The documentary "Jesus Camp" focuses on a group of children being trained in radical evangelical prayer. The film debuted in theaters earlier this fall and will be shown on A&E sometime next year, but the controversy surrounding it began well before its release and could continue in classrooms and living rooms long after it is out of the limelight. Many—on both the left and the right—have called the film a salvo in the culture war because it emphasizes the practices of a fundamentalist Christian sect, but directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady say they only hoped to make a document about young evangelicals in America.
The film, which spotlights a children's camp run by a Pentecostal minister named Becky Fischer, suggests that the camp is connected to the broader evangelical movement: along with a close-up view of the radical ministry at Fischer's camp, the film visits the home church of Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and recounts evangelical support for the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.
Beliefnet's Patton Dodd (full disclosure: Dodd previously worked at Rev. Haggard's New Life Church) recently discussed "Jesus Camp" and its controversy with filmmaker Rachel Grady.
What did you know about evangelical Christians before you began shooting "Jesus Camp"?
The most intimate relationships that I had with born-again Christians were primarily inner city African-American evangelicals. I made a film called "The Boys of Baraka," and one of the kids [in the film], Devon, is an aspiring pastor. I spent a lot of time at his church. And I had a very favorable impression because I noticed that, wherever there were churches in downtrodden areas of the inner city, the community and the neighborhood around it were much more vital and were much more attractive aesthetically. There seemed to be an infusion of hope whereas, in other parts of the city, there was heart-crushing hopelessness.
That was one reason we wanted to explore [evangelicalism] to begin with—we saw what a profound effect it had on Devon.
So the positive influence of evangelicalism on Devon was what inspired "Jesus Camp"?
The germ of the idea came from spending time in Devon's community and seeing how evangelicalism affected this individual. We thought that exploring this territory through a child was the best way to go. So, we were looking for a story that focused on kids and faith: a school or a ministry or a camp that had children at its core.
How did Becky Fischer and her fundamentalist camp come into the picture?
There were a couple of evangelical organizations down in the South that we were exploring, and one of the children's pastors suggested Becky Fischer. We went online and we explored her ministry, and thought it looked absolutely amazing. On her website, she describes how she goes about training children to be engaged in the supernatural and training children in the gifts of prophecy and healing. We thought it was fascinating.
When we met her, we thought she was a wonderful documentary film subject, and that was our leaping-off point.
You've ended up with a film that is really about politicized Christianity. Is that something that you chose to do after discovering Becky Fischer?
The political story really didn't start bubbling until we were into a couple of weeks of shooting. It was not something we were looking for, but when we were at these conferences and when we were at the camp, and after speaking with Becky, we felt like there was an exploration of the culture war to be had.
It wasn't necessarily about politics at that point, either. When we started observing some of the things that the adults were teaching the children, Heidi and I interpreted, of course through our secular lens, that the conversation about politics was much more active in these homes than we had seen with other kids their age.
Is that how you would describe yourself—as secular?
I was raised Jewish and I do go to temple on the High Holidays, but I don't go on a weekly basis. I definitely associate myself as a Jew ethnically as well as spiritually. But I don't go on a regular basis.
Some of the most interesting moments in the film come when you let Becky Fischer respond to the footage you've shot of the kids in her ministry—kids speaking in tongues and praying very emotionally. She's clearly very pleased with what she is seeing. How do you read those moments of the film?
It's been interesting to see that ["Jesus Camp"] holds a mirror up to every individual who sees the movie. Becky is thrilled by it. It's rewarding for her to see herself as changing these children's lives forever in an incredibly positive way. She's proud. I think she's a very caring person. She has a big heart, and if she thought she was doing something harmful, she would stop.