Ten-year-old Andrew Sommerkamp, with his shy demeanor and floppy blond hair, mounts the stage of the Kids On Fire church camp, and nervously tells the crowd that he’s struggling with his belief in God. He’d spent days watching his fellow Christian campers weep uncontrollably, repenting and begging God’s forgiveness, and he has a confession to share.
“I just want to talk about belief in God … I’ve been having a hard time with it,” he says, staring at the ground, scared and confused as the other kids look around at each other with anxiety in their eyes. “To believe in God is hard because you don’t see him, you don’t know him much. Sometimes I don’t even believe what the Bible says. It makes me a faker, it makes me feel guilty and bad.”
It’s one of several emotionally exhausting scenes in the 2006 documentary, Jesus Camp. Over the course of its celebrated and contested life, Jesus Camp has become a Rorschach test for audiences: some evangelicals see it as a fair representation of their culture, while secular, left-leaning audiences typically see an expose against a malicious force of right-wing indoctrination, often walking away with one angry phrase on their lips: child abuse.
Ten years later, Sommerkamp (yes, that’s his real name) has abandoned evangelical Christianity, living with a group of spiritual seekers in Mount Shasta, California. His split from the evangelical world happening when his father came out as gay. He says he spent several years angry at the church, but has since discovered peace in eastern mysticism, quantum mechanics, and psychotropic drugs.
“Was it child abuse? Yes and no,” he said in a recent interview, about his time at Kids on Fire church camp. “I think they had the best of intentions, but I see it as sick people trying to treat sick people. It’s their coping mechanism for figuring out why we’re alive. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, though, because it allowed me at such a young age to question my existence.”
‘I have peace of mind’
Levi O’Brien was 12 when he was featured in Jesus Camp, sporting an enormous rat-tail, oversized T-shirts, and an unusually confident demeanor. Unlike Sommerkamp, in the film, O’Brien was wildly enthusiastic about his faith, speaking passionately about how his life had been transformed by God. It’s an intensity that continues in him today, which he applies to his job as a staff member of World Revival Ministries.
He says that people are often shocked that he’s turned out to be a happy, healthy young man who wasn’t traumatized by his experiences at Jesus Camp.
“I’ve been asked the same question hundreds of times by people from all over the world: do you believe you are the way you are because of how you were raised?” he says. “Isn’t everybody?
“And let’s look at the outcome: I have peace in my mind, I have drive and purpose and character.”
According to child psychologist Valerie Tarico, an outspoken critic of evangelical culture, many children of evangelical upbringing don’t turn out so well.
“One of the problems with faith-based teaching is it teaches children not to trust their own reason and intuition, undermining their ability to have confidence in their own knowledge and ability to process information. There is a lot of psychological damage that follows when people are trained not to trust themselves.”
For many viewers, Jesus Camp was their first exposure to a Pentecostal church service, where crying, screaming, dancing, speaking in tongues and convulsions are as ritualistic as incense at a Catholic ceremony.
Co-director of the film Heidi Ewing said she disagreed with the teachings of the camp, but didn’t feel camp leaders were abusive.
“They’re not doing anything illegal, and if you want to raise your children as liberal progressives, to be amped up about environmentalism and being pro-choice, you can do that,” she said. “Some of the arguments against the film were so knee-jerk, it made me realize the far left and the far right have a lot in common.”
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