Gandhi once said if Christians lived according to their faith, there would be no Hindus left in India. He knew how powerful the fundamental tenets of Christianity -- fighting poverty, caring for the least among us, loving your enemies, eschewing materialism and embracing humility -- could be if everyone who called themselves a Christian truly followed them.
The new documentary, Jesus Camp, which chronicles a North Dakota summer camp where kids as young as 6 are taught to become dedicated Christian soldiers in “God's army,” is an illustration of this sentiment in the extreme.
The film, by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the duo who also directed the critically-acclaimed The Boys of Baraka, opened to an appreciative and flabbergasted audience at the 2006 TriBeca Film Festival, where it received the Special Jury Award. The directors skillfully captured the daily interactions of a world that would be foreign to most viewers: children speaking in tongues and talking of being “born again” at age 5.
The star of the film is Pastor Becky Fischer, who explains the startling mission of her “Kids on Fire” camp: “I want young people to be as committed to laying down their lives for the Gospel as they are in Pakistan.” At the camp, the children are asked: “How many of you want to be those who will give up your life for Jesus?” Little hands shoot up from every direction. They are told: “We have to break the power of the enemy over the government.” At one point, Becky yells: “This means war! Are you a part of it or not?” More little hands.
The directors take us into the homes of the children, where we see them “pledge allegiance to the Christian flag” and play a video game called “Creation Adventure” that debunks evolution. A mother helps her children with homework and informs them that, “Global warming is not going to happen. Science doesn't prove anything.”
The film takes us back to the camp, where the children are gathered for their daily teaching. Suddenly, a camp counselor places a life-size cardboard cutout before the group. No, it's not Jesus. It's George Bush. Clapping erupts and Becky encourages them to “say hello to the President.” Becky claims that “President Bush has added credibility to being a Christian.”
Statistics about the spectacular number of “evangelicals” in the United States are ominously flashed onscreen throughout the movie, implicitly suggesting that Becky and her assembled camp are giving us a peek into the inner workings of the “evangelical movement.” But it might be worth questioning the conventional wisdom that the 100 million Americans who call themselves evangelicals all march to the same beat. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson have a vested interest in presenting this group as a conservative monolith under their exclusive and unquestioned control. And while there is no denying the electoral power of the Religious Right, Democrats should not assume that all, or even a majority, of evangelicals naturally hew to the Republican line.
While it's never disclosed in the movie, Jesus Camp is in fact a Pentecostal camp, which puts it far to the right theologically and politically, even within the evangelical movement. The directors explained that they didn't want to confuse audiences by disclosing this and instead referred to the camp only as “evangelical.” Unfortunately, they unwittingly added to the enormous confusion that people like Jim Wallis, author of God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, has been trying to clear up for years.
Wallis, who is the founder and editor of Sojourners, a progressive Christian magazine, spends much of his time traveling the country talking to students and meeting with evangelical leaders. Wallis believes the future of the country is in the hands of moderate evangelical voters. He estimates, based on polls and personal experience, that about half of evangelicals are the immovable Religious Right but the other half are open to, if not hungry for, progressive leadership.
“The facts on the ground are changing,” says Wallis. He reports a marked increase in attendance of his speeches on Christian campuses and the issues he gets asked about the most are not gay marriage or abortion. Wallis says abortion will naturally remain important issue to the moderate evangelical voter, but it is not a litmus test. They want leaders who will acknowledge their moral concerns about this issue and who are committed to decreasing the number of abortions, a position that puts them well within the mainstream of Democratic voters.
And it's no different if Wallis is meeting with the leader of an evangelical mega-church. One such leader recently told Wallis, “I'm a conservative on Jesus, the Bible and the Resurrection, but I'm becoming a social liberal.” When Wallis asked why, he heard what has become a familiar refrain: evangelicals are increasingly despairing over the neglect of the poor, the environment, and the U.S. inaction on fighting the genocide in Darfur.
White evangelicals make up close to 25 percent of the electorate and, in 2004, a whopping 78 percent of them voted for George Bush. But evangelicals didn't always line up behind the Republican candidate. According to Pew Research, in 1987, white evangelicals were almost evenly divided between the two parties. And today, many evangelical leaders believe that a growing number of these voters are prepared to return to the Democratic fold, but only if Democrats stop misunderstanding, neglecting, and even intentionally ignoring what was and should be a natural constituency.
Meanwhile, evangelical groups are finding their voice on many progressive issues. U2 front man Bono has talked extensively of the unlikely partnership he has forged with evangelical leaders in fighting the AIDS crisis. One of those leaders is Ted Haggard, a staunch Republican who founded the now 12,000-person New Life Church and heads the National Association of Evangelicals. Haggard personally counseled British Prime Minister Blair on how to persuade President Bush to support Third World debt relief and has made protecting the environment a central issue of concern for his church.
In February, Christianity Today's cover blasted “Why Torture is Always Wrong.” Joining with the Catholic Church, more than 50 evangelical Christian leaders and organizations recently voiced their support for an immigration bill that would allow illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens without returning to their native countries. And earlier this year, a group of 86 evangelical Christian leaders launched a campaign to educate Christians about climate change and urged the U.S. Congress to enact legislation to curb global warming. The campaign calls on Christians to battle global warming, “which will hit the poor the hardest because those areas likely to be significantly affected first are the poorest regions of the world.”
These concerns sounds pretty progressive. So, why are so few white evangelicals voting Democratic? Wallis believes Democrats have ceded the territory of religion to the Republican side, allowing them to use it to divide the electorate. Or, as Wallis has said, “I think this idea that all the Christians, all the religious people are jammed in the red states and the blue states are full of agnostics is a bit overblown in the media. It's more complicated than that.”
Much, much more complicated.
Kirsten A. Powers served in the Clinton administration as Deputy Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Public Affairs and has worked in New York state and city politics.
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