It’s the 21st century, and Jesus Christ has never been hotter. There’s an American strain of radical Christianity hidden in plain sight, ranging from charismatic Evangelicals to a new subset of pierced, punk believers flocking to makeshift “churches” held in bars and concert halls. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s fall 2006 documentary Jesus Camp turned the camera lens on the youngest members of God’s army—boys and girls at the ‘Kids on Fire’ retreat whose tearful ecstasies, speaking in tongues, and cardboard cut-outs of President Bush shocked the morning talk show circuit. Lauren Sandler, an editor at Salon, released her book Righteous in September. This examination of alternative Christians focuses on the underground movement happening outside of the typical parameters of organized religion—teenagers and 20-somethings who are combining countercultural attitudes with strict faith. Together, Jesus Camp and Righteous form an eerily powerful picture of an American movement that is passionate and mobilized, ready to take over from a secular society that has failed to provide the right answers. Anthem sat down with Rachel, Heidi and Lauren to talk about mega churches, plastic fetuses, what Jesus has to do with Iraq and why the Red State/Blue State divide doesn’t matter very much at all.
Lauren Sandler: Right now polling numbers suggest that right now the church is losing kids. I don’t trust them, and I think this misunderstands the way this whole thing is working. It’s not about church.
Rachel Grady: It’s more about lifestyle.
LS: It’s totally about lifestyle. There are a huge number of people I have spent time with in different states, they’re cowboys or skateboarders or you name it, who think religion and church is the problem with Christianity. They feel that their personal relationship with Jesus is something that they don’t need to go to church to express. They feel like the mentality that you do something on a Sunday and something different six days a week is what they’re rebelling against because that’s their parents’ way. It’s the album you listen to: it’s the way you talk to your friends. I think just to see all of these kids completely caught up in this—I’d already interviewed a lot of them about how they thought that, you know, Iraq is a war that has been fought to bring back Jesus, how the military is God’s mission tool.
Heidi Ewing: One of the kids in our film, Tory, her father volunteers during our production, and goes off to Iraq. He’s 43.
RG: He said, “Jesus Christ was sent to earth to set people free, and that’s what I’m going to go do.”
LS: A lot of the Airforce guys I hung out with at New Life say that they’re in the military for this purpose. Period.
HE: And they’re not supposed to say that when they’re wearing the military greens, but when you scratch the surface…
RG: Tori’s dad had been in Desert Storm and he said they were baptizing [soldiers] in Kuwait, in the water. Isn’t that wild?! He was really excited, and said: “And I doubt these people would have ever found Christ…I doubt anyone has ever been saved in Kuwait before.”
LS: The fact [is] that there are soldiers fighting this war because they believe it is their Christian duty, and that their efforts in this war will bring back Jesus Christ.
HE: Or accelerate, basically, the battle of Armageddon.
LS: Right, and what’s interesting to me, one of the essential pieces to my book, is the idea that the 60s are happening again. Can you imagine the 60s generation being united with the government and the soldiers who were fighting in Vietnam? That’s what is happening now. You’ve got the whole sub-culture now, you’ve got your kids with the dreadlocks at the Christian rock festivals, wearing their tattoos, the Jesus T-Shirts—and yet they are in line with our administration and with the guys who are going out and fighting this war. That’s what makes them such an excepted monolith.
RG: I think that the focus of your book makes the content of our film more relevant, and that this is part of a bigger youth movement. This isn’t just some fringe-group. Everyone’s under 20, and they are having incredibly powerful life experiences as a child which are going to stick with them forever. Also the political activism—with Patrick Henry, and home school universities now that are direct conduits into positions of power on Capital Hill and in the White House. Their world view is being shared by everyone because of that.
HE: Some radio hosts like to say: “Well they’re prepubescent and they’ll become rebels when they’re thirteen or fourteen.” We always point out that there is this giant net that awaits them, and that’s where your book picks up. Your book picks up from the last frame of our film, the big question mark, which is “What’s going to happen to Levi and Rachael and Tori when they’re teenagers?” Well, possibly—what is says in your book. So I think it’s an interesting sort of companion piece.
LS: Sure. They’ll be activists at Rock For Life, camping out at Cornerstone, and then they’ll be congregates at Morris Hill, you know, teaching wifely submission, and they’ll be home schooling their kids, who’ll attend Patrick Henry college, and then their kids will go on to political careers. You also have a lot of kids who have been raised within a secular world and find it so cold and so overwhelming, and they’re so desperate for meaning and community. Their family isn’t doing it, their friends aren’t doing it, television isn’t doing it; the larger culture is making them feel so purposeless and so homeless within it, that there are these incredible [religious] structures and environments that they can give themselves over to.
HE: Sure, because Europe has the Piazza, the Plaza, and America has the Mega Church. It makes perfect sense to me.
LS: And within that Mega Church you’ve got yourself a group which is your new family, and you’ve got your identity as a born again Christian, and you’ve got your purpose laid out in your purpose-driven life, and you’re created by God to serve God. Full stop. You’re either born into it, like the kids in your film, or you can come to it yourself after feeling like the secular world has failed. But both of those things funnel you into the same movement, with the same incredibly organized apparatus. And that was an amazing thing to see in your film: how intensely organized it is, how intentional the indoctrination process is and how intentionally it connects spirituality with politics and with activism.
HE: The interesting thing about the parents and the minister in our film is that they do not see what they’re doing as political. And we had to almost explain to them and say: “This is why it’s perceived as political: plastic fetus’s, righteous judges…” And they’re saying: “Well, we’re just doing what we think is right. We’re just doing God’s will and we believe that abortion is murder, and God is against murder. We believe that the society is vile and corrupt and we are protecting our kids against that, and would actually like to change what society is ingesting in terms of media because it’s painful and rotten.”
LS: That’s living your life out as a Christian, and that’s where we’re failing as a secular society. We separate politics from our culture; we treat it as though it’s a separate entity, and so you can either be engaged in it or not. We don’t think of these things as, you know, connected as evangelical Christians do. We separate our politics within our lifestyle, so we’re not living out our values the way the Christians are living out theirs. That’s why things feel so separate and so contrived, and that’s one of our major failings.
HE: Well, they don’t really believe that you can have a strong moral compass and a very strict moral code unless it’s connected to religion, and when a secular humanist says: “I can live a moral upright life, without the aid of religion,” they look at that as impossible, or at the very least suspect.
LS: Which is the whole question: Can you do it without God? I’ve had people ask me, ‘How did this happen? How have they become so empowered?’ The bottom line is—and it might be a little uncomfortable for secular liberals to hear this—they care more.
HE: People get mad when we say this but no one [in the born again movement] is doing anything illegal. They are [actively involved], and there is no position in government that is too lowly for them. They work in the PTA. It’s not illegal to raise your children with a different world view. They are not cynical about politics. It’s a throw back to a time when Americans felt like their voice mattered and counted. The right wing evangelical movement is a minority; there are 30 million hardcore right wing Christian voters but there are 300 million Americans. All the evangelicals vote, so of course the loudest voice wins.
LS: When my father and I were campaigning for Kerry in Florida, the day that I decided to write this book, we were driving around going door to door and thinking, ‘There’s no way that you can win an election without backing up a bus to a church and putting everyone on that bus and bringing them to the poll center.’ Churches are the only effectively organized engaged social structures that we have in this country anymore.
HE: So if nobody cares, if nobodies going to vote, if the majority is disinterested, this country will just continue to get more and more conservative. But you know what at the same time we can sit here in New York City in the Regency Hotel, and talk about all these things, but we really like the people in our movie. The kids are great; they prey for us. They’re kind, sweet people. It’s like when you get into the political, it’s this giant mass of people that are successfully altering our society. That’s one conversation. But then when you break it down person by person you’ve got so many well meaning people. Their values are strong and they are kind. They do for others. Their kids hang out at nursing homes.
RG: An ideology is always much more abrasive than a person.
LS: The individuals are incredible. I met so many people who I found so warm, so loving, so empathic, who I enjoyed spending time with so much that you begin to understand why these are people who have chosen to make each other their family. They are total strangers treating other strangers like family. It’s extraordinary; it’s just when you step back…that you see it’s also a political movement. That’s scary. This is the history of evangelizing. You can go back through all of the Awakenings. One of the most famous evangelists in American history, he used to always say that “it doesn’t matter how you lead a man to God, just get him there,” and it is this “by any means necessary” mentality which is fuelled by belief, but is also about marketing, charisma, language, lights and music.
RG: [Secular culture is missing] a unified purpose and a sense of a community. I think that the problem, to be honest, is really simple: It’s that the country is humongous, and honestly I think that’s something that’s been a total divider. We’re physically far from each other and there are no town centers, even in New York City: where is the town square? There isn’t one. That’s why there are so many niches, and so much splintering of interests and everything. I think that we’re pack animals; humans are, and the evangelical community has tapped into that instinct and brought people together, so I think that if secular humanists are feeling threatened by that, that they need to figure out a way to come together as a community and…
HE: Have more dinner parties!
LS: Right! Come on people now / Smile on your brother/ Everybody get together…
RG: Which worked in the 60s and was one of the few times that the counter culture and the secular humanists had a common purpose and a goal, and it worked for a little while. They had a common enemy.
LS: I do believe that this movement has leared almost everything that it is doing from the 60s and that we now need to refocus what secularists invented, and we need to start doing it again.
HE: Good luck!
RG: It was definitely, right from the start, when we were making this film there was a paradigm shift in our thinking. I realized that as much as they’re in a bubble, we’re in a bubble. The world does not revolve around downtown Manhattan; in fact, we’re in the minority. And that was a big wake up call to Heidi and I, was that we’re in a vast minority of people in the United States. Most people are like the people we filmed…
LS: The whole blue state, red state spread is a total fallacy. The Mega Church in my book that I most focus on is in Seattle…We are right now 20 blocks from the evangelical college that just moved into the Empire State Building. They moved from rural New Jersey because they wanted to be able to put their kids into MTV and CNN and shake the culture…
HE: Engage in the pop culture instead of reject it. Engage and reshape.
LS: Exactly. That’s the whole emerging movement. There was a kid who said to me in Seattle, “It’s gotten to the point where I see a good looking kid with tattoos and I assume he’s a Christian.” We look around and we see people like us. They look around and see something they’re organizing against—and that’s the big difference.