Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady/USA/2006; R4
Madman, $29.95 | Reviewed by Alexander Bisley

“IT’S MASSIVE warfare everyday. Let the battle begin,” Ted Haggard fulminates, bringing a mega-church of evangelicals to prayer for President George W Bush and his then Supreme Court nominee, now Justice Samuel Alito. Haggard is (at the time Jesus Camp was made) President of the National Association of Evangelicals, which has more than thirty million of America’s claimed seventy-five million evangelicals. He meets weekly with Bush and his advisors. “We don’t have to debate what we think about homosexual activity, it’s written in The Bible,” homophobic Haggard – subsequently busted for using both crystal meth and gay prostitutes – sermonises. Haggard bullies directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, leering into the camera: “If you use any of this I’ll sue you”. Later, he rubbishes 11-year-old aspirant preacher Levi, a passionate orator.

Levi attends Pentecostal children’s pastor Becky Fischer’s “Kids on Fire” camps at Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. The stuff these kids get put through makes watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ look like a Sunday picnic. “Let me say something about Harry Potter,” Fischer takes a dramatic pause, then continues with an increasingly hectoring tone: “Warlocks are enemies of God. And I don’t care what kind of hero they are, they are an enemy of God. And had it been in the Old Testament Harry Potter would have been put to death.”

Such behaviour is routine. “Who’s ready for some fun?” a South African bellows before initiating a “cup of corrupt government” smashing session. There’s speaking in tongues that makes Borat Saghdiev’s experience look low-key. The kids are repeatedly forced into a distraught state; berated as phonies and hypocrites; and get their mouth taped up as they’re blamed for abortion. Fischer criticises her obedient charges for not having the devotion of Palestine’s six-year old suicide bombers. Madon! Where do you start critiquing such a statement? Richard Dawkins’ contention about religion as child abuse rings true. (That said, and meant, I have problems with Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, authors of The God Delusion and God is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything, for failing to sufficiently distinguish between extremism and moderate good faith).

As well as being frightening, Jesus Camp is often hilarious. “Devil we know what you will do,” one staffer setting up technology testifies, “No microphone problems in the name of Jesus.” A religious family pledges allegiance while their dog looks on disapprovingly. Another shot has Fischer crafting up a “punishment for sin” sign on a computer. The humdinger may be kids rhapsodising before a cardboard cutout of Bush.

It’s claimed Bush has returned credibility to Christianity, and global warming isn’t an issue. It’s clear Kansans have to learn intelligent design and Fischer wants liberals to “shake in your boots”. She asserts the extreme left can’t compete with her young warriors. “Animal rights activists eat your heart out”.

Slippery John McCain (falsely described as a “moderate” by the same scandalous media that greased the way for the Bush-Cheney junta and the war in Iraq) is “very proud to have the support of John Hagee”, the terrifying Texan who makes Fischer look liberal.

There’s nothing Christian about such folks, liberal Christian Mike Papantonio argues. His voice of dissent on Air America’s radio programme Ring of Fire is woven through the narrative, providing context and contrast; his interview with Fischer is explosive, tying up Jesus Camp’s themes. Initially speechless after the debate, Papantonio concludes: “The more I hear about it- it just gets crazier and crazier.”

On their fair-minded commentary, Ewing and Grady note that the only subject to denounce the film was Ted Haggard, who was always cynical and hostile to their presence.

Back home, the Te Radar-narrated documentary Destiny in Motion delivered a breezy, amusing account of Destiny Church, capped with a killer final montage. Nicky Hager’s must-read The Hollow Men argued, with thorough documentation, worrying links between the National Party politburo and the Exclusive Brethren. Has New Zealand’s media, keen to channel Investigate zealot Ian Wishart’s lurid conspiracies, adequately investigated the John Key-Brethren connection? Or National’s connections with fundies like Bob McCoskrie, who preach that parents have the God-given right to beat their children?