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May 10, 2006 11:50 AM
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Beyond the Ideological and the Political in "Jesus Camp," A Chat With Children's Pastor Becky Fische

Pastor Becky Fischer in a scene from Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's "Jesus Camp," which had its world premiere at the recent Tribeca Film Festival. Image courtesy of the filmmakers.

One of the most talked about films at the recent Tribeca Film Festival is the provocative new documentary about Evangelical Christians, "Jesus Camp." Children's pastor Becky Fischer became something of a lightning rod for many Tribeca festival audience members who watched one of the film's five festival screenings during the recently completed event. Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's film, winner of a special jury prize for outstanding achievement in documentary, managed to maintain consistent buzz in a festival that hosted close to 300 titles, including high profile films such as "Mission Impossible III" and "Poseidon." "Jesus Camp" steps into the right end of America's cultural divide, profiling a group of Evangelical Christians who home school their children, evangelize on the streets, and use their considerable political clout to promote their conservative ideals. Unable to attend recent festival, Becky Fischer spoke with indieWIRE this week about the film and its recent New York City screenings.

Affable, determined and possessing a strong religious conviction, Fischer believes children possess a uniquely strong ability to serve God and has made it her life's work to reach out to children to be activists for the Lord. Through Kids In Ministry International, she conducts conferences and operates a summer camp for children and teens designed to instill a deeper devotion to God and their brand of Evangelical Christianity, in addition to unleashing a call to activism.

Scenes of children proselytizing and learning about creationism in addition to a host of conservative principles engendered some unease amongst the generally liberal New York audiences during the Tribeca Film Festival, many of whom had questions for directors Grady and Ewing about Fischer who was unable to attend the festival. A screening in Manhattan's East Village late last week, with even documentary filmmaker Michael Moore in attendance, reportedly became quite a raucous event as audience members reacted loudly to the film and Fischer, in particular.

"I've only seen [the film] one time, and I was still processing what was left out and left in. [But from] what I've seen, I think [Grady and Ewing] did a great job," said Fischer. "I think they captured the beautiful concepts of what we represent."

While generally pleased with how the film turned out, she told indieWIRE that she initially felt a bit uncomfortable with the inclusion of some of the overtly political segments in the film, which culminate in a debate between Fischer and Air America radio commentator Mike Papantonio (whose on-air comments are used to frame the documentary). Papantonio, described as an active Methodist, is a frequent critic of the Evangelical movement.

A particularly inflammatory scene that heightens the political overtones for viewers takes place at a revival meeting lead by Fischer and her associates, in front of well over 100 children. In the scene, Fischer takes a life-size standup photo of President George W. Bush to the stage, and with a large American flag in the background, asks the crowd to raise their hands towards him in prayer.

"I didn't realize how the secular world viewed what we were doing," Fischer said, adding that Grady and Ewing spent about a year filming her -- including a visit to the Kids On Fire summer camp in Devil's Lake, ND -- explaining that political side of the equation had only come up toward the end of shooting.

"When we took out [an] image of Bush, it turned political, but to us, it's not political - it's Biblical," she said.

"All you have to do is mention words like abortion, homosexuality and President Bush to [garner] strong feelings from people," said Fischer who maintained that using images of the U.S. President and the flags of the U.S. and Israel were not meant to be overtly political. "We are commanded to pray for our leaders and we're commanded [by the Bible] to pray for Israel. So it was a surprise to me because we don't think of this as political. But from a secular point-of-view, I can see how it's viewed politically."

Becky Fischer and her fellow Evangelicals view Bush as a primary hope in pursuing their agenda regarding abortion rights, prayer in school, and gay rights, and the film captures the emotional devotion instilled within a new young generation of Evangelicals. At the film's world premiere on the first weekend of the festival, many in the mostly liberal New York audience could be overheard saying that the film should be a call to arms for people on the left side of the cultural/political divide.

A scene from Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's doc "Jesus Camp." Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival.

As for the filmmakers themselves, Fischer said she felt a duty to shield Grady and Ewing from her fellow Evangelicals who might have been tempted to witness to them during the making of the movie. She said that fellow believers had come to her privately to inquire about the filmmaker's own religious beliefs, but while Fischer and the filmmakers discussed religion, she added, "There wasn't a conscious effort to make them feel uncomfortable. It wasn't why they were here. I know that Evangelicals can do that, but I didn't [want them to feel uncomfortable]."

After shooting wrapped, Fischer said that Grady and Ewing shared their beliefs with her, and any disagreements that might exist have not compromised the film. "Rachel and Heidi have said their personal beliefs have nothing to do with the film. I think they did an extremely good job in not letting their personal beliefs interfere with the making of this film."

Beyond the ideological and the political, Fischer hopes the film will have an empowering effect on the role of children in spiritual life and also wake adults in the movement up to their voices and potential. "Kids have been sidelined within the Christian circle. I hope that the Christian community will know how children can be powerhouses in spiritual things."

In what may come as some surprise to more than a few Tribeca viewers of "Jesus Camp," Fischer indicated that religion is not necessarily automatically accepted by today's young. "We have kids leaving the church in droves because they find it boring. We want to give the kids more mature spiritual food."

During the half-hour phone telephone conversation, Fischer said she hoped to clear up what she considered have been misrepresentations by media outlets, including indieWIRE, about her efforts with the "Kids on Fire" camp (now called "Families on Fire."), during the time period captured in the film.

"I read in several reviews that I'm trying to raise the next Billy Graham and that's not true. I'm trying to raise kids who have a strong faith in their God and know why they believe it."

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16 Comments

  • abond | March 7, 2007 4:26 AMReply

    It is frightening how twisted religion can become in the minds of naive people. I grew up in a 100% one-religion small town. The people were afraid of anything or anyone that was different and the most judgmental community I have ever lived in.

    What struck me about this movie was the complicated message Fisher and group were asking kids to understand. When they preach things like "war" and "god's army" and tell kids they have some divine, how are the kids supposed to interpret that?

    What I didn't hear in that movie was messages of tolerance and love and peace. My fear is that they are bringing up a whole new generation of hate-mongers and ignorant, intolerant fanatics.

    We have seen the danger of mixing religious fanaticism, divine calling and intolerance - look at the LeBaron group in Utah and their ideas of blood atonement.

    I really think that if Jesus is watching all this he is just shaking his head at how we could mix up such a simple and beautiful message.

  • atr | September 19, 2006 8:40 AMReply

    I went to a Christian school where they pulled this Hitler-esque bull$#!t and terrorized children into believing their rhetoric or burning in hell. It was not a nice way to grow up. I'll have to see the film to make a full judgement, but I can tell you that it's hard to be open-minded towards a set of people screaming about war and enemies. GOD HAS NO ENEMIES. These are spiritually stunted, sick people. It's sad to me to see kids dragged into this kind of diseased mindset, but if I survived it, maybe they will too.

  • atr | September 19, 2006 8:39 AMReply

    I went to a Christian school where they pulled this Hitler-esque bull$#!t and terrorized children into believing their rhetoric or burning in hell. It was not a nice way to grow up. I'll have to see the film to make a full judgement, but I can tell you that it's hard to be open-minded towards a set of people screaming about war and enemies. GOD HAS NO ENEMIES. These are spiritually stunted, sick people. It's sad to me to see kids dragged into this kind of diseased mindset, but if I survived it, maybe they will too.

  • atr | September 19, 2006 8:38 AMReply

    I went to a Christian school where they pulled this Hitler-esque bull$#!t and terrorized children into believing their rhetoric or burning in hell. It was not a nice way to grow up. I'll have to see the film to make a full judgement, but I can tell you that it's hard to be open-minded towards a set of people screaming about war and enemies. GOD HAS NO ENEMIES. These are spiritually stunted, sick people. It's sad to me to see kids dragged into this kind of disease, but if I survived it, maybe they will too.

  • rkohll | September 14, 2006 4:49 AMReply

    "...as this is exactly the misconceptions that they promote due to their lack of understanding concerning the true purpose of God's word."

    I think that what we are worried about is creationism being taught in schools, the wall between church and state coming down and a theocratic government. Am I wrong in thinking that these are the goals of Jesus Camp?

    "Raising "killers"... nonsense! Comparing this to Muslim kids with bombs and rifles that kill inocent people?

    ...seems to be an apt analogy, considering that the clear thought behind both fundamentalist Muslims and Christians is "I know I'm right because God says so!"

    "Let's not forget that God's word teaches forgiveness and love toward one another. Not killing."

    A debatable point, considering the teachings of the Old Testament and the history of the Crusades, witch-killings and Inquisition which give us a worrying taste of what happens when fundamentalist Christianity takes power.

    "The ironic thing is that even with their lack of knowledge, they admit, by their own statements, their "belief" in God's awsome power. Otherwise, they wouldn't be so worried."

    I think we're more worried about what people who believe they are acting in God's name will do.

    "They should also remember, (to use a secular analogy that they sure can understand), that the one in the white hat always wins over the ones in the black hats!

    Oh, I don't think there is any inevitability about progress, enlightenment and secularisation winning.

    "AK47's? When did a rifle or bomb GIVE LIFE?"

    Personally, I'm thinking less of guns or bombs and more of zombie movies...join us...join us...

  • rkohll | September 14, 2006 4:44 AMReply

    "...as this is exactly the misconceptions that they promote due to their lack of understanding concerning the true purpose of God's word."

    I think that what we are worried about is creationism being taught in schools, the wall between church and state coming down and a theocratic government. Am I wrong in thinking that these are the goals of Jesus Camp?

    "Raising "killers"... nonsense! Comparing this to Muslim kids with bombs and rifles that kill inocent people?

    ...seems to be an apt analogy, considering that the clear thought behind both fundamentalist Muslims and Christians is "I know I'm right because God says so!"

    "Let's not forget that God's word teaches forgiveness and love toward one another. Not killing."

    A debatable point, considering the teachings of the Old Testament and the history of the Crusades, witch-killings and Inquisition which give us a worrying taste of what happens when fundamentalist Christianity takes power.

    "The ironic thing is that even with their lack of knowledge, they admit, by their own statements, their "belief" in God's awsome power. Otherwise, they wouldn't be so worried."

    I think we're more worried about what people who believe they are acting in God's name will do.

    "They should also remember, (to use a secular analogy that they sure can understand), that the one in the white hat always wins over the ones in the black hats!

    Oh, I don't think there is any inevitability about progress, enlightenment and secularisation winning.

    "AK47's? When did a rifle or bomb GIVE LIFE?"

    Personally, I'm thinking less of guns or bombs and more of zombie movies...join us...join us...

  • rkohll | September 14, 2006 4:43 AMReply

    "...as this is exactly the misconceptions that they promote due to their lack of understanding concerning the true purpose of God's word."

    I think that what we are worried about is creationism being taught in schools, the wall between church and state coming down and a theocratic government. Am I wrong in thinking that these are the goals of Jesus Camp?

    "Raising "killers"... nonsense! Comparing this to Muslim kids with bombs and rifles that kill inocent people?

    ...seems to be an apt analogy, considering that the clear thought behind both fundamentalist Muslims and Christians is "I know I'm right because God says so!"

    "Let's not forget that God's word teaches forgiveness and love toward one another. Not killing."

    A debatable point, considering the teachings of the Old Testament and the history of the Crusades, witch-killings and Inquisition which give us a worrying taste of what happens when fundamentalist Christianity takes power.

    "The ironic thing is that even with their lack of knowledge, they admit, by their own statements, their "belief" in God's awsome power. Otherwise, they wouldn't be so worried."

    I think we're more worried about what people who believe they are acting in God's name will do.

    "They should also remember, (to use a secular analogy that they sure can understand), that the one in the white hat always wins over the ones in the black hats!

    Oh, I don't think there is any inevitability about progress, enlightenment and secularisation winning.

    "AK47's? When did a rifle or bomb GIVE LIFE?"

    Personally, I'm thinking less of guns or bombs and more of zombie movies...join us...join us...

  • rkohll | September 14, 2006 4:35 AMReply

    "...as this is exactly the misconceptions that they promote due to their lack of understanding concerning the true purpose of God's word."

    I think that what we are worried about is creationism being taught in schools, the wall between church and state coming down and a theocratic government. Am I wrong in thinking that these are the goals of Jesus Camp?

    "Raising "killers"... nonsense! Comparing this to Muslim kids with bombs and rifles that kill inocent people?

    ...seems to be an apt analogy, considering that the clear thought behind both fundamentalist Muslims and Christians is "I know I'm right because God says so!"

    "Let's not forget that God's word teaches forgiveness and love toward one another. Not killing."

    A debatable point, considering the teachings of the Old Testament and the history of the Crusades, witch-killings and Inquisition which give us a worrying taste of what happens when fundamentalist Christianity takes power.

    "The ironic thing is that even with their lack of knowledge, they admit, by their own statements, their "belief" in God's awsome power. Otherwise, they wouldn't be so worried."

    I think we're more worried about what people who believe they are acting in God's name will do.

    "They should also remember, (to use a secular analogy that they sure can understand), that the one in the white hat always wins over the ones in the black hats!

    Oh, I don't think there is any inevitability about progress, enlightenment and secularisation winning.

    "AK47's? When did a rifle or bomb GIVE LIFE?"

    Personally, I'm thinking less of guns or bombs and more of zombie movies...join us...join us...

  • rkohll | September 14, 2006 1:23 AMReply

    dear me...sorry about the multiple posting!

  • signs and wonders | September 3, 2006 10:52 AMReply

    I just have to laugh (with a lot of concern) at the comments of Anthony and Collatine as this is exactly the misconceptions that they promote due to their lack of understanding concerning the true purpose of God's word. Raising "killers"... nonsense! Comparing this to Muslim kids with bombs and rifles that kill inocent people? Let's not forget that God's word teaches forgiveness and love toward one another. Not killing. The ironic thing is that even with their lack of knowledge, they admit, by their own statements, their "belief" in God's awsome power. Otherwise, they wouldn't be so worried. They should also remember, (to use a secular analogy that they sure can understand), that the one in the white hat always wins over the ones in the black hats! AK47's? When did a rifle or bomb GIVE LIFE?

  • signs and wonders | September 3, 2006 9:07 AMReply

    I just have to laugh (with a lot of concern) at the comments of Anthony and Collatine as this is exactly the misconceptions that they promote due to their lack of understanding concerning the true purpose of God's word. Raising "killers"... nonsense! Comparing this to Muslim kids with bombs and rifles that kill inocent people? Let's not forget that God's word teaches forgiveness and love toward one another. Not killing. The ironic thing is that even with their lack of knowledge, they admit, by their own statements, their "belief" in God's awsome power. Otherwise, they wouldn't be so worried. They should also remember, (to use a secular analogy that they sure can understand), that the one in the white hat always wins over the ones in the black hats! AK47's? When did a rifle or bomb GIVE LIFE?

  • signs and wonders | September 3, 2006 9:04 AMReply

    I just have to laugh (with a lot of concern) at the comments of Anthony and Collatine as this is exactly the misconceptions that they promote due to their lack of understanding concerning the true purpose of God's word. Raising "killers"... nonsense! Comparing this to Muslim kids with bombs and rifles that kill inocent people? Let's not forget that God's word teaches forgiveness and love toward one another. Not killing. The ironic thing is that even with their lack of knowledge, they admit, by their own statements, their "belief" in God's awsome power. Otherwise, they wouldn't be so worried. They should also remember, (to use a secular analogy that they sure can understand), that the one in the white hat always wins over the ones in the black hats! AK47's? When did a rifle or bomb GIVE LIFE?

  • duane222 | June 19, 2006 10:12 AMReply

    I had children at the camp and in the movie and I find Anthony's & Collantine's fearful over-reactions sadly typical but also amusing knowing my kids and their friends. Violence toward others is not advocated at all. Our "battle" is not against flesh and blood. Our bombs are prayer, our swords are words, our sheilds are faith. We have your secular cities surrounded, but we come in peace, with hope and love, not AK47's.

  • duane222 | June 19, 2006 10:05 AMReply

    I had children at the camp and in the movie and I find Anthony's & Collantine's fearful over-reactions sadly typical but also amusing knowing my kids and their friends. Violence toward others is not advocated at all. Our "battle" is not against flesh and blood. Our bombs are prayer, our swords are words, our sheilds are faith. We have your secular cities surrounded, but we come in peace, with hope and love, not AK47's.

  • collatine | May 11, 2006 9:18 AMReply

    Almost as scary as those Muslim kids with bombs and AK47s strapped to them.

  • anthony | May 11, 2006 4:39 AMReply

    What's missing from this article is the sense (from the film) that Becky Fischer is brainwashing impressionable kids and turning them into Christian warriors. There is an overt political militancy to the actions seen at the Kids on Fire Camp. If Fischer says she's not raising the next Billy Graham, I believe it: She seems to be raising the next James Kopp -- the man murdered a New York state obstetrician in 1998.