Jesus Camp is the kind of documentary devised to give lefty types a serious case of the willies. The film opens in a strange, clannish flyover zone between New York and Los Angeles that the locals refer to as "Missouri." Establishing shots give us fast-food-pocked streets, wind-whipped American flags and motel signs proclaiming "God Bless USA." We learn of the local folk customs, centered almost exclusively on God and, occasionally, Country.
Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady -- whose access to this community is nothing short of amazing -- have a warbling sci-fi score at the ready to emphasize that we are not in Manhattan anymore.
In this strange, parallel universe, little children preach fire-and-brimstone sermons, and girls barely out of diapers rave and stomp with the ecstatic tears normally seen in elderly Pentecostals undergoing religious epiphanies.
The charismatic kingpin in this strange new world is one Becky Fischer, a beefy Pied Piper Pentecost with a head tortured into a spiky blond 'do thanks to ministrations of the Aqua Net. The children's minister runs a North Dakota sleep-away camp where these evangelical tots worship each summer.
With the complicity of the children's own parents, Fischer is helping to create an Army of God. The pastor sees her underage warriors as a necessary antidote to the Muslim kiddies she envisions as being armed and ready for religious battle.
But rather than questioning the wisdom of sending children into battle, Fischer sports a warped logic that insists, if the Muslims are going to raise their kids as their religion's foot soldiers, we'd best do the same.
At Kids on Fire Camp, there are lectures on the evils of abortion and Harry Potter and activities where kids pray to a cardboard effigy of the born-again President George Bush.
And while the filmmakers are expert at showing the horror of evangelicals gone wild, they indulge in a familiar Michael Moore docu-prop tendency to vilify the very subjects they are supposed to be concerned with -- in this case, the children.
It is a pity that both the scarily intense Pastor Becky and the filmmakers themselves see the children as pawns in their ideological end game. While their science-averse, home-schooling parents ensure they will never receive a decent education, Ewing and Grady also virtually write the kids off as hopeless zealots. After the filmmakers' 200th shot of kids weeping at the words of the lord, the message changes from educational to freak show.
And yet, despite the unfortunate fact of their Pentecostal head-shrinking, the kids interviewed are remarkably charismatic and endearing pawns in a depressing adult battle for moral certainty. Despite his almost unbearable mullet, precocious 12-year-old Levi is so anxious to please and earnest that you can only lament the narrow direction his bright mind is being channeled toward.
And then there is 10-year-old Rachel, a proselytizing spitfire who fantasizes about opening a Christian nail salon and approaches strange blondes in bowling alleys to tell them Jesus just wants to "love on you." But her scary-impressive, laser-accuracy testifying tends to crumble when faced with real-world obstacles outside the bubble of separatist Christianity. Handing out religious tracts on a field trip to Washington, D.C., Rachel can't understand why the passing adults aren't biting: "Do they think we're selling something?"
Perhaps fearful that viewers might miss their political agenda, the filmmakers check in periodically with radio host Mike Papantonio in the middle of his Air America show. Papantonio reminds us of the "stakes" of these culture wars and of how dangerous the democracy-trouncing fervor of the political evangelicals truly is.
But do liberal audiences really need someone to echo their own thoughts? Part of the marvel of any documentary is descending into an unknown, perhaps disturbing subculture, and intelligent viewers hardly need such an obvious guide to tell them what is wrong with this picture.
A documentary is best when it shows instead of tells, and there are plenty of events depicted in Jesus Camp to make us fear the evangelical movement to come.