Praise the lord and pass the ammunition…

With today being the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, I thought I’d continue on the general theme of ‘extremism‘ I started last week and, in particular, pick up on Gavin’s comment…

Just to be awkward I’d suggest that the biggest trouble to humanity is not from any particular religion but from religious fanatics generally.

Muslim, Chrisitian or Jewish, if they’re taking their religious texts to be literal truth we must worry.

Gavin is in no way being ‘awkward’ with his observation, although personally I’d take things just that one stage further and identify fanaticism in all its many and varied ideological forms as the real threat we should all be taking very seriously.

The psycholanalyst, Milton R Sapirstein, made the following perceptive observation in a 1950 review of L Ron Hubbards book, ‘Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health’…

The real, and, to me, inexcusable danger in dianetics lies in its conception of the amoral, detached, 100 per cent efficient mechanical man – superbly free-floating, unemotional, and unrelated to anything. This is the authoritarian dream, a population of zombies, free to be manipulated by the great brains of the founder, the leader of the inner manipulative clique.

‘A population of zombies, free to be manipulated by the great brains of the founder, the leader of the inner manipulative clique’ – it all sounds unnervingly familar doesn’t it. Sapirstein may have talking about Scientology in his review but he could just have easily have been talking about Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia or the Catholic Church and it would take no imagination whatsoever to extend that comment to everything from ‘Big Man’ politics in Africa to Al Qaeda and modern day Islamic fundamentalism.

As Sapirstein noted, elsewhere, "There is nobody as enslaved as the fanatic, the person in whom one impulse, one value, has assumed ascendancy over all others."…

…Nor, one might also add, is there anyone quite so inclined towards enslaving others than the fanatic –  all of which brings me ot a slowly brewing controversy from the other side of the great pond and a documentary film, which opened in the Midwest this month, called ‘Jesus Camp‘.

To save time on explanations, take a few minutes to watch this video footage (from ABC news) which should give you pretty clear picture of both the content of the film and why it’s stirring up the kind of controversy that prompted one film reviewer to comment…

Cut to the flickering images of children writhing in a spiritual trance on a chapel floor while being hectored about the glory of dying for Christ, and one knows exactly where the first Christian suicide bombers will come from. – Film Journal International

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Finished?

Okay, now you should have the basic picture; ‘Jesus Camp’ is a documentary that follows the experiences of three childen, aged between 9 and 12, during their stay at an evangelical Christian summer camp in North Dakota run by Pastor Becky Fischer, who gave the film what appears to be rapidly becoming its signature quotation…

"I want to see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam… I want to see them radically laying down their lives for the gospel, as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine."

Not the most reassuring of ideas is it?

Summer camps are one of the peculiarly American institutions which, I’d guess most people over here would think of in terms of the odd Charlie Brown cartoon, episode of the Simpsons or as a place that a few British students slope off to over the summer for a bit of work experience and a cheap holiday in the States. The idea of summer camps still tends conjure up a ‘woodsy’ image of log cabins, hiking, canoeing and campfires (with the occasional psychotic killer in a hockey mask thrown in if you’re into those kinds of films), one that – hockey masked psychos aside –  seems a fairly harmless if readily satirised American tradition…

…at least you’d be forgiven for thinking that until you’d watched that video and discovered that along with all the usual Sierra Club stuff, Pastor Fischer’s ‘Kids on Fire’ summer camp where camp also throws in a bit of  speaking in tongues, praying for an end to abortion, ‘worshipping’ before a picture of George W Bush [Fischer’s take on that scene is that they were praying for the president] and prancing around on stage in camoflage paint and combat trousers in a shitkickers for Jesus version of ‘Stomp’.

As you might expect, the film’s already drawing a bit of mixed reaction over the pond, despite the best efforts of its distribution company (Magnolia) to avoid getting the film tagged with a Michael Moore-style reputation that would kill off any effective chance of it finding an audience amongst evangelical Christians. They even went so far as to try and withdraw it from Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival in order to avoid the usual backlash that critiques, polemics and exposes dealing with the Christian Right usually run into, which – although it was still shown without their permission, so I guess that Mike likes it… [It won the festival award for scariest movie].

..and so, apparently, does the adult star turn in the film, Becky Fischer, who’s happily promoting the film even though Rev. Ted Haggard, who you might recall as the rather intimidating evangelical preacher in Richard Dawkin’s polemical Channel 4 series, ‘The Root of All Evil’, appears to prefer to distance himself from the whole project by the now standard method of blaming the godless secularists for for trying stitch the fundies up…

"It does represent a small portion of the charismatic movement, but I think it demonizes it," said Haggard, a charismatic Christian who does not usually speak in tongues from the pulpit [he has a private prayer booth for that kind of thing]. "Secularists are hoping that evangelical Christians and radicalized Muslims are essentially the same, which is why they will love this film. – Denver Post

As a parent, the limited amount of footage I’ve seen so far makes for desperately uncomfortable viewing. I’ve always felt that if I achieve nothing else as a parent, the one thing I want my kids to understand is that there is no more important freedom in life than the freedom to think for yourself, a concept that is unequivocally alien to charismatic Christians, like Becky Fischer, for all that it is enshrined (by implcation) in the US First Amendment…

I clearly remember Catholics and Communists both saying years ago saying "Give us a child until they are seven years old and we will have them for life!" They know something Christians don’t know. – Becky Fischer answering questions about Jesus Camp on the Kids in Ministry website.

[If the phrase ‘Give Me the Child Until He Is Seven and I Will Show You the Man’ was ever used in a Marxist/Communist context then it was only after it was borrowed from the Jesuits, which is where the quotation originated – note also Fischer’s freudian slip in excluding Catholicism from her personal definition of Christianity…]

Indeed, for all Fischer’s current attempts to downplay the militancy displayed in the film she has quite a propensity for making revealing Freudian slips, as can be seen from the first chapter of her book ‘Redefining Children’s Ministry in the 21st Century‘, which she recommends people read to get a more ‘accurate’ picture of her work than is shown in ‘Jesus Camp’…

You need only to do a quick search on the Internet under “Palestinian children” to see how serious our enemy is about training their kids to walk in their vision. At all costs, we must redefine children’s ministry in the 21st century if we are to save this next generation…

And…

Other results from Barna’s Research has shown two out of three children still do not know Jesus as savior by age thirteen, that most of them do not know what worship is, and only three out of ten are absolutely committed to Christianity. I can add to these thoughts from my experiences as I travel around the world and the United States and ask for a show of hands in churches almost everywhere I go. Only a fraction of our children are filled with the Holy Spirit, speak in tongues, have ever heard the voice of God, know what it is to be led by His Spirit, or are aware of feeling His presence in a church service or otherwise. In other words, regardless of denominational affiliation, they have no legitimate, working, intimate relationship the Living God on any level after twelve years of being under our tutelage. What’s wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with ‘this picture’ indeed – just about everything when the picture that Fischer wants to see is one of kids ‘speaking in tongues’ and ‘hearing the voice of god’.

Intriguingly, Fischer’s citation of research by George Barna, whose market research company, The Barna Group, specialises in studying non-profit and Christian groups, leads one to an extremely illuminating tale, which nicely illustrates the rigid state of denial that permeates the ‘Religious Right’ in the US.

In December 1999, Barna released a study on divorce rates in the US that, contrary to their own self-image, showed that conservative Christians had the highest divorce rates in the US, while atheists has the lowest (sorted by religious adherence/non-adherence, obviously) . Sorting the data by region also demonstrated that divorce rates were lowest in the liberal North-East and highest in the conservative South, all which rather nicely backs up Barna’s primary findings, much to the obvious chagrin of evangelical Christians, who launched an immediate attack on Barna’s research; one which eventually resulted in the withdrawal of the report from publication, although not before Barna has issued this statement in its defence…

While it may be alarming to discover that born again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce, that pattern has been in place for quite some time. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is that when those individuals experience a divorce many of them feel their community of faith provides rejection rather than support and healing. But the research also raises questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families. The ultimate responsibility for a marriage belongs to the husband and wife, but the high incidence of divorce within the Christian community challenges the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriages.

Equally revealing are some of the criticisms that were thrown at this research…

David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University has said that the survey doesn’t make sense. He based this belief on his assessment that Christians follow biblical models of the family, making a bond that "the secular world doesn’t have…It just stands to reason that the bond of religion is protective of marriage, and I believe it is."

Hell, who needs evidence when you have faith?

Tom Ellis of the Southern Baptist Convention suggests that the Barna poll is inaccurate because the people contacted may have called themselves born-again Christians, without having previously made a real commitment to God. He said: "We believe that there is something more to being a Christian…Just saying you are Christian is not going to guarantee that your marriage is going to stay together."

Does anyone else see how this nicely dovetails with Barna’s comment that…

…when those individuals experience a divorce many of them feel their community of faith provides rejection rather than support and healing

And I mustn’t forget my personal favorite…

Some researchers have suggested that religion may have little or no effect on divorce rates. The apparently higher rate among born-again Christians, and lower rate among Atheists and Agnostics may be due to the influence of financial and/or educational factors.

Diddle-ling-ding ding-ding ding-ding dinnnngggg… [Think banjos… two of ’em]

What the Barna study shows most clearly is a typical response pattern amongst fanatics when faced with a reality that fails to coincide neatly with their personal worldview, one which mixes denial with excommunication such that inconvenient and/or contradictory ‘facts’ – and individuals who in some way exemplify or represent those ‘facts’ – are expelled from the fanatics ‘community’ in order to permit them to deny their existence (or the validity of their existence). The world is divided neatly into ‘them’ and ‘us’ with them serving as ‘the enemy’, however that is conceived, e.g. Satan, Capitalism, Communism, etc…

It’s not the case that secularists are trying to find parallels between evangelical Christianity and radical Islamism, as Ted Haggard tries to suggest, but rather that when one looks at the extremes of any political, religious or other ideological belief system, at the realms inhabited by the fundamentalist sand the fanatics, the basic worldview one encounters is the same throughout, whether you prefer to look at this phenomenon in terms of Sapirstein’s ‘population of zombies’ or Orwell’s broad characterisation of ‘Nationalism’ in his 1945 essay, ‘Notes on Nationalism’ [full text in the sidebar, btw].

By "nationalism" I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled "good" or "bad." But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests…

…The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

When this film finally opens in the UK, it will be interesting see what kind of reaction it provokes, although one would, sadly, expect to see it get the usual treatment accorded to documentary film-making  – a limited art house release, 2 minutes on BBC Breakfast (maybe four if the idiot from Christian Voice starts mass-mailling complaints as usual) and then an eventual showing on Channel 4 (or More 4, E4 or even Film 4 – you get the idea).

Most of the attention it gets you would expect to be split between shallow analysis of the film’s political ‘message’ and earnest hand-wringing at the scenes of ‘children writhing in a spiritual trance on a chapel floor while being hectored about the glory of dying for Christ’ – expect a Trisha ‘special’ on that last point [even though the use of the words ‘Trisha’ and ‘Special’ in the same sentence always struck me an obvious oxymoron], and yet these are what I would consider to be perhaps the least interesting points of public debate that the film might conceivably raise, if only for their being the most obvious.

What will be more interesting to observe is whether this film has any observable impact on the general complacency of the British public towards religious extremism within Christianity, where the overriding assumption seem to be that this is phenomenon that pretty much exists elsewhere and one from which we are largely insulated by the ‘more tea, vicar?’ liberalism of our fast-decaying [and long since politically neutered] Anglican Church – at the very least one might hope that someone notices that there’s really rather a difference between Becky Fischer and the Vicar of Dibley…

Jesus Camp has drawn very little attention from the mainstream media on this side of the big pond; a short report on Channel 4 and the shallow Guardian piece linked to a couple of paragraphs ago appear to be as much interest as the British MSM can summon up to date and yet as crass and simplistic as parallels with Islamic radicalism anf the cult of the suicide bomber might be, it remains a fact that had this film been shot in a Pakistani Madrassa or a Hamas [or Hezbollah] compound, the press [and bloggers] would already be all over it like a rash…

…at the very least Harry’s Place would already be well into it usual spluttering paroxysms on the subject of ‘Islamo-fascism’ and looking out with all the vigilence they could muster for the ‘Galloway connection’, while over at the Daily Mail they’d have had to put Mad Mel Phillips under a fortnight’s sedation just to stop her head exploding.

Having mentioned Mad Mel, I should say that I really do like this piece by Jamie K over at Blood & Treasure

It’s pretty easy to see how people like Melanie Phillips got to the apocalypse, since they share many of the basic notions of Islamic fundamentalists on matters such as the existence of evil and the importance of making militant distinctions between right and wrong. From their point of view there’s no way in which a movement which enshrines these notions can be anything but an existential threat to the decadent, slack-twisted liberal west, etc.

However the real, if unstated, question this film seems likely to pose, particularly for the political left here and in America is one of whether we should now be carefully re-evaluating the so-called ‘War Against Terror’ in light of the obvious admiration that Fischer and those like her – some 30% of ‘Born Again’ Christians in the US are thought to belong to ‘charismatic’ evangelical churches, which equates to around 30 million people (10% of the US population in total) – exhibit towards the methods (although not the beliefs, naturally) of the ‘Jihadis’ and questioning more closely the motives and religious/political aspirations of the Christian Right and the degree of influence that claim to assumed over American political culture..?

After all, isn’t terrorism merely the most obvious and visible symptom of a deeper malaise and means to an end rather than an end in itself.

As importantly, can we (meaning the political ‘left’) actually engage rationally in such an important debate without it rapidly degenerating into the kind of polemical knockabout that has characterised the ‘decents’ -vs- ‘stoppers’ schism that has largely dominated, and more often than not derailed, left-wing thinking on foreign policy and its relationships with both the US and the Islamic world in recent years?

Can we really trust America?

That’s the question we need to be asking ourselves, not out of a fear of what the US might do as a consequence of the growing fundamentalist influence on its political culture but out of a fear of what it might become…

End Note…

Oops – forget to mention (and link to) this piece from Time magazine, which is well worth reading and hits a particular important nail squarely on the head…

What is recorded in Jesus Camp is an hysterical anti-educational effort — an attempt not to open young minds to the possibilities of the world, but to close them down, to breed a generation of fanatics. You witness weeping, wailing, even talking in tongues, you witness ministers whipping up passionate frenzies, both agonized and ecstatic, in 9- and 10-year-olds who cannot possibly understand the emotions they are venting or reasonably control them. You also see in these children the beginnings of dangerous paranoia which is the most mysterious aspect of the film.

5 thoughts on “Praise the lord and pass the ammunition…

  1. As an evangelical, I agree with much of what is said about the extremes of what Becky Fischer teaches these poor kids. She is a fool. What she does is wrong. The children are being manipulated. But manipulated into extreme expressions of emotion, not suicide bombing.

    There is no comparison between, on the one hand, trying to force a child to weep over the state of lost souls and to preach the gospel to them (which seems to be what Fischer does) and on the other hand, teaching them that non-believers are sub-human scum who deserve death (which is what Islamic extremists do).

    The fact that you can’t see the difference is, genuinely, terrifying. Because you will use this kind of argument to try to take away basic freedoms from Christians.

  2. The most troubling part of this is the intense focus on death–Becky Fischer is instilling in her charges the belief that the highest accomplishment is dying for God. It brings to mind Freud’s theory of Thanatos—the urge to return to nothing. If these young children are brought up to view life and living as something profoundly negative, they will have little respect for their own lives or the lives of others.

    Perhaps that is the solution to the problem of securing willing foot soldiers for America’s imperial wars: a society of people willing to sacrifice themselves and their children.

  3. Adam,

    I can’t get over your last sentence: in a world where there really are societies that exhibit death cults (Palestine, for one, if BBC2’s recent Tea Boy Of Gaza documentary is accurate) you turn a blind eye to reality, exaggerating the impact of a tiny (largely) American cult with absolutely no obvious, proven role in their society.
    I also notice the implication that only the brainwashed could possibly volunteer for these ‘imperial wars’, into which you might conceivably lump the campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan – who couldn’t possibly be described as morbid religious extremists…

    Double standards.

  4. However the real, if unstated, question this film seems likely to pose, particularly for the political left here and in America is one of whether we should now be carefully re-evaluating the so-called

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