What I Learned at Jesus Camp: Freedom, Indoctrination, and Children
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Mar 16, 2007 at 05:59:20 PM EST
Guest front pager, Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is the President and a Professor of Theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Center for American Progress, where this article first appeared.  The film Jesus Camp, was recently nominated for an Academy Award. -- ed

Jesus Camp is an award-winning documentary about an evangelical camp called Kids on Fire. The movie is neither satire nor a Michael Moore type "shock-umentary" designed to show only the worst aspects of the camp. Pastor Becky Fisher, the camp's leader, has said that she thinks the film represents what she is trying to do. The film, while sympathetic to kids and leaders alike for their beliefs, raises very troubling questions about whether children have the right to be free from extreme political indoctrination, even in religiously motivated political movements that are very sincere.

Make no mistake--the leaders of this camp and its supporters are quite comfortable with the idea that they are training "God's Army" to be warriors in a life-and-death struggle to shape future politics in the United States. The camp makes no pretense at being anything but a way to create a generation of voters who will determine the outcome of elections.

Pastor Becky Fisher is exceptionally clear that her model for training kids to be God's warriors is akin to that of radical Islamic fundamentalism. Fisher talks openly about modeling what she does on what "our enemies" do in camps in "Palestine," and following their practices of indoctrination.

Given Fisher's Christian zeal and radical tactics, what kinds of political evangelism and "warfare" are taught to campers? They pledge allegiance to the "Christian flag" and worship a life-size cardboard statue of President George W. Bush. They shout "under God, under God," have their mouths taped shut with red tape that says "LIFE," and are dropped off to participate in anti-abortion demonstrations on Capitol Hill.

Freedom is a much contested word in our country these days. President Bush used the words "free," "freedom," and "liberty" in his second inaugural address more than 49 times in a twenty minute speech. Yet, as George Lakoff has pointed out in his new book, Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea, what conservatives mean by "freedom" is very different from what progressives (liberals) mean.

Freedom in the conservative lexicon means "freedom to achieve my own ends without any interference from anyone." This is reflected in a scene from Jesus Camp where kids are told to smash coffee mugs with the word "government" written on them. However, another definition of freedom--the progressive definition--is "[F]reedom from being coerced to do things that are neither for your good nor the public good."

In this regard, Jesus Camp raises a number of troubling questions. Should children be used as a means for their parents' political and religious ends, or do they have their own rights to some religious and political freedom in a democracy? How can they learn to be free if they're not allowed to achieve goals separate from their parents and be with those who expose them to different views? How can they become effective citizens in a pluralistic democracy without learning a definition of freedom that includes the public good?

I wondered what I would have said if one of my sons had come home and asked, "Mom, can I go to camp Kids on Fire?" We always encouraged our children while they were growing up to think critically, to ask questions, and not be afraid of cultural differences. I would have been hard pressed to say no, but I also would have had concerns about what they might learn.

I think I would have said about Jesus camp the same thing I said about PG-13 movies before each of them turned 13. "First, your Dad and I have to go, and if we think it's appropriate for your age, you can go. And then we'll have to talk about it." That usually killed their interest in the film--especially the "we'll have to talk about it" part.

I wonder if anyone talks to kids about Jesus camp after they come home--if they're asked to reflect and think critically about what they experienced. Asking questions and thinking critically are essential skills for living in a democracy. They can't be taught by indoctrination--they must be practiced and lived in order to become real.

Unfortunately for all of us--and for the future of our nation--the indoctrination that goes on in Jesus Camp resembles more the training that's needed to live in a Christian theocracy than in a pluralistic democracy.

[see here for a list of more Talk To Action Jesus Camp related stories - ed.]




Display:
I have seen Jesus Camp twice, and I agree that the indoctrination is distinctly theocratic, even though Becky and the other adults involved would probably be loath to call it that themselves.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Mar 16, 2007 at 09:53:31 PM EST

Have finally gotten around to reading Chris Hedges though John Danforth is more my type.  Kids on Fire is scary even to an optimist like me.

I do think this definition--
Freedom in the conservative lexicon means "freedom to achieve my own ends without any interference from anyone." This is reflected in a scene from Jesus Camp where kids are told to smash coffee mugs with the word "government" written on them. However, another definition of freedom--the progressive definition--is "[F]reedom from being coerced to do things that are neither for your good nor the public good."
--would be exactly reverse by the conservatives I know.

by Don Niederfrank on Sat Mar 17, 2007 at 05:14:54 PM EST


This is an incredibly informative post. Thank you for your extremely valuable observations.

But what Jesus Camp is truly about is arousing passion that leads directly to factionalism in its worst form. This is a different dichotomy than that of unrestrained self-interest as Rev.Brooks-Thistlethwaite seems to imply in her supplied definitions of freedom.

Both Hume and Madison wrote of its dangers. Madison, understanding the danger factions represent, sought to make our federal system sturdy enough to contain and withstand them. What is troubling is seeing these children basically giving lessons in "non-civics" (for example, the smashing of the cups marked "government"). To accomplish this goal she appeals to religious anxieties and passions. It is action built upon reflex, not clear thought. As such, it flies in the face of both Classical and contemporary liberal thought.

Pastor Becky Fisher is clearly trying to shape a generation of children to impose their specific religious beliefs upon the general population, even if it conflicts with the aggregate will of the populace. In order to do so, she is not appealing to self-interest--something that requires calculated thought, but to a very different conception of the common good.

Sadly, it is this highly subjective type of "common good" that allows for group cruelties upon minorities, including religious ones. Fisher actually does not want these children to act in their own self-interest, especially when it means self-preservation, since she is instilling the virtues of martyrdom. Instead, she is trying to achieve a type of hyper-communatrianism. This is the complete opposite of what either Enlightenment-derived contemporary liberalism or Barry Goldwater conservatism values; albeit, in varying degrees.


by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Mar 17, 2007 at 08:30:31 PM EST



Thanks for this chance to learn and discuss, Susan

You wrote:

Should children be used as a means for their parents' political and religious ends, or do they have their own rights to some religious and political freedom in a democracy? How can they learn to be free if they're not allowed to achieve goals separate from their parents and be with those who expose them to different views?

I agree with this appeal for "justice for the innocents," and with your implication that justice cannot be served as long as certain brands of child training are not abandoned or outlawed.  However, I doubt there is any recourse if these Charismatics are not open to abandoning their methods, as the public rights of children are not usually on a par with longstanding judicial precedents establishing the right of private self-determination of parents over their offspring (in cases not involving great bodily harm).

But while I doubt that charismatic parents and church leaders will "see" the morally correct answers to your three questions, I think some good may come from trying to make them understand that their right to be morally wrong in this dire matter is not one that is protected by the First Amendment (freedom of religion).  Because I think it is instead dependent upon Fourth Amendment precedents and rulings on citizen rights to privacy and due process.  All of which underlie the Supreme Court's many key decisions which protect citizens against undue molestation of their persons and affairs by the state in as many areas of private decision-making as possible - where no vested interest of the state is concerned (i.e. the right to privacy in medical and childbearing decisions, in choice of mate, of religion, etc., no less than methods of child rearing and raising).


God bless the whole world - - No Exceptions
by John Anngeister on Sun Mar 18, 2007 at 01:56:40 AM EST


I wrote:
their right to be morally wrong in this dire matter is not one that is protected by the First Amendment (freedom of religion)

Many will (or ought to) recognize that "justice for the innocents" is a meme also used by anti-choice evangelicals, with a view toward generating emotional support of their longstanding claims that abortion should be outlawed as a kind of homicide.

Many religious anti-choice and anti-privacy moralists will be found among these same charismatics who advocate this incendiary "kids on fire" kind of spirituality for tots.

Their anti-choice campaign attacks the very privacy and due process protections which they themselves enjoy in the "right" to be morally wrong in so narrowly determining the emotional and intellectual bent of their own children.


God bless the whole world - - No Exceptions
by John Anngeister on Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 10:09:02 AM EST
Parent



As a member of the UCC, who has followed you for years now, I am proud to have you join us on this site and congratulate you on such a balanced effort taking on what is, to be sure, an extremely troubling phenomenon. Your counsel to parents who do not want to pattern or repeat the behavior of those whose tactics trouble us is wise, to be sure.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Sun Mar 18, 2007 at 06:26:45 PM EST

I haven't yet seen the movie, although I have family members who have sent their children to programs similar to Jesus Camp in the past. I found myself hard-pressed not to recoil in shock at some of what my young cousins said they learned about American history and politics there. Their parents are college graduates and certified teachers, but seemed unconcerned with the distortions. I think, therefore, that your concern, "I wonder if anyone talks to kids about Jesus camp after they come home--if they're asked to reflect and think critically about what they experienced[,]" is secondary to this: Do the parents who send their children to such programs employ critical thinking skills themselves when it comes to anything that conforms to their own world view?

by RevRuthUCC on Sun Mar 18, 2007 at 11:04:02 PM EST


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