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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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The God squad
Jesus Camp targets impressionable young minds
on
Campers experience jubilation and terror.
Campers experience jubilation and terror.

I went to church camp once and had a grand old time until the last night, when all of a sudden everybody wanted to know whether I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior. I lied, said I did. And I was reminded of that while watching Jesus Camp, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's revealing documentary about the process by which Evangelical Christianity reproduces itself. The goal: one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for those who've accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. The strategy: Get 'em while they're young. To say that Reverend Becky Fischer, the brains behind the Kids on Fire summer camp in Devil's Lake (whose lake?), N.D., engages in a hard sell is to underplay her intentions and achievement. Despite her lightly frosted hair, her roly-poly demeanor, Fischer seeks nothing less than a Christian jihad, with her youthful warriors ready to lay down their lives for the cause. 'This means war,' she gets them shouting at one point. 'This means war!'

'Onward, Christian Soldiers,' 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' ' militant Christians have always been on the march. And Ewing and Grady, in bringing us the news about how Protestant Fundamentalists raise their young, may have focused on the hardcore believers among our country's 80 million self-identified Evangelicals. It's hard to say for sure, since the documentary doesn't provide much context on the movement or its resurgence. What it does instead is immerse us in the kids' own immersion. We're introduced to Levi, a 12-year-old budding preacher who says he turned to the Lord at age 5 because he felt there was something missing in his life. And we meet Rachael, a 9-year-old proselytizer who isn't afraid to walk up to a stranger at a bowling alley and tell her that God has a plan for her. Rachael also likes to pray for strikes. 'Ball, I command you, in the name of Jesus, to make a good hit,' she says before rolling it more or less straight into the gutter. Note to God: a little more spin.

I kid, but liberal viewers may find Jesus Camp downright shocking, so assiduously does Fischer go after these impressionable souls. She appears to have no family of her own, and the documentary would be that much stronger if it probed a little more ' or at all ' into Fischer's private life. How did she come to this ministry? What was her own childhood like? And has she no shame? (Just asking.) Her method is tried and true: She gets the kids to let down their defenses, then comes on with the fire and brimstone, working them up into tearful fits of jubilation and ' if I read their faces correctly ' terror. It's hard not to see this as indoctrination. Of course, what parent doesn't indoctrinate his or her children on occasion? Some even use scare tactics if they think they'll work. The difference is that Fischer, the Pied Piper of the Bible Belt, doesn't stop with her own children, if indeed she has any. She wants them all to follow her. 'We've got to stand up and take back the land,' she says early on.

George Bush having been seized by the Holy Spirit before occupying the Oval Office, Fischer may have gotten as close to taking back the land as she's ever going to get right before last month's election. And to bring that point home, Reverend Ted Haggard, former head of the National Association of Evangelicals, makes a grandstanding appearance. This was before he admitted having broken various commandments with a male prostitute, but the guy's so transparently smarmy that you have to wonder how he climbed so high in the first place. Might it have had something to do with his congregation's being forced, from an early age, to accept a higher authority? Left to their own devices, the Kids on Fire campers, late at night in their cabin, conjure up ghost stories until a counselor tells them that ghost stories, like that evil warlock Harry Potter, are 'against God.' One can only hope that, once the counselor left, the little devils went right back to scaring the bejesus out of one another.

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