors Ted Haggard, and the many children (and some parents) interviewed. This structure embodies the ‘us versus them’ dichotomy, the second strand of the double helix, and the last six minutes of the documentary are when the ‘us’ (Fischer) and ‘them’ (Papantonio) converge during Fischer’s ‘Ring of Fire’ interview. Papantonio probes Fischer with the piercing question, ‘How do we ignore the creation of children soldiers for the Republican Party?’[11] After Fischer counters, ‘I’m not going after kids politically,’ despite confessing her preference to see more churches indoctrinating ‘as the other religions do,’[12] Papantonio responds with a revealed nuance into his position as ‘them’ in the disturbing adoption of the ignorance he aims to exploit:

I respect your right as a fundamentalist to teach your children whatever you want to teach them, but don’t let that bleed over into the public sector.[13]

The consequence of the ‘out of (public) sight, out of (public) mind’ mentality reflected by Papantonio leaves the viewer in the horror of why the child-soldier-creation process works: it flourishes off conceiving the public and private as reflections of one another. This is a long-withstanding American Evangelical tenet, even expressed by Billy Graham in The Home God Honors, stating, ‘A nation is only as strong as her homes’.[14] Ergo, if the household is strong, much stronger is the agency to determine the hand who’d reclaim America as ‘God’s chosen nation’. Haggard confirms this in the final remarks of his Jesus Camp interview: ‘[Churches like New Life] got enough growth to sway every election. If every Evangelical votes, they determine the election’.[15]

Fischer begins her interview on this haunting note, ‘[Children] are so usable in Christianity’.

Despite Jesus Camp’s remembered legacy in the Academy, I fear Ewing and Grady’s cinematic examination into the Religious Right’s child priming process — beginning in the home and local church and its blooming within the political sphere — is in danger of being forgotten. Will the child-soldier-creation process continue to be ignored, as privatised grooming under the pro-life brood confines prisoners of war to their life preserved for impending death?

[1] Jesus Camp, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (2006; Lee’s Summit, MO and Devil’s Lake, ND: Magnolia Films), Stream, 1:13:50-54.

[2] Jesus Camp, 1:13:07.

[3] Jesus Camp, 1:00:21.

[4] Citing her language, this dating is from Kristen Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York: Liveright, 2020), 11.

[5] During the filming of the documentary, Haggard is the Lead Pastor of New Life Church and was the president of the National Association of Evangelicals (Jesus Camp, 1:04:06-1:06:53-57).

[6] Jesus Camp, 32:20; Engle reads this Jeremiah passage during his sermon (Engle’s scenes begin around 55:06).

[7] Jesus Camp, 10:02-10:30.

[8] I use ‘‘‘groom’’’ intentionally as a double entendre, in its captured intertwinement with vocational ‘priming’ striking at elders’ recurring, inappropriate behavior toward the Lee’s Summit children. One instance is captured in Tory’s (10) home interview (around the 25:00 mark): Ewing and Grady prelude her interview with scenes of her dancing in her room, and as she talks about her love of dance, she confides that it must be for the Lord, or else, people ‘‘will notice if’’ she’s ‘‘dancing for the flesh.’’ This suggests a repeated history of a provocative perception imposed on a ten-year-old that she must be wary of even within her own home. Another instance is during the first worship session at camp: Fischer opens her sermon asking underage campers what they think about her hair, nails, and ‘‘the rest of me’’ as the camera follows her wandering hand tracing her body.

[9] Jesus Camp, 58:40.

[10] Jesus Camp, 1:12:30-1:12:34; 1:09:45, is right around where the White House scenes begin.

[11] Jesus Camp, 1:16:03

[12] Jesus Camp, 1:15:30-35.

[13] Jesus Camp, 1:16:50- 1:17:02.

[14] Billy Graham, The Home God Honors, as cited by Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, 26.

[15] Jesus Camp, 1:08:43-49.

Author

  • Caroline Collins (she/her) is a teaching assistant for the Department of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. In May 2022, Collins graduated summa cum laude from Perkins School of Theology at SMU with her Master of Theological Studies and she was the recipient of the Charley T. and Jesse James Bible Award. Collins’s research interests include phenomenology, the philosophy of emotion, the religion and literature intersection, and the History of Christianity told through visual art.

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