There are so many levels on which this documentary disturbs me—on a religious level, a political level, a social scientific level, a personal level—that it is hard to know where to begin.
When They’re Most Vulnerable
On a personal level, the featured children evangelist in the film said it best. Children are vulnerable. They are like sponges. They soak up everything. They are trusting. Their habits of mind are formed before they become teens. And so this is the age-group the movement targets.
What is remarkable about this strategy is that, of course, its premises are dead on. They are dead on whether we are talking about children who grow up in reasonably wealthy, secure households surrounded by caring and attentive adults; and the premises are dead on when we are talking about children who grow up in more borderline households surrounded by adults whose time, energy, attention and resources are heavily taxed. Kids are vulnerable and we are responsible for what they are exposed to, what they see, what they hear, and, eventually who they are as we hand them over to others who will take over where we left off—other friends, other adults, movies, television, print-media, games.
Such considerations bleed over into the ways that this documentary challenges most normative social scientific theory.
Normative Social Science
There is a heavy dose of wishful thinking in the belief that communities that devote so little of their resources to the health and welfare of their members will somehow give rise to a wholesome and healthy political formation.
I cannot think of a more predictable outcome to the neglect we have showered upon our communities than the formation of the alternative communities featured in Jesus Camp. But to those of us trained in a specific kind of academic social science, the proliferation of such communities must strike us as the height of irrationality. Don’t these people know that they are being used? Don’t they know that natural selection and climate change are settled facts? Don’t they know that, prior to the twentieth century, Bible believing Evangelical Christians, far from opposing a woman’s right to choose, viewed such opposition as a cornerstone of Roman Catholicism? Don’t they know that the nation which they count as God’s chosen instrument in the End Times was founded on the godless principles of Unitarianism and Deism, and that those “true believers” among the signatories to the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution were not so “true” as to contest this new nation’s explicitly Enlightenment foundations?
No. They don’t know. How could they? Which strongly suggests that rational argument, research, and documentation will not turn the tide on this one, but only militant, coordinated, social and political action.
Knowledge and practice are intimately related to one another. What we know arises out of what we have done and what has been done to us; just as what we do is shaped by what we know. Which is why normative social science—social science that assumes a distant, objective, and disinterested posture toward action—is in danger of undermining the very conditions of its own possibility.
At some point, the conditions that make for critical reflection become so distorted as to make critical reflection itself impossible.
The children who attend Jesus Camp, their instructors and their sponsors all know intuitively what we evidently have forgotten; that, at bottom, everything is political.
Not that everything is only political, but that everything is at least political. And we are losing.
We are losing because, oddly, unlike our fundamentalist counterparts, we have imbibed liberally of the ascetic elixir. They—not we—were supposed to have withdrawn from the material world into the certainty and security of the afterlife. We—not they—were supposed to have occupied the thus vacated world under the certainty that it is the only one that matters. And, yet, it is they—and not we—who have seized upon all the tools of the trade—propaganda, deceit, advertising, music, libido, outright lying—in order to achieve their goal: total power.
Next to whom, we strike the profile of saints and aesthetes, unworldly and otherworldly bearers of first principles and sacred truth.
But there is a seamlessness to their political action, an admirable (and effective) consistency that does not retract in the face of the world, but boldly refashions the world in their image.
But nowhere is our asceticism more in evidence than in our religion—a religion that has mistaken an endless cycle of retreats, conferences, meditations, and inner healings for the worldly emancipations originally promised by our gods.
Again, the irony is palpable. While that religion that was so unworldly that it was to have been of no earthly good is busily colonizing and transforming our world into its image, the religion that hailed itself as the balm that heals the body (and thereby heals the soul) has retreated into an endless season of inner healings.
With its marvelous naïveté, the otherworldly religion of Jesus Camp meanwhile has seized upon the world that we—not they—have vacated.
Here, if nowhere else, has Karl Marx’s remarks regarding the opiate of the masses found its fulfillment, not among our fundamentalist counterparts, but among those of us who would not dream of jeopardizing the delicate balance of our spirituality by acts of truth and justice.
A Profound Disturbance
Jesus Camp presents a profound disturbance on all these registers. Where it might have provoked anger against those who, in the name of my God, are abusing their children and God’s trust, it has instead provoked me to reflect on why they are succeeding where we have failed and on what we will need to do to once again reoccupy and tend to the world we have so recently vacated.