Saturday, April 28, 2007
I didn't expect to like Jesus Camp, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's Oscar-nominated documentary, not because of its subject matter - a summer camp for indocrinating American youngsters with the lethal absurdities of Evangelical Christianity - but because I knew what political tack it was going to take. And a shared political viewpoint in a political film can often make for very dull viewing. I found this last year when I went to see Fernando Solanas' The Dignity of the Nobodies, a documentary about the sufferings of working- and middle-class people following the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001. Solanas is a fine filmmaker and his fictional features are exemplary but the atmosphere in that film, itself a sequel to the more probing Social Genocide, was stiflingly worthy and there was little room to scrutinise.
So I was not expecting too much from Ewing and Grady's film. I did expect to despair at the nonsense that is spouted throughout the film by the charmismatic, ornery preacher-teacher Becky Fischer, a footsoldier in the Evangelical movement that, quite worryingly has the ear of the current US administration. And I also expected to despair at the sadness of hundreds of obese, badly-dressed rubes stealing the childhood years of their offspring, at one point a mother forcefully raises the hand of her toddler to participate in a 'hands-up everyone' activity at one of Fischer's ceremonies, while another child is told in a disturbingly avuncular way by a preacher that she 'looks so beautiful' with her mouth gagged by a 'LIFE' sticker. But that was all going to be so-far so-expected. The cleverness of Ewing and Grady's approach however lies in a deceptively simple conceit: attack the Evangelicals from the perspective of mainstream Christianity, via Mike Papantonio's Air America Religion show 'The Ring of Fire'. It might seem a bit contrived (as Papantonio's show itself is) but it allows a distance that rids the film of the self-righteousness that would otherwise have made it insufferably tedious. Other than Papantonio's sequences there is no narration and the utterings of Fischer and her fellow faithful stand and fall of their volition.
In reality there is little point in analysing the beliefs of these people as they are beyond any form of reasoning - however sophistic; the lunatic extremes of other religions, such as Wahhabite Islam, Free Presbyterianism, Hasidic Judaism and Tridentine Catholicism cannot match American Evangelism for supreme barminess. They all have theological underpinnings, however deluded and disingenuous they might be - the Evangelicals reach the parts that theology can't touch. They operate on nothing other than dumb faith - as Church leader Ted Haggard says, 'it's written in the Bible', that's all that's needed - and boy, is their faith dumb.
There is a peculiarly American character to this form of religion - and I don't mean that as a slur on the US - the Evangelical movement gained its momentum from Revivals that swept across the Deep South following the post-Civil War Reconstruction, and it has offered the very thing that Tocqueville recognised in the American character almost two centuries ago: 'a love of physical gratification, the notion of bettering one's condition, the excitement of competition, the charm of anticipated success.' One can be saved almost instantly - it's simply another branch of consumerism - and the saved induce a state of godly rapture in themselves (or are certainly encouraged to do so) and there is a clear pleasure taken by the Evangelicals in their difference from the damned, the evil and the sinners that constitute the rest of society. More than once in the film the comparison with sport is made and of course the biggest ball game of the lot is the Second Coming, which the Evangelicals are in better shape to contest than the rest of us. Thus lies the logic behind the Evangelical's aggressive support for Israel: the Holy Land must be in the hands of allies of Christians in order to allow Jesus' spaceship to land without a hitch when the Coming comes to pass. The helpful Jews will of course see the light and convert in order to be saved, or be consigned to Hell with all the rest of us. Now, according to a rigid reading of the Book of Revolution there is only room for 'twelve times twelve thousand' souls in Christ's spaceship, so we are left with only 144,000 to ascend to heaven. It sounds a bit like Deep Impact to me but I'm sure only the brightest and most brilliant will be selected such as those folks that pray with Fischer to ask the Lord not to permit Satan to interfere with the camp's computer network and Power Point presentations.
The Evangelicals' improbable philo-semitism also incorporates intermittent Hebrew chants, a fondness for Israeli flags, and a strange take on history. Fischer claims that 'this country [the US, of course] was built on Judaeo-Christian values', proving herself to be blissfully unaware of the Founding Fathers' contempt for the theocratic urges of the New England puritans (and their dubious standards of hygiene, as one biographer of George Washington has remarked), and also the long history of anti-semitism in the US, which did not really abate until the 1960s, well after the Holocaust. There are many asinine elements of the European left that profess a similar level of ignorance about the US but they may be forgiven theirs if this is what passes for historical consciousness in the Land of the Free. But then again, the Evangelicals do think that the world is but 5,000 years old so they do have a rather selective historiography.
Jesus Camp, good as it is, would blossom into an especially worthwhile project if it were to become a Seven-Up-type series to see the effects of the brainwashing on the children as they grow up, but I imagine that getting co-operation of the principals might be difficult after the success of this film. As I said, there is no reasoning or arguing with these people: they are quite simply insane. Regime change at the next election will stem their influence somewhat but even so any future Democrat president will keep a close eye on them. Seeing as they are not going to go away perhaps the best containing measure would be one that was suggested over thirty years ago by the maverick political candidate Hal Phillip Walker in Robert Altman's Nashville: tax them. And tax all other religions too. That would soon draw the sting from them. An unlikely development but one that should be kept in the air to see how it flies.