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We’re not Jesus Camp

Justin Tardiff | Tuesday, October 2, 2007

In the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp was a study of the evangelical Christian movement, an attempt to depict what it is like to be a child in a born-again Christian home. It is also probably the single most frightening film I have ever seen. Children are shown speaking in tongues, dancing around in army fatigues and crying as they publicly confess their sins.

All the kids are attending minister Becky Fisher’s “Kids on Fire School of Ministry” camp in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. Fisher’s message is simple – the children need to lead the conservative Christian movement’s charge and become part of the “army of God.” The language is reminiscent of brainwashing techniques seen in fundamental Muslim madrasahs, with these children being encouraged to “wash away sins in the blood of Jesus so that he may return.”

However, as radical as this indoctrination may seem, does the Christian right have a good idea? Should not all Christian institutions teach literally what their doctrine says, and ignore everything else?

There are schools where this really happens. Ave Maria University, a new Catholic institution in Florida founded by Tom Monaghan, the owner of Domino’s pizza, was established because Monaghan felt the other U.S. Catholic universities did not have the “highest standards.” This is from the same man who gave the world the wonder of the Oreo pizza.

One of the things that makes Notre Dame truly special is that we are a Catholic university that does not indoctrinate. In 1972, when Father Hesburgh decided to begin admitting women as undergraduates, he sent the message that Notre Dame was going to become one of the best universities in the U.S. We have top-notch undergraduate programs in engineering and business and excellent graduate schools. Freshmen are offered courses dealing with evolution and genetics. There is even an open dialogue about homosexuality. The decision to open up the University and allow more than just Catholic doctrine to be taught has helped Notre Dame to truly evolve into not just one of the best Catholic schools, but into one of the best universities for undergraduates in the country.

Yet, what is truly remarkable is that all this has been accomplished while the University still continues to maintain its Catholic identity. Unlike in Ave Maria or at Jesus Camp where students and kids are brainwashed into believing, Notre Dame allows students to choose. Eighty-five percent of Notre Dame students identify themselves as Catholics, and thousands of students go to Mass every Sunday. Perhaps most impressively, Notre Dame students are renowned for their sense of social justice, and the high participation rates of numerous service programs confirm this. Despite what critics on both sides may say, the University has been able to transform itself into the premier Catholic institution in the nation that can rival any school in intellectual standards while still maintaining a Christian faith.