Directed by: Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war! Of course the secular liberal establishment won’t allow children to actually take up arms, so while their daddies are off attending to America’s Holy Wars, they’re home with mommy training for the equally important culture wars. As Ashley, a young girl who is the co-focus of the film, puts it, “we’re being trained to be warriors, but in a much funner way,” which asks the question, are there no grammar books for home schoolers?
Ewing and Grady document several months in the lives of Ashley and an older boy named Levi, both the children of hardcore Evangelical Christians, from their homes to a Christian-themed sleepaway camp, and then on a cross-country excursion with stops in Colorado Springs—Evangelical capital of the USA—and Washington D.C. for a quaint Right to Life mini-rally. Though the filmmakers treat their subjects respectfully, even lovingly at times, when it comes to Evangelism and their practice of conditioning children they’re clearly tendentious—they’re agin it. While the Christians get the better part of the screen time, offering the audience the absurdity they spew serves to simply disparage their arguments. You don't have to argue with a fundamentalist to get them to lose face. Just let them speak.
When a Holy Joe gets a wildly raucous response to his question of whether or not the children are ready to give their lives not to Jesus but for him, it’s clear these fundamentalists’ model for indoctrination is not merely radical Islam, as one of them claims, but radical Islamism. The children usually sound as though they are merely parroting their parents and preachers when they espouse reverent polemics on Christ, America, and their relation to one another to the point that it’s made perfectly clear, especially when a preacher asks, “who thinks God can do anything?” and a mother physically raises her two children’s hands for them, what this is. This is brainwashing.
But who could blame the kids for giving in? Levi confesses that he was “saved” at the age of five, at a time when he thought nothing was fun. Besides the fact that they’re young and impressionable, if I were from Mullettown, Missouri, I’d want to go to Jesus Camp, too—they have rock music, dancing, and clapping. (When megapastor Ted Haggard, the discredited and disgraced male prostitute solicitor and illegal substance procurer, shows up in the film for an extended cameo, you get a good idea of just how fun Evangelical Christianity can be.) The only countervoice to the radical Christians in the film is radio host Mike Papantonio—well whoop de doo. If I could only choose between Air America and Fundamentalism, I’d take the latter, too. At least they go bowling.
With interesting shot composition, ironic counterpoint, and pointed sincerity, Ewing and Grady offer a fascinating glimpse into an American subculture quickly, and frighteningly, losing its prefix. As a deeper look into Borat’s America, there are some real hilarious moments, such as when Pastor Becky, a lardaceous old bag who has the nerve to call mainstream Christians “fat", prays for the PowerPoint presentations to have the strength to project, or when she bitterly howls, “if it were the Old Testament, Harry Potter would be put to death!” Mostly, however, the movie’s just creepy, and it’s hard not to let it rile you up. (Just when I thought, “at least they’re not speaking in tongues,” they actually started to!) Boys goofing around before bed are chastised because their horseplay isn’t holy, and at one point the kids are brought to devastating tears from shame for having sinned. Oh, Mr. Bunker, not only is girls not girls and men not men no more, kids ain’t even kids!