Inside the Jesus Camp; It Was This Week's Surprise Oscar Nomination- a Shocking Expose of an Extreme U.S. Christian Children's Camp. So Just How Dangerous Is the Rise of the Religious Right?

Article excerpt

Byline: TESS STIMSON

AN ANGELIC blond boy of perhaps seven falls to his knees, tears pouring down his cheeks, his arms outstretched as he begs for salvation.

Around him, children perform war dances in camouflage and face-paint, making straight-armed salutes to a deafening soundtrack of heavy metal.

They weep and speak in tongues as they are 'seized by the Holy Spirit'.

Other youngsters whip themselves into a frenzy before a 7ft cardboard cut-out of President Bush, shouting out blessings to him as a 'holy man'.

Nearby, children as young as six cradle plastic replicas of seven-weekold foetuses, holding them aloft and sobbing as they pray for an end to abortion, calling for 'righteous judges' to help 'reclaim America for Christ'.

These are just some of the scenes in a controversial documentary about a Christian summer camp for children, which has gripped and appalled the U.S.

in equal measure. This week, it won an Oscar nomination, reflecting the powerful response it has triggered.

It is the latest twist in the religious debate raging in the U.S., sparked by the Rightwing, deeply religious President George W. Bush driving through controversial antiabortion and antigay legislation, and likening his war on terror to a religious crusade.

Now, the film is being seized on by the liberal Left and Democrats as exposing a new front in the drive to make America a Puritan state.

Jesus Camp follows a group of youngsters at the Kids On Fire evangelical Bible camp, in the ironically named Devil's Lake, North Dakota.

Run through the summer for children aged from six to 13, it is one of several fee-paying camps where instead of ghost stories and toasted marshmallows around the campfire, children are taught what it means to be a 'dedicated Christian soldier in God's army'.

The camp is overseen by Becky Fischer, who proclaims: 'I want to see these children laying down their lives for the Gospel as much as children commit themselves to religious ideals in Palestine, Pakistan and all those different places.' The theme of religious conquest is stamped through the film, with one young camper saying: 'A lot of people die for God, and they're not afraid.' A boy adds: 'We're kinda being trained to be warriors, only in a more fun way.' Unsurprisingly, the film by two New York documentary-makers has evoked a firestorm of criticism since its release in the U.S. three weeks ago, setting evangelicals against non-believers.

The Chicago Sun-Times described it as 'thoroughly troubling', claiming the children were traumatised and scarred.

Another newspaper prayed the film would 'open slumbering minds' to the fact 'fundamentalists of this type wish to impose a Christian kind of sharia law on the United States, in which religion will no longer be a purely personal matter'.

One film festival gave it their Scariest Movie of the Year Award, while critics claim evangelicals are 'brainwashing' children, turning them into 'terrorists'.

Fischer denies the charge, saying: 'If someone doesn't like what someone else is teaching their child, that's considered brainwashing.

'But when they teach their own children their own belief system, it's just good parenting.' While she is resolute in her defence of the radical practices the film exposes, those on the other side of the divide are equally vocal in their condemnation.

Mike Papantonio, a liberal Christian talk show host who appears in the film, says: 'There is a religious, political army of foot soldiers out there who are being directed by a political Right. We've been asleep at the wheel as this conservative, fundamentalist element takes control in this country.'

Supporters of the movie say it does no more than show evangelical Churches trying to keep children in the faith, and the political slant given by the filmmakers is 'designed to demonise'. …