Legacy of Ideas
Our unavoidable influence on the future
BY MARY O’BRIEN
Last night I watched the documentary Jesus Camp. It’s about an evangelical Christian children’s camp at Devil’s Lake, N.D. The children, ages 6 to about 10, are being taught to “Take back America for Christ.” They hammer ceramic cups representing government that has banned school prayer. They place red strips printed with “LIFE” over their mouths to oppose abortion. They are urged to join the Army of God, opposing, among other forces, Muslim militarists and the warlock Harry Potter. They cry a lot during the camp gatherings, caught up in rock music moments and loud voices reminding them of their fuzzy little sins that will grow larger over time if they aren’t vigilant; and about God wanting them to be his prophets.
Three children in particular are featured. Tory loves to dance to Christian heavy metal because, as she explains, it is for God, not flesh, though, she admits, she sometimes does make the fleshly mistake. Pony-tailed Levi is quite proud of his oratory skills, though, he hastens to add, it is only God speaking through him. He visits Ted Haggard, then pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., to receive advice and encouragement for his skills. Rachel boldly approaches adult strangers with a tract and her simultaneously enthusiastic and foreboding message about the availability of salvation through Christ.
Jesus Camp was lent me by my son, Josh, while he, his wife, her mother, and 2-year old Linus were visiting for five days. While Linus was pretending he was a lizard on a rock; tracking grey fox tracks in the snow (“Oh no!,” he says breathlessly, “Duck and goose!” as he suddenly remembers the song “The Fox Went out on a Chilly Night”); and listening to a book about Clarence, the beaver who is temporarily lost from his family; the children in Jesus Camp are being told they are not animals. Instead, they are informed, each one of us is a potential prophet for whom God has a plan, even when we’re a one-week embryo inside our mother.
One thing adults unavoidably do is influence children. I remember 20 years ago, walking with my husband O’B, and 12- and 14-year-old sons outside an isolated, largely Shiite town, Kargil, in the Himalayas of northern India. The town’s streets were, at the time, devoid of women, and posters around town warned that Americans are up to their elbows in the blood of Muslims. O’B’s T-shirt had AUSTRALIA attractively blazoned across the front.
We were returning to Kargil near dusk, when we met a group of five friendly boys, aged perhaps 7 and 8. They asked for pencils, and eagerly practiced their English with us. Eventually one asked us where we were from. O’B said we were from America, at which point their eyes grew wide, they gravely told us they do not like Americans, and scattered.
After three more days of traveling farther east on foot and by local buses, we reached the isolated, largely Buddhist town, Leh, in the Himalayas. There, women, men, and children walked together freely, calling out to us their ringing “Jule!” (meaning hello, good-bye, thank you, and/or please). At a moment’s quizzical look on our part, any would stop to see if they could answer a question we might have.
Jesus Camp Pastor Becky Fischer is right that what children learn before age 7 will stick with them the rest of their lives. At Jesus Camp; outdoors among our animal relatives; in Shiite Kargil; in Buddhist Leh, our children are watching, imitating, thinking, and feeling. Consciously or not, we pass on our views of the world, life, and responsibility.
Perhaps most crucially, we pass on a sense of how much our children are free to make decisions different from ours. Linus happens to have a particular fondness for tractors. That’s not a burning interest of his parents or grandparents. On Christmas Day, however, Linus was given the adult, coffee-table book, John Deere: A History of the Tractor.
The message? You don’t have to be the evolutionary biologist your father is; the science educator your mother is. Maybe you’ll drive tractors around, just out of your love of machinery. Maybe you’ll be a Christian. Or a Buddhist. Or a Muslim.
But hopefully, you will be kind to the world. And happy.
Mary O’Brien of Eugene has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She can be reached at email@example.com