Rachel Grady’s and Heidi Ewing’s movie, Jesus Camp, raises interesting points, if not the blood pressure of those opposed to its content. The film focuses almost entirely on the children with only a few exceptions. Pastor Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal Children’s Minister, runs the “Kids on Fire” Camp in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota.
Citing the number of children under the age of 15 in the world, she asks the viewer where we should be putting our energy and focus, answering that this is precisely where “our enemy” is focused. Of the Nation of Islam she says, “It’s no wonder with that kind of intense training and disciplining that those young people are ready to kill themselves for the cause of Islam. I want to see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam.”
How then does Fischer’s approach to children differ from the Nation of Islam? “Excuse me,” she says, “but we have the truth.”
To a child her agenda is cloaked, marked by her view of a child’s vulnerability as their strength, saying, “I can go into a playground of kids that don’t know anything about Christianity, 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 are so open. They are so useable in Christianity.”
Having set the tone, Fischer concedes the majority of the spotlight to her young charges whose words throughout the film might move a person to tears for one of two reasons: the children’s thirst for knowledge, or the ease with which children can be exploited.
As an atheist, I have more faith in man than is supposed by the way children are treated and then assumed to turn out. While it is unmistakably true that an abused child oft times grows into an abusive adult, there is a significant percentage that step out of their upbringing, taking the stance of "the way my parents raised me was certainly not good enough," and replacing it with a system that works better, and less violently, for them.
That said, it cannot be denied there are those children who don’t make it out from under their upbringing. They are either beyond help (e.g., Shirley Phelps Roper) or are killed before they get a chance to see that something might be amiss (e.g., The Jonestown Massacre).
If we are to believe the parents of the Jesus Camp kids have the unconditional right to their religion to the point that they can and should be allowed to instill their children with even the slightest taste for violence and an intolerance, if not hatred, for others, then we must also concede that any religion (Nation of Islam) has the same unconditional right.
When one's freedom to practice their religion becomes a violation of the law — as sanctioned by the very people who support freedom of religion — then it is no longer a religious issue and is now only — I repeat, only — a criminal issue. (As an aside, this is precisely why I think the U.S., the EU and the UN should immediately stop making any reference to religion with regard to terrorists. Their right to religious freedom — and regard by others – should have stopped the minute they violated any one person's basic human rights and the law of the country in which they committed a crime.)
The parents of the children in the film do certainly have the freedom of religion as guaranteed by our constitution. Just as they have the freedom to do so, so do I have the freedom to openly admonish their parenting style and keep a close eye on their children as they become adults. It’s worth noting, however, that these parents do in fact have a style. Right or wrong, they have something to defend; they have something to point at and say, “This is the way I’m raising my children because they are important to me. This is what I believe so this is what I’m doing.”
Fanatical parenting styles (religious or not) are tolerated by our society — despite evidence that these styles create troubled children — for two reasons:
1) Society's ongoing, underlying belief that without blood, bruise, or broken bone, no abuse has taken place. As long as you feed, shelter and clothe your child, you can say (shout, yell, scream, speak in tongues) anything you want at them and it's okay by the rest of us. You can teach them anything you want, no matter how counter to societal standards of behavior, and as long as the behavior itself is legal, it's again okay by the rest of us.
You don’t have to do much else of anything (and a lot of parents don’t) – like hold children accountable for and place restrictions on their behavior, include them in family chores as well as family fun, provide them with healthcare, provide for their safety, get to know their friends and acquaintances, or attend a single school activity.
2) Many non-Evangelical Christian parents are just as fanatical about raising their children in the most peripheral sense of the word as Evangelical Christians are with their over-the-top techniques. Many non-Evangelical Christian parents no more hold themselves accountable for their child’s safety, welfare, and education than they hold their children accountable for their behavior. They wonder where they went wrong, where the child went wrong, and what the world is coming to. The answer is simple: You allowed someone else to get to your child first.
The more hateful parents among us are protected by the ever-persistent idea that the welfare of someone else’s kid is no one else’s business. As long as they aren’t caught violating the law with regard to their child, it's all good. We can suspect all we want and we can point to signs in the child's behavior as indications of a problem until we're blue in the face, but until that child says something or there is a visible, physical sign of harm, the elephant in the middle of the room will continue to be the child who flinches from touch or touches everyone, who reacts to situations with an inappropriate amount of anger or defensiveness, or who cries for no apparent reason.
Society (to include parents) does not support the role of parents or the practice of parenting. It treats its children with minimal regard, and then wonders how it ends up with so many troubled adults. It would shun the likes of the Jesus Camp parents without certain knowledge of where their own child is at this precise moment, who they’re with, or in some cases that they’re even gone.
It would appear that Betty Fischer loves children as much as she loves God. She’s giving children tools and they are taking them because they are, before she gets there, tool-less. She may not care about children with our standard of what is right, and it can be reasonably argued that what she’s teaching children is fundamentally wrong, but her passion and her position are worth our notice. She got to the children first.
I would submit that we let adults do what they may with other adults as long as it falls within the law; but children? Outgunning the rest of society with the amount of time, money, and energy they’re willing to invest, Betty Fischer and her followers and the enemy she names (the Nation of Islam) are getting their message through to their children: We care about you.
From unprotected crosswalks and vending machine lunch programs to a lack of health insurance for every child and the release of child sexual predators from prison, the rest of society’s children are hearing the rest of us loud and clear: We don't really care about you at all.