I recently picked up the DVD of Jesus Camp and I let it sit on the shelf for a couple of weeks. I was reluctant to watch it because I knew how upset it would make me. Well, I finally watched it, and let's just say that it didn't disappoint.
A lot of what I saw in as expected, such as the ideologically far-right evangelical bent and the insane close-mindedness. But what I didn't expect was the sophistication of evangelical proselytizing techniques. Even more disturbing is how American evangelicals are using these strategies to brainwash their very own children.
These kids don't have a chance.
Far right theocratic ideology
American evangelicals are quite clearly situated at the extreme right of U.S. politics. They are polarized so far right of center that their outlook is nothing less than ideological. They have framed the world in such a way that they only perceive things in black and white: there are the true believers, and then there's everybody else. As one parent noted in the documentary, "We believe that there's two kinds of people in this world: people who love Jesus, and people who don't."
The paranoia and sense of fanatical mission is palpable throughout Jesus Camp. The struggle to spread the Good Word has escalated beyond door-to-door evangelizing. The spread of liberalism and scientific naturalism in the U.S. has forced evangelicals to take it to the next level. They've declared war against their enemies and assumed ownership of the United States. They are working to reclaim what they see as God's country.
The language is not merely rhetorical. “This means war!" shouts an evangelical teacher to her young students. "Are you a part of it or not?” A cardboard cut-out of George W. Bush looks on. The allegiance to the Republican Party is assumed and undeniable, and for this the evangelicals make no apologies.
And it's not merely a battle for political power — it's a culture war in which ideas themselves are under attack. Evangelical children are recruited into this struggle at a tender and suggestible age. They are shown expertly-produced and highly-entertaining videos that mock evolutionary biology and laud creationism. "Do you really think we come from goo?" asks the man in the video, his hand covered in green slime. The children laugh at the absurdity of the suggestion. The word "science" is bantered around like a pejorative.
In one scene, a boy named Levi is shown at home being schooled by his mother. She asks, "Did you get to the part yet where they say that science hasn't proven anything?" She then turns his attention to global warming. If it's something that scientists have informed us about, like 'evolution,' then the evangelicals feel that something fishy must be going on. Climate change is dismissed out of hand. Silly scientists, what do they know?
Expert evangelical techniques
Ironically, evangelical parents and teachers are unknowingly applying memetic and neurolinguistic techniques in their practice. They teach their children to frame the world in a very specific way — and they do it in such a way that they become 'locked-in' to that frame. They teach and reinforce complete submission to God and are told that people are nothing more than vessels. As a result, children learn to see themselves as tools rather than free thinking agents. They are taught that independent and "out of the box" thinking is deviant behavior and a sign of evil or weakness.
They are also taught how to identify those ideas that could subvert God's mission and how to deal with those contingencies. Children are instructed to recognize aspects of the world in one of two ways: it is either pure and righteous, or dirty and defiled. The idea that certain things are unclean and impure are anchored into their psyche. In one scene, children are given an opportunity to cleanse themselves as the teacher pours bottled water over their hands. The look of desperation on the children's faces as they wait their turn is disturbing. Evangelicals have mastered the art of teaching shame.
It should come as no surprise that fundamentalist Muslims use similar lock-in techniques. This is an example of convergent memetics — a similar phenomenon to what's often seen in evolution when different species acquire the same trait independently. Religions, particularly those with an evangelical focus, have independently acquired and refined those tactics which ensure practitioner lock-in and a desire to spread and defend the memeplex.
This is why fundamentalist religions are psychologically so hard to escape from. The mind has been programmed to respond to certain stimuli in a preconceived way and to perceive that response as a guide to action. Moreover, the desire to transcend the programming has been subverted by feelings of guilt, shame, or uncleanliness. At a deeper level, doubt or independent thinking is rationalized as the work of an outside force, namely the devil or non-believers.
As an interesting aside, when asked how they can justify the proselytizing of their children in this way, the evangelicals counter by claiming that the Muslims are doing it as well. The difference as they see it is that they have the true word of God, and it is better to get to their children before someone else does — namely the enemy. As Camp organizer Becky Fischer noted, "It's no wonder, with that kind of intense training and discipling, that those young people are ready to kill themselves for the cause of Islam. I wanna see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam. I wanna see them as radically laying down their lives for the Gospel as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine and all those different places, you know, because we have… excuse me, but we have the truth!"
Child abuse in the name of God
Children are also taught how to deal with non-evangelicals, particularly if they are teased or rejected by them. They talk about how non-believers build walls around themselves and how they refuse to be happy or fulfilled. Children are encouraged to "help" these people by proselytizing. They learn how to do cold approaches and are given opening scripts. They apply field tested techniques to help in the interaction and offer the target some literature.
At the Jesus Camp itself, the organizers recruit a series of expert speakers. These are presenters and teachers who excel at interacting with children. They know how to reach out to kids, maintain their interest, impart information, and keep them entertained.
And they do this extraordinarily well. Too well.
Children are treated as puppets to be manipulated and are frequently brought to tears. There are more scenes of kids crying in Jesus Camp than I care to mention. Speaker after speaker reinforce different points, and you can practically hear the doors of cognition slamming shut in the minds of the children. In turn, when the children actually speak and articulate their thoughts they sound as if they're channeling adults.
In one scene Levi says, "At five I got saved…because I just wanted more of life."
Say what? Now, what five year old feels he needs "more of life." I'm sorry, but five year olds do not talk or think in this way. This is a sad case of children regurgitating scripts fed to them by their parents and instructors.
Indeed, the evangelicals know exactly what they're doing, and they're consciously going about the business of not just conversion but of refining their techniques as well. "I can go into a playground of kids that don't know anything about Christianity," says Fisher, "lead them to the Lord in a matter of, just no time at all, and just moments later they can be seeing visions and hearing the voice of God, because they're so open. They are so usable in Christianity."
Outspoken religious critic Richard Dawkins has a term to describe these types of individuals: child abusers. He believes that teaching religion to children is a form of abuse because they have not yet developed the psychological faculties to defend themselves against proselytization.
The trouble is, moderates and liberals cannot and will not struggle against evangelicals with equal fervor. Moderates are, well, too moderate. Moreover, the damage inflicted by ideas is much more difficult to ascertain than something like physical abuse. At the same time, religious and free speech rights are held with high esteem.
The answer, it would seem, is elusive. A good place to start, however, would be to ensure that each and every child receives a liberal and diverse education. Children deserve at least this much.
What happens at home may be beyond the purview of the state, but at least they can be given a chance at school.