Wednesday 1 August 2007

Liberalism is dead

Jesus Camp (2006), directed by Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady

‘Liberalism is dead… Let the Church rise!’ – staff member, Jesus Camp

Pastor Becky Fisher of North Dakota and her staff operate in the tradition of the Jesuits, the powerful Catholic sect whose founder said: ‘Give me your child until he is nine and he will be mine for life’. They run a week-long retreat where, every year, hundreds of kids from across America, as young as six years old, are Evangelised and indoctrinated, encouraged to speak in tongues, to smash abortion and to overthrow the government. Welcome to Jesus Camp.

Upon arrival, the kids are told about the danger of sin, scared half to death, and then, when they are at their most vulnerable, instructed to repent. Many of them collapse to their knees, weeping; all join in, in some way, in the mass religious hysteria. Any initial resistance is thus swiftly overcome and the children are then bombarded with doctrine. A cardboard cut-out of President Bush is produced, which is almost worshipped, with children reaching out to touch his hands, then shouting slogans and prayers at it as instructed. Preachers produce models of foetuses made to look like miniature babies, lecturing them about the ‘mass murder’ of abortion, reducing the kids to tears and cries of ‘no more!’. The brightest kids are taught to preach to their peers, and a group goes on to stage an anti-abortion rally in Washington, where they also try to convert passers-by.

What is striking about Becky Fisher’s goals is their explicitly political nature: ‘God says that the prayers of little children can shake kings’, she says. Her voice trembling with outrage, she insists Christians need to catch up with Muslims: ‘I want to see them as radically laying down their lives for the Gospel’ as the Islamists of Pakistan, Palestine, and elsewhere do for the Koran, ‘because we have the truth… We’ve got to rise up and take the land’. She tells the kids, ‘you’re gonna be radical, you’re gonna be on fire… take these prophesies… and make war with them’. Her aides are equally fanatical, telling the children to ‘break the power of the enemy over government’ and install a ‘righteous government’, moulding them to be ‘the start of a revolution that could start a moral outcry and overthrow abortion’. Nor is this a bunch of isolated nutcases: as leader of the 30-million-strong National Assembly of Evangelicals (with weekly access to the real President Bush), Ted Haggard’s rhetoric is identical: ‘it’s massive warfare out there… let battle commence!’. Levi, an 11-year-old trained to preach, agrees: ‘we are a generation that needs to rise up’.


Ewing and Grady scatter in a few statistics but provide no commentary aside from a relatively sinister soundtrack, the only critique of all this coming from occasional clips of a Christian talk radio host worried about the rise of Evangelism as a potent political force. As such, it’s not exactly clear what they are trying to communicate. Doubtless, we’re meant to be disturbed. It is startling to watch a nine-year-old child trying to convert an adult at a bowling alley. It is disturbing to see hundreds of children speaking in tongues, jabbering senselessly at an adult’s urging, and it is deeply troubling to see kids being subjected to brainwashing and frequently reduced to emotional convulsions. Doubtless the film is meant to stand as a warning, especially since a quarter of Americans are Evangelicals, 43 per cent are ‘born again’ below the age of thirteen, and Evangelicals make up three-quarters of home-schooled kids, meaning they are never exposed to contrary viewpoints.

But the broader political point of all this is left rather unclear, aside from the dire warning that, Ted Haggard puts it, ‘if the Evangelicals vote, they can determine the election’. Yes, progressives can all tremble at that thought, at the idea of mysticism and right-wing readings of ancient texts coming to dominate political life. But where did this come from? Why is it happening?

Mainstream liberals seem congenitally unable to grasp the answer. In his best-selling books, What’s Wrong With Kansas? and What’s Wrong With America?, Thomas Frank muses over this problem and seems to blame false consciousness – poor people are simply working against their own best interests. When you watch hundreds of children being brainwashed and manipulated in Jesus Camp, it would be easy to agree with Frank. But his books miss the point, while supplying evidence for an alternative explanation. First, it’s obvious the rise of the religious right is the fag-end of the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s, the conservative backlash against liberality. But, crucially, this is a war the other side gave up fighting a long time ago. While, as Frank documents, Evangelicals are up at the crack of dawn, campaigning, going door-to-door, mobilising their supporters, raising funds, capturing seats on school boards and city councils and then in Congress and even the White House, mainstream liberal elites practice a deracinated style of politics, posturing in the media and triangulating for the centre-ground, while grassroots activism dies out and the mainstream masses retreat from political engagement.

Put simply, Evangelicals care more passionately about politics, and in greater numbers than their liberal counterparts. With their politicised faith, their enormous fundraising power and capacity to mobilise voters, they are a force to be reckoned with. Are they wrong to subject their children to brainwashing? Most certainly – but what alternative are kids being offered? The secret to the success of Jesus Camp is not simply that it targets vulnerable young minds – though that is certainly a part of it. It’s that it offers kids inspiration and hope. Unlike our contemporary culture of anxiety, which makes children lose sleep over global warming, crime, paedophilia, disease and a host of other problems supposedly beyond our control (see Lee Jones, Turning Children Green with Fear), Evangelists mould their children into purposeful, bold agents of change. Becky Fisher is convinced that ‘kids can change the world’, telling them they must ‘fix this sick old world’. As Haggard says, kids ‘love the Evangelical message… while the public schools are telling them they’re animals, the result of natural selection, we’re telling them God loves you, God created you, you have a purpose in life’.

As the psychoanalyst Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, human beings have a profound craving for a sense of meaning in their lives. Evangelism fulfils this with its clear sense of mission and purpose, which is palpably absent in mainstream politics today. It is this craving that Bush has sought to tap with his Manichean world view of ‘you’re either with us or against us’ and America’s struggles versus ‘evil’ and ‘tyranny’. As disastrous as that vision has been, and as disturbing as the subordination of children to mysticism is, these things highlight a gulf of meaning and of morality in modern life that religious fanaticism is filling not simply for Evangelicals, but also their Islamist counterparts. Jesus Camp is a disturbing exposé of the boot camps of Christ, but unless we understand the reasons for Evangelism’s success, we can only look on, dumbfounded, or recoil in horror. If the film’s basic message – that we ought to be worried – is correct, neither reaction will suffice.


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