Jesus Camp

Issue section: 

Directors: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady; Release date: 23 November

In the US 25 percent of the population describe themselves as evangelical, and are viewed as a loyal voting block for Republican politicians. It almost seems like a no-brainer to suggest that a self-described "army" of the enlightened, that militantly battles the "evils" of abortion, evolution theory and even the concept of climate change, is something that should be attacked outright. But this documentary makes you realise that it is not quite as simple as that.

Jesus Camp follows a group of young evangelists as they go to the "Kids on Fire School of Ministry" summer camp in North Dakota in 2005. It cleverly lets the footage speak for itself, without relying on narration.

Camp director Becky Fischer claims that the camps are to train up a generation of Christians for religious warfare, believing that "the enemy" is already doing the same. Their pride in the Christian "missionaries" fighting Muslims in Iraq gives this a worryingly literal element. Their agenda is to encourage a new generation of Christian leaders - after all, George Bush won't be in the White House much longer.

The rawness of Jesus Camp works. It doesn't need much else. At one point you see the kids crawling over one another to pray at the feet of a life size cardboard cut-out of Bush; at another they stand with plastic foetuses taped to their hands as they pray to save them from what they see as the sin of abortion. But you also see them feeling they're worth something. This is what makes your eyes stick like glue to the film, with a mixture of heartfelt sympathy and absolute horror.

Around 47 percent of evangelical children are born again by the age of 13, and you can see why. At one point Fischer approaches a small group of children to encourage them to come to camp. She starts by telling them how great they are.

How often do you see that in society? If you fail a test in school you aren't good enough, if you're not on the football team you're a failure. These kids are told they can achieve anything; as Fischer says, "Kids can change the world." They feel the love of their community, and of the holy trinity watching over them. These scenes can have a genuinely emotional effect on you - their community, as Karl Marx once wrote, is their "heart in a heartless world".

Jesus Camp illustrates how political beliefs attached to the evangelist movement are the product of wider society, and how the community is paid off, to an extent, by the religious right in the White House. Bush will push creationism into schools, which is of no value to US capitalism, while evangelical ministers will preach about the myth of climate change, an argument with no biblical basis whatsoever.

And evangelists in the US have a chequered political history, having for example been involved in the fight against slavery and for women's suffrage. Wanting people to know you love Jesus doesn't automatically make you want to picket abortion clinics, just as faith in Allah doesn't make you want to strap bombs to yourself, or reading the Torah to suppress Palestinians.

If anyone ever needs to know why, in a world of science, people still turn to religious faith, they should watch this.