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Young Americans

Documentaries about John Lennon and far-right Christians both come down to a battle for the hearts and minds of the kids.



The U.S. vs. John Lennon s

Directed and written by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld

Jesus Camp ss

Directed and written by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

The U.S. vs. John Lennon

WHERE Century 12 and CineArts 6, Landmark's Century Centre

Jesus Camp

WHERE Century 12 and CineArts 6, Pipers Alley

Two liberal documentaries about the American political scene arrive in town this week, one nostalgic for the past, the other fearful of the future. Affiliated with VH1 and assembled under the watchful eye of Yoko Ono, The U.S. vs. John Lennon revisits the singer's political activism in the late 60s and early 70s, when he tried to use his enormous popularity to mobilize young people against the Vietnam war. Produced in part by A&E, Jesus Camp focuses on a Pentecostal summer camp in North Dakota where a new generation of religious conservatives is being trained for the culture wars. Both films are severely limited by their own agendas--The U.S. vs. John Lennon wants us to end the Iraq war, Jesus Camp wants us to get control of the religious right before it takes over the country--but they share a sense that the minds of kids are the most important battlefield in America.

Of course, Lennon had his own problems with the religious right: his first real brush with controversy came in 1966 when an American fan magazine reprinted his remarks to a British reporter that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus" and that Christianity would "vanish and shrink." The U.S. vs. John Lennon treats this incident briefly, reprising old news footage of Bible Belt disc jockeys condemning the band, the Ku Klux Klan hosting bonfires of Beatles merchandise, and Lennon finally backing down at a press conference in Chicago. In retrospect his crack seems like the opening shot in a war that's still raging in America today, and though he couldn't have been more wrong about Christianity vanishing and shrinking, his clear understanding of his own power over kids must have scared the hell out of some people.

Apparently it scared the hell out of President Nixon, whose harassment of Lennon is comprehensively documented in the movie. John Dean reports that Nixon took note of antiwar protesters singing Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance," and Gordon Liddy confirms that the FBI's surveillance of Lennon and Ono began after they moved from London to New York in September 1971. But the hammer didn't really fall until '72, when Lennon and radical activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin began planning a concert to coincide with the Republican convention in Miami. The 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18, had been signed into law a year earlier, and the prospect of a concert to mobilize the youth vote was apparently more than Nixon could tolerate. At the suggestion of Senator Strom Thurmond, Attorney General John Mitchell directed the Immigration and Naturalization Service to deport Lennon on the basis of an old drug conviction in the United Kingdom, and the ensuing legal battle effectively ended Lennon's political activism, consuming much of his energy for the next three years.

This may be a good story, but it's hardly a new one. Lennon has been dead for a quarter century now, and his life has been raked over by so many books, movies, magazine articles, and TV shows that The U.S. vs. John Lennon barely justifies its own existence. Ono, who controls the rights to Lennon's music and image, has guarded his legacy fiercely. This is particularly unfortunate for directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, because Lennon's rebirth as a radical sloganeer was the knottiest development of his career. His peace activism may have transformed him from pop idol to genuine hero, yet even he admitted that his most political album, 1972's Sometime in New York City, was an artistic fiasco. His most socially potent songs tended to be dreamily disengaged ("All You Need Is Love," "Give Peace a Chance," "Imagine"); when he threw himself into musical sloganeering the results were often excruciating ("War Is Over," "Power to the People").

The U.S. vs. John Lennon isn't so much a history of Lennon's pacifism as a continuation of it, the last bed-in, so to speak, with contemporary figures like Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky on hand to connect Vietnam with Iraq, President Nixon with President Bush, and the FBI's spying on Lennon with the current administration's domestic surveillance. I can't guess whether this will energize today's teens, who were born well after Lennon was gone, or reinvigorate old hippies, who may be planning their retirements to the strains of "Gimme Some Lovin'." But the antiwar movement is in big trouble if the best slogan we can come up with is "What would John do?"

For Becky Fischer, the Pentecostal children's minister at the center of Jesus Camp, the war has just begun. At Christ Triumphant Church in suburban Kansas City, her young charges perform a choreographed musical number set to a pounding electronic dance track, with the little boys in army fatigues and camouflage face paint and the little girls using black rods to execute a sword dance. Noting that Palestinian children are being recruited as jihadi terrorists, she tells the filmmakers, "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 as radically laying down their lives for the gospel." Later, after the action has moved to her annual "Kids on Fire" summer camp in Devil's Lake, North Dakota, she tells a rapt audience of preteens, "Take these prophecies and do what the Apostle Paul said, and make war with them!" They erupt in cheers, and Fischer bellows, "This means war! This means war! This means war!"

Though far more relevant than the Lennon movie, Jesus Camp is also hamstrung by its polemics. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady lump all evangelicals together, failing to distinguish the more fundamentalist Pentecostals, and they've clumsily inserted some unnecessary editorializing from talk-radio host Mike Papantonio, shown holding forth on his Air America show Ring of Fire. Unlike Hell House (2001), a much better documentary about the religious right, Jesus Camp seems less interested in understanding evangelicals than in making secular viewers wet their drawers. But this is undeniably scary stuff: children chanting, weeping, and speaking in tongues like little zombies. Levi, a bright and charming 12-year-old who emerges as the kid most on fire, explains that he was "saved" at age five, and he clearly aspires to a ministry of his own. Ewing and Grady show him at home watching a creationism video and being homeschooled by his mother, who prods him to the conclusion that global warming is a myth. (An intertitle reports that three-quarters of all homeschooled children are evangelicals.)

As Jesus Camp makes shockingly clear, many Christian fundamentalists are on a crusade to remake America, and they've clearly learned a lesson from the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 50s and 60s, which drew on the energy and idealism of young people. One family is shown reciting the "Christian pledge of allegiance," which stresses responsibility to God over country and omits that pesky line about "liberty and justice for all." A prayer meeting during the camp session focuses on abortion, with a guest speaker leading the children in a chant of "Righteous judges! Righteous judges!" At another session a cardboard cutout of President Bush stands in the pulpit receiving the children's prayers. Fischer calls Papantonio's radio show near the end of the movie and claims that she's not trying to indoctrinate her kids politically, but her true feelings are revealed when Papantonio questions her about democracy. "Democracy is designed to destroy itself," she explains, "because we have to give everyone equal freedom."

One might argue that parents have a responsibility to give their children some sort of spiritual upbringing, and teaching morality can be a lot easier inside the framework of organized religion. Yet any mind young enough to be shaped can be misshaped as well: Mark David Chapman, who shot John Lennon to death in 1980, is routinely identified as a "deranged fan," but "deranged fundamentalist" would be more accurate. Born again at age 15, he renounced his former hero worship of Lennon, condemned him as a blasphemer for his "more popular than Jesus" remark, and regaled his Christian friends with a parody of "Imagine" that included the line, "Imagine John Lennon dead." Plenty of other factors contributed to the mental storm that drove him to New York City ten years later, but before leaving his hotel room to stalk the former Beatle, he arranged on the dresser a little tableau that included a pocket Bible. When someone like Becky Fischer programs grade-schoolers to make war in Jesus's name, she may be pulling a trigger even though the shot won't be heard for years.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): AP Photo/Ron Frehm (Lennon).

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