Jesus Camp: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Documentary about Religious Brainwashing and Education

Though too narrowly focused considering its alarming concern, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “Jesus Camp” is an intriguing documentary about religious brainwashing, education, and politics, which disappointingly leaves some significant issues out.

These flaws and modest production values will curtail the theatrical prospects of “Jesus Camp,” which is more suitable for the small-screen, with potentially larger viewership; it was made by Cabler A&E Indie Films.

The starting point is the belief of influential Evangelical Christians that there is a revival underway in America, which requires Christian youth to assume leadership roles in advocating the causes of their religious movement.

To that extent, “Jesus Camp” follows Levi, Rachael, and Tory to Pastor Becky Fischer’s “Kids on Fire” summer camp in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, where children as young as 6 years-old are taught to become dedicated Christian soldiers in “God’s Army.” We see these children at camp as they hone their “prophetic gifts,” and are schooled in “how to take back America to Christ,” or “how to bring Christ back to America.”

Considering that “Jesus Camp” offers a first look at an intense and dangerous training ground that recruits born-again Christian children to become an active part of America’s political future as “Jesus’ soldiers,” the docu should have been more disturbing and controversial than it is.

Political liberals will be upset by the sight of children (mostly white) speaking in tongues, their faces glowing with ecstasy, tears running down their cheeks, as they declare they sectarian beliefs and selfless commitment to the cause.

And who will not be disturbed by the image of 7-year-olds in painted faces, performing spiritual war dances at summer camp and little hands reaching out to bless a cardboard cutout of President Bush, praying for his new Supreme Court appointments. Children are also coerced to pray for Jesus help in preventing electric blackouts and all kind of minor technical problems (malfunctioning of the projection equipment). In other words, Jesus’ name is invoked for every single belief, thought, and act, including some mundane and trivial ones.

Docu’s problem is not so much its brevity (86 minutes), but focus, goals, footage, and participant and witnesses, in other words, who the filmmakers talked to, and, equally important, who they did NOT talk toeither by neglect or design. In most of the these dimensions, “Jesus Camp” is flawed, and perhaps even a missed opportunity to deal with such pertinent issues as children’s indoctrination at a young, impressionable age and the effects of this process on issues of state and church, abortion, and others.

What’s mostly missing here is broader social context, which was handled so well by the same filmmakers in the previous docu, “Boys of Baraka,” where the at-risk kids were taken out of toxic environments and placed in a more supportive surroundings. Though “Jesus Camp” aims to examine the relationship between education and politics, the focus is on what’s going on inside the summer camps. There’s not much information about the education that these kids get by other influential agencies (their families, peer-groups at school). More specifically, the directors never ask to what extent there is congruence, continuity, or gap between the contents of these divergent educational systems.

Then there’s problem of selectivity of both the docu’s young subjects and its limited number of adult figures.

Main adult protagonist is Becky Fischer, an eccentric woman who at first seems to belong to one of Michael Moore’s freaky subjects. Having spent 23 years in business before becoming a full-time minister, Becky has been a children’s pastor since 1991. A large and not particularly attractive, Becky grew up in a traditional Pentecostal church environment. Having “received Jesus as Savior and the infilling of the Holy Spirit at an early age,” Becky feels that children can be both touched and used by God.

At least one fourth of the docu follows Becky, from the time she puts herself together (hair and fingernails) through her communication with the kids during various functions. Attuned to the sight and sound orientation of this generation, she accompanied her lectures with visual illustrations. In one, she shows how sin can grow from a teddy bear to a larger stuffed animal, if not put under control at an early age.

Perceiving her job as marketing and sales, Becky boasts that she can “go into a playground of kids that don’t know anything about Christianity and lead them to the Word in no time at all.” Using visual aids such as little plastic fetuses to appeal to raw emotion and guilt to evoke religious rapture, Becky has the skills to bring the kids to the kind of ecstasy that borders hysteria.

The other adult is Mike Papantonio, who wanted to be a lawyer “since as far back as I can remember.” In addition to co-hosting Ring of Fire, Mike also sits on the Board of Directors of Air America Radio.

Although on Air America he frequently takes aim at the fundamentalist Christian movement, Mike is an active Methodist who admits that his moral compass comes from his faith. “I come from a pretty strong spiritual center, but it doesn’t change the way I judge people. Simply put, the Sermon on the Mount makes much more sense to me than the frenzied ranting of America’s new ‘religious right’. They have become an element of American politics that threatens our sense of decency as well as our democracy.”

Most of the story centers on three attractive and bright kids (all white): Levi (now 13), from St. Robert Missouri, near Springfield; Rachael (now 10), is also from the Rock of Ages Church in St. Robert, and has been home schooled all her life; and Tory (now 11) from Lee’s Summit, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. The three “star” campers are shown playing Christian combat video games and expressing their love for Jesus with genuine fervor.

Levi dreams of speaking God’s word to thousands, possibly in the form of a mega-church pastor. Rachael who says she has “an evangelizing spirit,” has recently decided to convert her neighbor to Christianity. She dreams of becoming a missionary in far flung places. Tory feels her gifts are a prophecy, dance (which she studies at a home school only dance studio in town), and a calling to speak out against abortion.

The docu’s only opposing voice (though he doesn’t push too hard, either) is host Papantonio, a practicing Christian appalled by the fundamentalists’ political agenda.

The filmmakers seems to have benefited from total access to the camp, its residents, and their activities, though, again, we don’t know how much footage was initially shot and later edited out.

“Jesus Camp” is directed in such a way that I won’t be surprised if Becky Fischer and her cohorts are delighted with the results. The camp’s children and the adults seem to welcome the camera all too willingly as witness to their crusade, though it’s not clear what are their real motives (are they already media-savvy and news-manipulators) and under whose influence or pressure they act.

The most disturbing moment in the whole docu comes during a church service led by Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelists, which purports to represent 30 million people. Ted directly addresses the camera with “jokes” about homosexuals and gay marriage, before making preposterous threats and nearly hysterical calls for repentance.

Haggard claims that he speaks to Bush and his advisers every Monday morning, and he assertively informs the filmmakers that Evangelists can deliver any election, due to their sheer numbers, racial composition, and political activism (their ratio of voting is huge compared to other groups).

Unfortunately, none of Becky’s claims or Haggard’s evidence are substantiated or contradicted by more objective and independent data. Parents, teachers (at regular schools the kids attend during the rest of the year), psychologists and sociologists of education are largely absent from the proceedings.

Dramatic Persona’s Background

Becky Fischer

Becky managed two family enterprisesa motel, and an FM radio stationover a ten-year period. Then for thirteen years she owned and managed a custom sign shop of her own, Signs & Wonders, Inc., in Bismarck, ND. During the last eight of those years, Becky spent her spare time as the children’s pastor in her local church. It was then that she began to feel part of a growing army of ministers that see children as an “untapped resource of potential dynamos as ministers of the gospel.”

Missions are a major target of Becky’s ministry. She has traveled in Russia, the Philippines, Tanzania, South Africa, Mexico, India and several Indian reservations (Ute, Cherokee, and Sioux) training children’s workers in conferences, teaching in Bible schools, training centers, and churches, as well as ministering to children in crusades, schools, orphanages, and street evangelism groups.

Becky now dedicates full time energy to Kids in Ministry International via her writings, mission trips, conferences, and training children and adults to be active participants in ministry. She is ordained through Christ Triumphant Church in Lee’s Summit, MO. Becky also is lead pastor of The F.I.R.E. Center in Bismarck (Mandan), ND.

Mike Papantonio

Mike decided to become a lawyer after reading “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Harper Lee’s novel about a heroic small-town Southern lawyer named Atticus Finch (played by the politically liberal, onscreen and off, Gregory Peck).

One of the most prominent trial attorneys in the country, Mike is renowned as the lead counsel in virtually every major product liability case against the pharmaceutical, industrial products, insurance and stock broking industries. Described as “part Revival preacher, part stand-up comic,” he’s a living proof that it’s possible to be both laid-back and fired-up at the same time. He insists that his high-octane professional life takes a back seat to fun and his family — he is the devoted father of a 10-year-old daughter and usually spends several days a week scuba diving off Pensacola’s Emerald Coast.


Levi lives with his brother, mother, and father, who is both a preacher at their church, Rock of Ages, and an employee of the US Army, which has a base at the nearby Fort Leonard Wood. Levi was “saved” at five years old and has always had a deep devotion to God.


Tori lives with her two sisters and brother, all home-schooled by their mother Sandra. Her father George, a former marine, recently volunteered to fight in Iraq after feeling that God wanted him to go.