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Thoughts Upon Watching Jesus Camp – The Art of Brainwashing Children

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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.

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About George Dvorsky

  • Arch Conservative

    Yeah those awful Chrisitans.

    Good thing the far left has a stranglehold on our University system so they can indoctrinate 18 -22 year olds with anti-american leftist propaganda and stifle any independent thought that doesn’t tow the leftist line.

    There’s nothing like paying $30,000 a year so your kid can listen to Ward Churchill tell him/her that the victims of 911 were just “little eichmans” that deserved what they got and that Ameirca is the most evil force in the world.

  • Abe

    Please. . . I have my doubts about this whole right-wing theocratic conspiracy theory. It’s a load of crap. I’m an agnostic, and that is a load of crap.

    How do I know it is? Because I lived it. I grew up in a very religious jewish home. My parents wanted me to believe in God and the Torah. And while my parents were not christian evangelicals, I feel they were very similiar in their ways. I went to a Jewish school. I learned the Bible. I was taught all the miztvot. But I don’t think it was a conspiracy.

    The fact is, there is no conspiracy. These people truly believe what they preach, as wrong as I may think them to be. Their intentions are sincere. They don’t believe they are decieving or lying to anybody. My parents did not believe that. It is not a matter of deception, so much as displaced beliefs. That’s all.

    And in that regard, I can’t find it in myself to blame them. How can person know what they are doing is wrong when everyone around them has told them it’s right? I don’t blame these people, I feel bad for them. That’s all that can be done. That’s what Dawkins and his ilk don’t realize–you can’t indocrinate people in atheism. When you try to, then you just turn it into religion. Atheism and agnosticism are things that a person has to discover on their own.

  • Articles such as this raise an old question: is religious fundamentalism any more frightening than militant atheism? Both are run by zealots who want to stamp out any and all opposition thinking, and both have a history written in blood.

    Thrre are two distinguishing factors in this article: paranoia — children raised by fundamentalist parents are unthinking automatons for life, which is absurd — and thought control, the kind you hear echoed in statements by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins: namely, we cannot permit opposition thinking to continue. Dvorsky couches his argument (barely) in democratic terms, but no one can miss its distinctly authoritarian yearning. The last paragraphs suggest a definite sense of frustration with the freedom of others — particularly the freedom to raise up children in ways Dvorsky doesn’t like.

    When Jews were compared to rats in Nazi Germany, it sent a clear message, because rats are filthy and disgusting and carry disease and should be extinguished. What are we to make then of statements like “teaching religion to children is a form of abuse”? Child abusers are beneath contempt, right? They belong in jail if not the graveyard. They should be stopped, crushed, destoyed, no? Or should they merely be restrained under threat of punishment? Or should they be dealt with in the court of ideas? Mr. Dvorsky doesn’t seem too happy with that court these days, as the other side seems to be winning converts, and at a young age. I wonder if he’d be equally frightened by the child who goes to school and parrots the teachings of unbelieving parents. Should one form of indoctrination be ok, and the other not?

    This is not a question which Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung or Pol Pot had any trouble answering.

  • I have to say, this idea of evangelical Christianity as a device for culture-soldier programming and psychological abuse is more than a little bit alarmist and extreme.

    Every bit as extreme as evangelical teachers screaming “This means war! Are you a part of it or not?”

    And Richard Dawkins insisting that the simple teaching of religion to children is a form of child abuse? That’s as extreme and alarmist as it gets. Not to mention absurd and sick.

    I’m an agnostic, but I have to say…this sort of Manichean thinking (i.e., all religion=bad) is reductive, destructive, one-dimensional, and…surprisingly reminiscent of George W. Bush’s style of reasoning. (It’s the mirror opposite.)

  • Lev Kabatov

    I am an atheist, but I thnik that Mr. Dawkins and Mr.Dvorsky are over the top on this issue with their alarmism and exaggeration.
    Besides, Christianity is not evil. Misguided? Yes. Naive? Yes. But not evil. So why not start pointing the criticism towards the truly dangerous and widespread Islamic jihadist brainwashing instead? Is it a “taboo” for the modern “progressive thinkers”?

    Oh, it’s not politically correct, of course. My bad. I forgot about that “Islamophobia” thing.
    Angry “moderate” imams an muftis will start whining. Their stupid “fatwas” and threats will follow. And the CAIR gang will try to sue you for offending their wonderful “religion of peace”…

    It is much safer to continue the usual bashing of Christianity just for fun, isn’t it? Surely, evangelical christians will not try to behead their critics…

  • Ann Cardinal

    I have to say, this article was particularly meaningful to me as I live across the street from a group of fundamentalists. They are hoarding weapons in an armed encampment up north and preparing for their war. Their kids are outside in full military garb, playingful shooting passers by as their parents talk of Jesus and my son plays basketball. It is not the religion that scares me but this connection with violence and weaponary that goes against all I was taught as a Christian. Would Jesus meet the end with an Uzi?

  • Sandra

    When i watched Jesus camp i was quite speechless, at the part where fischer asks whose willing to die for jesus and all those little kids put their hands up when they probably had no idea what was even going on!
    And that lil 9 year old gurl talking about stopping abortions, everyone has their own opinion on that, however i dont think a 9 year old who hasnt even hit puberty should be fighting that fight, completly ridiculous.

  • Robert

    First of all I would say this particular group of Christians are not Evangelicals, not even fundamentalists. I would say they’re a new breed, more appropriately called Dominionists. Dominionists are Christians who believe they owe it to God to exercise God’s dominion in secular society and training their young is a very important part of that strategy.

    **It’s very important not to lump all Christians or Evangelicals or fundamentalists into this new form of Christianity.**

    They’ll tell you they aren’t about being politically active, breaking down the separation between church and state but their actions and instruction to their children show different. That is what sets them apart from most other Christians.

    Becky Fisher’s last comments to the radio talk show host in the film were VERY telling about this:

    “You know, I think Democracy is the greatest political system on earth, but that’s just it, it’s just on earth and it’s ultimately designed to destroy itself. We have to give EVERYONE EQUAL FREEDOM and ultimately that’s going to destroy us! You know, the perfect world is not going to be perfect until Jesus is truly lord.”
    -Becky Fischer Pentecostal child minister

  • Nina

    I agree with the sentiment of your article; however I do have one comment re. your last sentence:

    “What happens at home may be beyond the purview of the state, but at least they can be given a chance at school.”

    A significant proportion of evangelical children are actually home-schooled, and hence these kids will never have the chance to develop the ability to think freely for themselves.

  • D. Spaulding

    Let’s sort fact from beliefs for a moment please. The people in the film did not let their children learn. They were participants in a highly calculated and decently funded agenda. Please don’t confuse this with enlightenment or education.
    I thought it was interesting that the film showed so much crying by the children, as if they knew instictively that this was not right. The true evil is the 500 pound woman taking advantage of children. Although this is nothing new, I am surprised to see it in modern days in our suburbs. This “evengelical movement” should be feared, especially since it so well funded. Some of which is our tax dollars in the form of “faith based iniciatives”.

  • katie

    I think Robert has a good point. Nowadays, it’s hard to separate religious fundamentalism with extremists who promote violence under the guise of a preexisting religion. The Islamic fundamentalists (shown in another documentary that FOX News aired titled ‘Banned by PBS: Muslims Against Jihad’) are shown giving guns to kids, being trained from an early age that Islam is the only, true way of life (directly paralleling the comments made by Becky Fischer in this documentary). While, in my personal opinion, both documentaries tried to show non-partisan outlooks on these two different groups of people, they failed to show exceptions to these (which are being brought out by these comments). My big concern is this: While trying to reveal truth using a dramatic medium, like documentaries, can we truly be unbiased? Is that what people want to see? And are we doomed to be polarized by the media where religion is concerned? The answer? Movies and documentaries like these are meant to make you think. They’re meant to make us all think. By letting emotions or possibilities of injustice cloud our judgement, we are not truly allowing the movies’ messages to sink in and affect us completely.

    *whew* I’m spent. Well made documentary, I love the part on Ted Haggard…makes him look like such a tool.

  • rey

    “Outspoken religious critic Richard Dawkins…believes that teaching religion to children is a form of abuse…”

    Not teaching religion to children is society abuse because then they grow up without morality and rape and kill us all. But at the same time teaching them the wrong religion is society abuse also and leads to the same conclusion. Calvinism especially, and all religions that teach an easy believism in which all you have to do to be saved is believe and then you’re “once saved always saved” are just as bad for society as no religion–perhaps worse. Worse because Calvinism also teaches that we have no free will, thus disconnecting responsibility and placing the blame of your evil actions on their god’s predestination. True Christianity that teaches the necessity of submission to God’s moral code as revealed in the New Testament for salvation is a benefit to society, however.

  • rey

    And because of Calvinism’s heavy focus on predestination to the extent that it doesn’t mind saying that their god is the author of evil, they tend to support totalitarian theocratic rule just as (the ultimate Calvinist utopia) John Calvin’s Geneva, in which you could have been imprisoned for merely calling Calvin a heretic, or worse yet, had your tongue perforated with a hot iron! Ironically although Calvin believed that you can’t be saved unless you won the lottery in eternity past, he still felt the need to persecute theological opponents and burn them at the stake (such as Michael Servetus [Miguel Servet]) to protect people from the doctrines–but if predestination is true, nobody can be protected nor needs it! Yet, religions that don’t believe in arbitrary predestination (true Christianity, for example) who have a real reason to want to defend the truth, don’t use violence in its defense! It’s only the Calvinists and the Catholics and the Muslims, all of whom have arbitrary absolutist predestination in their official beliefs, that do this. And if you doubt that Catholicism believes in arbitrary absolutist predestination, ask yourself why Augustine is considered such a great theologian and “saint” by them when that’s what he taught!!!

  • Thanks for visiting from the Stone Age, rey.

  • rey

    **It’s very important not to lump all Christians or Evangelicals or fundamentalists into this new form of Christianity.**

    Only Calvinism and Catholicism want theocratic rule. Everyone else calling themselves Christian wants religious freedom for all!

  • BB

    I’m wondering if there is more support for those of us who grew up like the children in this film. My comment isn’t to prove or disprove this type of religion as abuse. I can only tell you that between corporal punishment, home school, and preparation for end times, I’ve had my hands full trying to find a “normal” life. Any good books or support websites?

    This film was painful to watch–it brought back all the nightmares of growing up fundamental, evangelical, christian. Was I abused? Absolutely.