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What I Learned at Jesus Camp: Freedom, Indoctrination, and Children

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Jesus Camp posterJesus Camp is an award-winning documentary about an evangelical camp called Kids on Fire. The movie is neither satire nor a Michael Moore type “shock-umentary” designed to show only the worst aspects of the camp. Pastor Becky Fisher, the camp’s leader, has said that she thinks the film represents what she is trying to do.

The film, while sympathetic to kids and leaders alike for their beliefs, raises very troubling questions about whether children have the right to be free from extreme political indoctrination, even in religiously motivated political movements that are very sincere.

Make no mistake—the leaders of this camp and its supporters are quite comfortable with the idea that they are training “God’s Army” to be warriors in a life-and-death struggle to shape future politics in the United States. The camp makes no pretense at being anything but a way to create a generation of voters who will determine the outcome of elections.

Pastor Becky Fisher is exceptionally clear that her model for training kids to be God’s warriors is akin to that of radical Islamic fundamentalism. Fisher talks openly about modeling what she does on what “our enemies” do in camps in “Palestine,” and following their practices of indoctrination.

Given Fisher’s Christian zeal and radical tactics, what kinds of political evangelism and “warfare” are taught to campers? They pledge allegiance to the “Christian flag” and worship a life-size cardboard statue of President George W. Bush. They shout “under God, under God,” have their mouths taped shut with red tape that says “LIFE,” and are dropped off to participate in anti-abortion demonstrations on Capitol Hill.

Freedom is a much contested word in our country these days. President Bush used the words “free,” “freedom,” and “liberty” in his second inaugural address more than 49 times in a twenty minute speech. Yet, as George Lakoff has pointed out in his new book, Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea, what conservatives mean by “freedom” is very different from what progressives (liberals) mean.

Freedom in the conservative lexicon means “freedom to achieve my own ends without any interference from anyone.” This is reflected in a scene from Jesus Camp where kids are told to smash coffee mugs with the word “government” written on them. However, another definition of freedom—the progressive definition—is “[F]reedom from being coerced to do things that are neither for your good nor the public good.”

In this regard, Jesus Camp raises a number of troubling questions. Should children be used as a means for their parents’ political and religious ends, or do they have their own rights to some religious and political freedom in a democracy? How can they learn to be free if they’re not allowed to achieve goals separate from their parents and be with those who expose them to different views? How can they become effective citizens in a pluralistic democracy without learning a definition of freedom that includes the public good?

I wondered what I would have said if one of my sons had come home and asked, “Mom, can I go to camp Kids on Fire?” We always encouraged our children while they were growing up to think critically, to ask questions, and not be afraid of cultural differences. I would have been hard pressed to say no, but I also would have had concerns about what they might learn.

I think I would have said about Jesus camp the same thing I said about PG-13 movies before each of them turned 13. “First, your Dad and I have to go, and if we think it’s appropriate for your age, you can go. And then we’ll have to talk about it.” That usually killed their interest in the film—especially the “we’ll have to talk about it” part.

I wonder if anyone talks to kids about Jesus camp after they come home—if they’re asked to reflect and think critically about what they experienced. Asking questions and thinking critically are essential skills for living in a democracy. They can’t be taught by indoctrination—they must be practiced and lived in order to become real.

Unfortunately for all of us—and for the future of our nation—the indoctrination that goes on in Jesus Camp resembles more the training that’s needed to live in a Christian theocracy than in a pluralistic democracy. .

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is the President and a Professor of Theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, and a member of the Center for American Progress Board of Trustees.

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