Summer camp, an American right of passage where kids go to find themselves. It’s that first taste of independence, it’s navigating new social situations, it’s experiencing puppy love for the first time - unless you go to an Evangelical Christian summer camp, that is. You aren't here to find yourself; you're here to find god. Join us as we show you everything a summer camp should not be. Forget preparing for adulthood. It's time to prepare for ETERNITY.
Sacred Playgrounds by Jacob Sorenson
A Theological Playground: Christian Summer Camp in Theological Perspective by Jacob Sorenson
The Fundamental Characteristics and Unique Outcomes of Christian Summer Camp Experiences by Jacob Sorenson
“’INVADING VACATIONLAND FOR CHRIST’: THE CONSTRUCTION OF EVANGELICAL IDENTITY THROUGH SUMMER CAMPS IN THE POSTWAR ERA” By Rebecca A. Koerselman
Clint: You've never done a whip-it?
Jey: Well, I mean, I would spray whipped cream into my mouth a lot when I worked at Starbucks and those were from nitrous.
Clint: But were you huffing the gas? Or just eating the whipped cream?
Jey: Eating the whipped cream.
Clint: That doesn’t count.
Jey: But my coworkers would actually do it.
Clint: This is actually topical because I worked at a camp one summer - a non-Christian camp - where I taught filmmaking.
Jey: You just talked about drugs and now we're talking about how you were teaching kids.
Clint: What, you think Jim Henson never did any fucking drugs? You think Lewis Carol was a teetotaller?
Clint: Anyway, we had a weekly tradition called Pieday Friday. Basically, we would hand out whipped cream pies to the entire camp and they would pie each other in the face. But we kept having trouble with the whipped cream cans. Inevitably, there would be one or two cans in every case that just didn’t work. The whipped cream wouldn’t come out. It was some cheap dairy-free off-brand shit so everyone just chalked it up to bad quality control but it was actually because I was taking whip-it hits every time I went by the kitchen.
Jey: It's just a waste of good whipped cream.
Clint: Well, I would argue that whipped cream is a waste of good nitrous.
Clint: Hello everyone and welcome to How Gay Thou Art, a comedy podcast about growing up queer, Christian, and hella confused. My name is Clint Keller, he/him.
Jey: I’m Jey Austen, they/them.
Clint: And on today’s show we’re going to be discussing one of America’s most cherished rights of passage - summer camp.
Jey: Well these aren’t exactly what most people think of when they think “summer camp.”
Clint: Uh no. More specifically, we’re going to be talking about conservative Evangelical summer camps and all the nonsense that comes along with them. So Jey, how would you describe the Christian summer camp experience?
Jey: Well, there are basically two types of Christian summer camp. There are the ones that work more like regular summer camps where kids from around the country come by themselves or in small groups and stay for the week. Then there are camps where churches will bring big groups of kids and like, each church is its own team that competes in the games or whatever. Sometimes they’ll have their own chants or flags. It’s like church olympics.
Clint: And nowadays there are also day camps as well as camps that are more politically motivated rather than spiritually, which we’ll talk about a little later on. But that’s not so weird, right? Churches and para-church organizations run these things but if you look at their website or brochure, most of them look like classic summer camp. You’ve got crafts and hiking and talent shows and cabins-
Jey: And 4-6 hours of church every day.
Clint: Oh right. And that. At these camps, every morning and evening is spent in worship or Bible study. It varies a bit from camp to camp but basically, between breakfast and lunch, you’ve got a morning sermon and small group Bible studies. That’s it. The afternoon will be some all-camp games and free time, then after dinner, it’s back to the worship center for another service.
Jey: And a lot of this will be sort-of…camp-ified. They’ll incorporate chants and skits and games, but all that usually leads to a sermon or Christian motivational speaker.
Clint: Everything about the experience of a Christian camp is built to contribute to spiritual and political indoctrination. They aren’t Christian themed summer camps. They’re summer camp themed indoctrination stations. And the people who run these camps are not shy about that fact. A recent survey found that 92% of Christian camp directors think that faith should be incorporated into every element of the camp experience.
Jey: Which is why at church camp, I didn't get to do fun activities, like learn dance routines and stuff. Church camp was a lot more focused on growing in the holy spirit. It’s not about having fun. It’s learning how to incorporate God into everything you do.
Clint: Absolutely. There was a survey in 2016 of Protestant Christian summer camps and almost all of them said that faith-based experiences and spiritual growth should be prioritized over having fun, promoting team-building activities, or campers’ personal growth. But that’s not to say these camps aren’t fun. They are. But every activity is working toward a specific goal. In preparation for this episode, I read some work by a child psychologist named Dr. Valerie Tarico, who writes about evangelicalism and she said that, “The point of these camps is not to expose the children to religious experiences that humans have treasured or been subject to, but is to persuade young children to the truth of a very specific worldview.”
Jey: It’s the same with like Christian colleges.
Clint: The Christian summer camp to Christian College pipeline.
Jey: It's to reinforce the isolation of Evangelicalism. It feels like you’re leaving your small community and meeting a new, diverse group of people at camp but it's still all within this secluded community that reinforces the beliefs you already hold. So everywhere you go, you think that this is the way the world is. And then once you finally leave the church, if you ever do, there's no common ground because the rest of the world just doesn't operate the way Evangelicalism does. They want you isolated from the real world so you just come back to what you know.
Clint: Yep. Doesn’t work on everyone though.
Jey: Not us!
Clint: The doctor goes on to say, “These camps overemphasize guilt, and they often have schedules packed with high energy activities from early in the morning to late at night. And then when campers are asked to make deeply spiritual decisions, they're over tired, emotional, and inclined to make a decision based on their feelings rather than a rational decision to follow Christ based on the mind, will, and rational emotions.” The guilt she’s talking about here is very real. Kids have these big emotional moments and make these big promises to Jesus that they inevitably do not keep over the years as they grow up. And then what does that do? That just compounds their guilt even more.
Jey: So they rededicate themselves to Christ every year. And then you have an altar call, and then once you get back from camp, two weeks later, you have the group baptism.
Clint: And the guilt wheel just circles round and round. Unreasonable spiritual commitment, failure, guilt, re-commitment, failure, guilt. It never ends. You will never be perfect enough for god. Actually that’s not true. God doesn’t make such demands. You’ll never be perfect enough for the Evangelical church.
Jey: At least no one will have to ask why I’m in therapy now.
Clint: One of the things I thought about a lot while researching this is how Evangelical summer camp undermines the idea of the American summer camp. At least in pop-culture, summer camp is where kids go to find themselves. Any summer camp story is also a coming-of-age story almost by default. It’s that first taste of independence. It’s navigating new social situations. It’s experiencing puppy love for the first time. But none of that is true for Christian camp. You’re not there to find yourself; you’re there to find god. You’re not there to learn independence; you’re there to learn conformity. You’re not there to escape the authority of your parents; you’re there to submit to the authority of god and god’s representatives.
Jey: It’s literally a cult tactic. They don’t want you to have a sense of self because who you are is inherently sinful according to them. You have to deny “the flesh” and dedicate yourself to the mission - heart, mind, and soul.
Clint: And the scary part is that it's really effective. Even in reference to secular camps, people talk about the “camp high,” right? You have a week of intense experiences but it wears off pretty quickly. No one actually writes to their camp friends more than once. However, one study found that kids who went to a religious summer camp were three times more likely to still be in that same religion five years later. And study after study shows that camp has a more lasting spiritual and religious impact on kids than almost any other thing in Christianity. I think people underestimate that but I have some statistics that I think will really drive the point home.
Jey: I’m so ready.
Clint: About 14 million kids and adults attend more than 14,000 summer camps every year. That’s total camps in America, including secular ones. About a 10th of those campers go to evangelical Christian camps and they make up about a fifth of camp locations. So they don't have as many kids per camp, but they control a significant chunk of the actual camp locations.
Jey: I could see that. They're more rural versus like a city camp or a camp on a college campus.
Clint: This stat surprised me - 39% of all American teenagers have been to a religious summer camp at least once.
Jey: When was that statistic taken?
Clint: Like within the past few years.
Jey: So 39% of Americans have been to a religious summer camp and if you remember from our episode about Young Earth Creationism, 38% of all Americans believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old.
Clint: Huh. Now that’s interesting. It really does give the impression that conservative Evangelicalism is effectively reaching about ⅓ of Americans.
Jey: Just saying it's a similar statistic. It's just correlation. I'm not saying it's causation.
Clint: Of course but still. That’s kinda wild. Unsurprisingly, this Christian camp business is just that - a business. And it’s a big one. How much do you think the Christian summer camp industry is worth?
Jey: Oh god. I have no idea. $20 million?
Clint: Higher. Way higher. There are single camps that probably pull that much.
Jey: Oh my bad, uh, $500 million.
Clint: $3.5 billion a year.
Jey: So I have a question that I always ask - are these camps taxed?
Clint: You should’ve been an IRS agent or something. So some of them are almost certainly not taxed because a lot of them are operated directly by churches. Think back to the stat showing how many locations these kinds of camps have. A lot of them are small and are run by small-ish churches. But the larger ones are probably taxed unless they manage to get set-up as a non-profit of some kind, which is entirely possible.
Jey: It’s always the same thing with these people.
Clint: And the content provided by these camps - from the workbooks to the sermons to the cabin Bible studies - all supports a specific, extremist Evangelical worldview. Kids aren’t going to learn about Jesus and pray together. They’re being fed purity culture and anti-LGBTQAI+ rhetoric and dominionism and nationalism.
Jey: Just get a bunch of horny teenagers together and then say, “Keep your hands off of each other and no sex while we're all sleeping away together with no parents.”
Clint: Every year that I went to camp, I just knew in my heart of hearts that I was going to make out with somebody. And it never happened.
Jey: I'm so sorry that you didn't get to hook up with anyone at camp.
Clint: It’s not like you’re given a chance at these camps anyway. I mean, you're constantly being monitored. It's like a police state at these things.
Jey: It really is, though. And sometimes they set up “dates” where you're supposed to meet people from the other churches. So they set you up in a pairing and the other person comes to pick you up. They're literally just fucking with you. They're, like, tempting you.
Clint: It's fucking crazy. Although, the camp I went to didn’t have anything like that. No dates. There were very few things that the boys and girls did together at all. But they talked about sex all the time. These same people are out there right now saying drag queens are sexualizing children, all the while they're screaming about sex at kids for like 4 hours a day.
Clint: Let’s get into the history of these bad boys a bit. They follow a somewhat unsurprising trajectory alongside everything else in the Evangelical ecosystem, first popping up in the 60’s and 70’s. But to really understand how Christian summer camp became what it is today, we’ve gotta take it all the way back to the beginning. Pop quiz - what year saw the first American summer camp?
Clint: Not super far off - 1861 - right in the middle of the Civil War.
Jey: Oh. Mhm.
Clint: Great time to take the boys out for a camping trip. Frederick William Gunn operated a school for boys in Connecticut and he took a bunch of them out for a two week outdoor summer camp in Long Island, which was still mostly farmland and forests at the time.
Jey: Can you imagine like, today. Come on, kids, we’re heading out to the wilderness of Long Island!
Clint: Yeah it doesn’t feel like camping if you can take the metro to get there. Gunn is credited with creating the concept of summer camps for kids, but not much happened with it for a few decades. In 1900, there were fewer than 100 camps in the US but by 1918, there were over a thousand.
Jey: OK so this is when it really starts becoming a thing.
Clint: Right. And the reasons why echo a lot of the same fears Evangelicals continue to stoke today. Part of it was economic. Business was booming in the early 1900’s so people had more disposable income, until the Great Depression, that is - which according to Evangelical textbooks, didn’t actually happen.
Jey: Check out our episode of Christian curriculum to learn why Grapes of Wrath is actually Communist propaganda.
Clint: The reasons are even more unhinged than you think. But anyway, what really drove the popularity of summer camps was urbanization. More people were living in cities so boys were spending less time outside and very little time in the wilderness, which terrified people. There was widespread fear about the next generation of boys being feminized by spending too much time with their mothers and not enough time fighting bears in the hill country. Sound familiar?
Jey: Ah yes, the soy boys of the roaring 20’s.
Clint: If anything, this kind of rhetoric is more prevalent today. You can’t look at an Evangelical Facebook group or meme page without seeing shit about “Biblical manhood” or whatever. The fear that masculinity will somehow disappear has been around for a very long time. Yet somehow, it keeps hanging around. Parallel to this rugged masculinity were fears of moral corruption brought on from growing up in a city, which is also something we still hear from conservatives today. This was applied particularly to summer camps for girls. Girls camps started to take off in the 20’s as a response to flapper culture. People somehow believed a week in the wilderness would keep their daughters from wearing short skirts and smoking cigarettes.
Jey: Huh. Interesting. And these were religious camps? Christian camps?
Clint: Not exactly. Christianity was so ubiquitous and so tied to concepts of morality at the time that most of them had some religious elements by default. They would have morning prayers and things like that but it was nothing like Evangelical camps today. They were classic summer camps run by Christians, not Christian summer camps.
Jey: Got it. That’s kinda like the first camp I went to. There were some chants about god or whatever but we weren’t studying the Bible 6 hours a day.
Clint: Exactly. These camps were big on teaching morality and reinforcing gender roles, but they weren’t religiously motivated. The goal was preparing young people for adulthood. They wanted to turn boys into men and prepare girls for life as a housewife. As you can imagine, the activities offered were very different.
Jey: I’m guessing the boys got to do all the cool shit.
Clint: Unless you think learning to care for a newborn is a cool summer activity, then yes.
Jey: Gag me.
Clint: Sure. You don’t have to ask me twice.
Clint: Girls camps remained about the same but camps for boys saw a big shift during the years between WW1 and WW2. This is when the militaristic aspects of camp become integrated. Instead of preparing for manhood, boys camps were now about preparing for war.
Jey: And this is where all the patriotism stuff comes in too - flag ceremonies, pledges, bugles, marches.
Clint: Absolutely. But after the horrors of WW2, things shift once again. Childhood was no longer viewed as something to overcome, but something to be preserved. This is when camps started to focus on fun instead of preparation for adulthood. And this is really the foundation of American summer camp as we understand it today, at least in the secular world. Camp is an escape from the real world. So that’s in the 50’s. When would you guess Evangelicals started appropriating the summer camp model for themselves?
Jey: Well, based on the timeline of other stuff like the textbooks and schools and hell houses and just Evangelical culture, I’m guessing 1960’s, 70’s.
Clint: Is that your final answer?
Jey: Uh, wait. Yes?
Clint: Ding ding ding! You’re exactly right. Evangelical summer camps started popping up all over the place in the 1960’s. And the reasons were very similar to the ones from 50 years prior - reinforcing gender roles, demonizing city life, but also racial integration, feminism, the sexual revolution.
Jey: People have been doing this since forever. It’s the same shit repeating itself for generations.
Clint: And people keep doing it despite the fact that these irrational fears never come to fruition. Secular camps had mostly abandoned their mission of instilling morality or teaching life skills at this point. They were just money-making machines that gave kids a week-long vacation away from their parents. So the Evangelicals stepped up to fill that void in the worst ways possible.
Jey: So this is where the hardcore religious shit starts happening-
Clint: For sure.
Jey: So now instead of summer camp, it’s Bible camp and instead of doing actual fun activities, you’re memorizing verses every day.
Clint: And like we talked about before, these camps were masquerading as normal-ish summer camps with a Christian spin, but the motivations were entirely different. In some ways, they went back to the old model, but instead of preparing kids for adulthood, they’re preparing kids for eternity.
Jey: The never-ending summer camp.
Clint: And the fun stuff like crafts and hikes and all-camp games became a reward for diligent discipleship. There is very specific language around this I heard at camps growing up. The fun stuff that actually brings kids to the camp was always presented as a bonus. We were there for discipleship and anything beyond that was just a blessing.
Jey: Like you’re supposed to be grateful to get to do the activities your parents literally paid for. It’s another method of control. It creates an incentive system where you have to do all the Bible work first, then you can have fun. As a treat.
Clint: So let’s get to the good part where we just talk about ourselves. What was your summer camp experience like, Jey?
Jey: The camp that I went to growing up, all of my family had gone to it because it was a youth camp. You know how there were like, lodges back in the day, like Lions Club-
Clint: Like the Masons?
Jey: Well, yeah, but this one was like a German mutual aid lodge.
Clint: What do they do there? What does that look like?
Jey: It just looks like your normal lodge get-togethers.
Clint: Here's the thing. I don't know what that looks like. They're all so secretive. I've been trying to figure out what's going on in these lodges for 20 years. What is going on inside these lodges?
Jey: They just sit around and they just, like, eat beans.
Jey: Well, and barbecue.
Clint: So it’s a German mutual aid lodge where they sit around and eat beans and BBQ. That doesn’t make a lick of sense.
Jey: Back in the day there were like, a bunch of German immigrants in Texas but the German influence died off a lot after WW1.
Clint: What were those things we used to eat for breakfast? The little savory pastries?
Jey: Oh, kolaches.
Clint: Kolaches! Are those German?
Jey: No, that's the Czech influence. Anyway, I was doing research into the camp they ran in preparation for this thing because I was like, this is really weird and did I go to some sort of Nazi camp?
Clint: Did you?
Jey: No, it's just a life insurance company. And they also have a nursing home and a dance school. And so we would put on talent shows for the old people.
Clint: Quite a racket they’re running there. The kids pay to go to camp then provide entertainment for the old folks.
Jey: And like, all the old people went to the camp when they were kids.
Clint: The Circle of Life.
Jey: I started there because my mom wanted all of her kids to go there. So she used the child support money for the summer. It was only like $150 for a week and it was in Comfort, Texas. It’s hot as balls. You get to choose what you want to do at camp. So I was always doing ceramics, leather crafts, archery, riflery. I was always great at shooting guns. And we would just shoot like .22s because we were just kids.
Clint: Right. So just the smallest caliber that can absolutely still kill you.
Jey: Maybe they were pellet guns, but I don't think they were.
Clint: Did it make a real loud noise?
Jey: I mean, yeah but I could just be getting it confused with that summer. I also shot a bunch of my cousin’s guns.
Clint: Sure. I mean, it is hard to keep track. I was shooting guns all the time. Was it at home, camp, a friend’s house? I mean hell, I got a .22 for my 5th birthday. But wait, was this an Evangelical camp?
Jey: Not really. It was run by the lodge. There was some stuff like singing a prayer before our meal but it was more of a camp song thing. It was like, “God is great, God is good.” Whatever. And then they would like, sing Taps at the end of the night.
Clint: Sing Taps?
Jey: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So it actually has words and it's like “Day is done, Gone the sun, From the lake, From the hill, From the sky.”
Clint: I could be totally wrong about this, but I think your camp made that shit up.
Jey: No because my mom was like, you know, sing Taps.
Clint: But didn't she also go to this camp?
Jey: Oh, wait. Yeah. Like 50 years prior.
Clint: OK so I gave it a quick Google and we’re both kinda right. There are no official lyrics to Taps. It’s a bugle call. But due to its popularity, people have put many different lyrics to it through the years, the most popular of which is what you were just singing I think. “Day is done, Gone the sun, From the lake, From the hill, From the sky. All is well, Safely rest, God is nigh.”
Jey: That would be a camp dance. So that's when you would go up to the boys camp and we had to do this like, mile long hike and then go dance.
Clint: Oh, my God. Ok so this is very secular.
Jey: But that we would never talk to the guys and just eat cookies all night. One year when I was 12 or 13, we were, like, changing out of our swimsuits. And I was talking to a girl in front of me, and she was changing out of her swimsuit and like-
Clint: How many of your childhood memories involve being naked around your peers?
Jey: A lot…
Clint: Granted I was homeschooled, but I honestly don’t think anyone saw me naked from the time I was like 4 until I was 19.
Jey: So the girl drops her swimsuit. I just, like, looked at the motion of the swimsuit and then she was like, “Oh, my God, you're a lesbian.” And I was like, “What?” Because I was talking to her. And so I don't know.
Clint: So she wasn't like, “Oh, I dropped my swimsuit.”
Jey: No. Anyway, and then my camp counselor, Nemo, she was the one who played Three Days Grace while we were cleaning up our bunks. She was like, “You know what? Even if you were a lesbian, it doesn't mean they should make fun of you.” And it was like, so nice. She made it feel like it's a bad thing to be a lesbian. She just said “They were rude” and it was like, “Oh, okay.”
Clint: What an affirming camp experience.
Jey: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then I went to church camp.
Clint: So how many times did you go to the secular camp?
Jey: So it was from 9 to 13. So you get to go for five years and that's one week during the summer.
Clint: OK so what about the Evangelical camp? What was their deal?
Jey: The more religious ones, I started going to in middle school and high school and I went to them every year, except maybe one year when church camp overlapped with my mom putting on this big conference for church music. So she wanted me to basically be her volunteer taking pictures, family stuff, so I couldn't go to camp that year.
Clint: Was that better or worse than Christian camp?
Jey: It was way worse. But it was fine because I was serving the Lord.
Clint: You were serving your mom.
Jey: And then mom was like, “Oh, no, you loved it. You were helping me worship. Of course you loved it.”
Clint: I love it when parents retroactively tell you how you felt about something. Like, “No, you really enjoyed that, honey.”
Jey: Yeah. “You wanted to not go to camp. You wanted to work for me.” I'm like, what?
Clint: Were they lying to themselves the whole time? Or has the passage of time just made them the hero in their own minds?
Jey: Because we did a lot of church retreats and I also went to a Christian school that would go to a different retreat, it's really hard for me to parse which ones were church camp and which ones were school camp. But it was the same exact thing. We would have a lot of sermons and stuff, but I would get sick for them. We would all get there and all of our friends were having a great time and then I would get a migraine and just kind of be in the nurse's office for who knows what -like twist my ankle at camp. So like every year something happened. It was like a running joke.
Clint: Do you think there might be some sort of underlying psychological explanation for this avoidant behavior?
Jey: If you want to pay my therapy bills, you can say it.
Clint: It feels like if you wrote this into a movie, it would be too obvious. Like, “Oh, I twisted my ankle. Sorry guys. I'm going to have to miss dodgeball.”
Jey: There was one year where I made friends with someone that was gay but they were in a different cabin. Then other people found out that they were gay because they had allegedly skipped a service to go have gay sex outdoors but I'm like, “Who'd they fuck? Where's the other side of this story?”
Clint: Yeah if this really happened, there has to at least be two people involved. What did a day look like at this camp? What was the vibe?
Jey: We would have swimming, but all the girls would have to wear shirts.
Clint: Really? So you didn't just do different times for boys and girls?
Jey: No, because there were like swimming sports, so there would be a relay or something. And so, yeah, there would be like 300 kids and we'd all be around and the drama would go down, you know what I'm saying? It's just high school kids in swimsuits, but the girls would have to wear t-shirts and in solidarity, the youth leader made the ripped guys wear t-shirts.
Clint: Wait so only certain guys had to wear shirts?
Jey: They just didn't want to cause the girls to stumble. So there were just like two guys and they made them wear t-shirts.
Clint: Like, “Sorry but those pecs are really poppin today. You're going to have to put on a t-shirt for this game my man.”
Jey: Straight up.
Clint: That is fucking hilarious. I just don't know how you don't have everyone do it. How you single out specific people? What is the metric? What is the ripped threshold? Was there a giant gap between the rip dudes and the non-ripped dudes or were there people who were right on the cusp? Like, “I don't think you're ripped enough, Joe. Hit the gym a little more and maybe next year you can be a t-shirt guy.”
Jey: It was mainly like the guys who wanted to be in the worship band that were the most popular kids of the youth group, like the most suburban, like doctor’s kids, those kinds of people.
Clint: Because they're the only ones that had enough time and money to go to the gym. I was fucking mowing yards.
Jey: Right? I was mowing my own yard since I was 12.
Clint: You want to lift weights? Here's a weed eater. Carry that around all day if you wanna feel the burn.
Jey: Right? For real. So there was this thing called the spirit paddle.
Clint: How kinky.
Jey: It was like a full size rowing paddle, like for a boat. The big thing was we were all trying to win it. So there’s people from all these different churches and there would be like ultimate frisbee or like the football thing with the ribbons…
Clint: Flag football?
Jey: Yeah! Flag football.
Clint: Pretty obvious name I feel like.
Jey: It could be ribbons…
Clint: People who play football are tough, Jey. They wouldn’t be caught dead with a ribbon.
Jey: My bad, my bad. Anyway, the whole point was you were supposed to sing songs and like, see who can praise the loudest and chant over the other churches. And some churches really got into it. They would like, make up songs that they would chant on their way to every single activity.
Clint: Were these like, religiously motivated songs?
Jey: Eh. There was one youth group that was smaller, maybe like 25 to 50 kids, as opposed to our youth group that had brought like 300.
Clint: Jesus Christ, there were like 12 people in my youth group.
Jey: There was probably about 100 to 150 on a given week day. But we would invite all of our friends.
Clint: We took our entire youth group to summer camp one year and we only took up a single cabin I think. Maybe 2.
Jey: Yeah, we were not that group. The smaller group got poster board and they made like a - I don't even know - a pirate ship because I think maybe because they dressed up like pirates, but Jesus was walking on water or something. One more thing about the spirit paddle and I'll shut up about it. Because we didn't wanna win the spirit paddle, but some of us really wanted a chant, we came up with a chant and it was like, “We don't need a paddle. We, we got a motorboat!”
Clint: My god. Zero self-awareness with these people.
Jey: So what did your summer camps look like?
Clint: So I went to two different camps. The more traditional one is called The Wilds. It’s in North Carolina, very popular. It’s way up in the mountains, and it’s a traditional summer camp in a lot of ways except for the 6 hours of Bible study every day. There was hiking and crafts and all-camp games. It was kind of a rip-off though because you had to pay for everything when you were at camp. Like, the crafts and stuff weren’t included. I had to pay for every piece of leather I used or whatever.
Jey: No spirit paddle?
Clint: Definitely no spirit paddle. We had teams but it wasn’t divided by church. It was just 3 big teams based on cabin groupings. Your camp sounds a little more contemporary. We had no music aside from classical hymns and stuff like that. There were some camp chants, but no instruments other than the piano. The preaching was intense. Very hellfire and brimstone. Sexual purity, homosexuality, drinking, drugs - all of the preaching was about scaring kids away from debauchery. I recently looked at their statement of faith and they hold some very specific beliefs. Some of it is boiler plate, like comparing homosexuality to bestiality and incest, but they also make a point to include things like Young Earth Creationism which feels pretty irrelevant to the camp experience.
Jey: At Pine Cove, they wouldn't let you be a counselor if you even believed that, like, gay Christians could be a thing.
Clint: Oh, yeah. You have to sign a statement of faith affirming all of that to work at The Wilds. But I have to say, I enjoyed it at the time. I had a very emotional experience during one of my summers there. I rededicated my life to Christ during the big Friday finale. I really can’t overemphasize that these camps are more akin to a revival than a summer camp. It’s a spiritual intensive program designed to emotionally manipulate kids.
Clint: Unlike you, I usually went alone or with one other person. When we moved to the IFB church when I was in high school, the youth group all went together and Brother Danny, the youth pastor, also went and stayed the whole time, which was really weird to me.
Jey: Oh yeah, all of our youth pastors went and we had parent chaperons, like we had so many people.
Clint: It was really a situation where he trusted us so little that he would even send us to church camp without supervising us himself. But the other camp I went to is a little more interesting. I spent two summers at Patrick Henry College in Virginia. It’s an ultra-conservative Evangelical university that people call God's Harvard. Their whole thing is preparing people for politics. They are trying to nurture evangelical kids to go into government work. That's the whole schtick of the college. And then they started doing summer camps. These were topical so you could choose things like debate, forensics, it was all educational. And the goal wasn’t religious indoctrination. It was political indoctrination. The setup was similar to other camps though - every morning was spent learning, but they weren’t religious services, they were educational lectures about your chosen topic of study. But I went to 2 different programs there - debate and strategic intelligence, which is better known as Christian spy camp.
Jey: Ya went to Christian Spy camp and you buried the lede this long? Tell me everything you know.
Clint: It was a sleepaway camp on the PHC campus. It was led by an alleged former NSA spy and there were a handful of other speakers throughout the week from other government factions. But the main guy gave off hip youth pastor vibes, not spy vibes. Like, I don’t see that guy blending in anywhere except a megachurch. But to be fair, the government should probably spend significantly more time surveilling Christian extremists.
Jey: Could you imagine being in the CIA and then just being like, “I might go start a youth camp.”
Clint: Well I don’t think he started it exactly. He was just hired as the program leader.
Jey: He is the keynote speaker of Christians spy camp. I just want to know, was he an actual spy?
Clint: That's debatable. At the time, I definitely thought he was a real spy. Whether he was or not, who can say? I mean, Patrick Henry College is really well connected so it wouldn’t be surprising if they pulled a real NSA agent of some kind. But you have to keep in mind that most spy work these days is online and hella boring. This guy was no James Bond. He tried to be cool but he was such a square. One day, he was using the Bible to talk about morality is spy craft. So like, is it acceptable for a Christian to lie or kill or steal in the interest of national security? So he goes through all of these things and finds justification for each of them in the Bible. Most of it was pulled from, like, Israel’s military campaigns in the Old Testament. And he’s writing all these words on a big collegiate white board that has those sliding panels so you can reveal more info as the lecture goes along. It’s like murder, theft, lying, etc. Then after he goes through all the words, he slides all the panels to the side and reveals the word “sex” written in huge letters. And he’s like, “So does that word make you guys uncomfortable?” He thought it was a big mic drop moment or something. But then he goes on to explain that all of these other sins are permissible for spies but using sex in spy craft can never be biblically justified. He argued that murder is fine but using sex to get information isn’t.
Jey: I disagree. There's that story where Jacob is tricked into marrying the wrong sister and then has to work another 7 years to marry the sister he actually loved.
Clint: I’m not entirely sure how relevant that story is to the life of a spy but I take your point. Sexual morality is not clear cut in the Bible like, at all, despite what Evangelicals would have us believe. The idea of a “biblical marriage” is total nonsense.
Jey: Well even in that story, Jacob works for 7 years I think to marry Rachel. Then at the wedding, he’s tricked into marrying her sister…
Jey: Leah, right. So he works another 7 years so he can marry Rachel too. This is never presented as a problem. The only issue was that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah so god punished Jacob by only letting Leah have kids. Like, the polyamorous marriage is never presented as wrong. The problem is that Jacob was playing favorites.
Clint: Absolutely. It was just a way to prop up purity culture. It’s mind boggling that people actually believe god is more cool with murder than sex, regardless of the motivation. But overall Christian spy camp was pretty dope. We got to go on missions, all of the counselors would be in character. There would be dead drops. I got caught and interrogated at one point. They did a big, campus wide game of Clue. And I liked that the religious aspects were minimal. They really didn’t seem to give a shit about your theology as long as you supported extremist conservative politics, which I did at the time. But looking back, it feels darker because even though faith wasn’t at the center of the programming, they consistently tied Christianity and conservatism together, which is something we see the religious right do all the time. Just at the 2022 midterms, we saw dozens of Christian leaders say that it is basically impossible to be a faithful Christian and vote for a democrat. So PHC was a little more forward thinking than somewhere like The Wilds in this respect. The more traditional Evangelical summer camps have altar calls and opportunities for kids to get saved or convert. PHC understood that 99% of the kids attending these camps are already Christian, so they didn’t waste any time on that. They focused on binding Christianity and conservative politics together.
Jey: Right. It was all about young brainwashing. So I guess as a spy camp, that makes sense.
Clint: Wow, yeah, it never even crossed my mind that they mind try to brainwash me at spy camp. Feels like obvious now that you mention it.
Jey: Why did they start this camp originally? Was it to train to just immediately join the military once they turned 18?
Clint: No, it isn’t military focused. It’s politically focused. And the purpose of the camp is to recruit high schoolers into the college. Their goal is to facilitate a conservative Evangelical takeover of the United States government. You’ll never guess who was a major contributor to the original $9 million needed to start the college.
Jey: Wait, is it-
Clint: Tim Motherfucking LaHaye.
Jey: Goddamn it.
Clint: We cannot escape that asshole. One funny thing that I did when I went to camp there - so we were allowed to bring laptops if we wanted to because it was very academically focused, especially the debate camp I went to. You might need to write up arguments or mission briefs or whatever, right? So the year is 2007 and I took my gigantic 17” Dell laptop along with a stack of blank CDs. The week before camp, I got on iTunes and bought a bunch of different music, stuff I had never even heard but was popular on the charts, because I thought I might meet someone and I could burn them a CD to remember me by.
Jey: Yeah. Uh huh.
Clint: And I could write my phone number on it, ya know. How cute would that be? But by a strange turn of events, I didn’t make any lifelong friends at Patrick Henry College’s conservative Evangelical spy camp.
Clint: Before we wrap up, let’s talk for a second about the social pressures of Evangelical summer camps. Spy camp was different but at most of these camps, there is tremendous pressure to have intense religious experiences. And if you aren’t having these experiences, then you aren’t fully connecting to the divine. And this was real to the point that I was never really convinced I had those experiences at all. Like, I rededicated my life to Christ at The Wilds one year, but I never knew if it was real or if I was just getting caught up in the moment. Of course, now I understand that literally everyone was just getting caught up in the moment.
Jey: I got really weird towards the end of high school. And so at youth camp there would be thousands of kids there. And I would be dancing, like spiritual dancing, where you just like, spin around and stuff because you're feeling the glory of the Lord. And I would pray for people and stuff because I wanted to be the best church kid, most holiest there. And I, like, prayed over people in tongues, and no one else is praying at tongues because it was a Baptist church camp.
We would act out these weird Passion scenes to a Lifehouse song. Everyone would be dressed in black, stabbing this guy then he would come back from the dead. It was…
Clint: How avante-garde. As you know, we weren’t allowed any secular or CCM at my church or camps. I didn’t even realize Lifehouse had a connection to Evangelical stuff until recently. I thought they were just a shitty band from the aughts.
Jey: I think it was “Everything” by Lifehouse. Everyone always cried. It was very intense.
Clint: Totally off my radar. This does remind me of another CD burning story though. This story is the beginning of a path that led directly to me selling weed in college. When we were going to the IFB church in high school, we all lived in a very rural area. High speed internet was not a thing there yet. It was dial up only, even in like, 2007. But my dad had a real estate office over in the next town and he did have high speed internet there. Since we were homeschooled, we would go there to do our school work on certain days so we could have access to the internet. And then I discovered Limewire. So I started downloading everything - music, movies, porn. I would burn all of this shit onto DVDs and smuggle them to my friends at church. I was the sole provider of secular music and movies for like 20 kids. R-rated comedies were most popular. Superbad was the #1 request. And this was back in the day when people still had computer rooms, right? So these kids would wait until their parents went to sleep, sneak into the computer room, and watch a shitty cam recording of Superbad at 3am.
Jey: Yeah, I would do that. But just to play Neopets.
Clint: Same energy. Ya know, now that I’m thinking about it, I’m happy I did that. It was a goddamn community service. Media for the people, dude. So is that it? Anything else to add?
Jey: I just want to mention that these Christian camps can be eye-opening for kids in a good way.
Clint: What? How so?
Jey: Well so when you go to these, there can be a lot of diversity depending on which camp you go to. So like, even though everyone is Christian, there will be more liberal churches, more conservative churches. If you grow up in a particularly extreme church like you did, camps like this might be the only time you’re exposed to more accepting versions of Christianity, or people from other parts of the world, or even who just look different than you.
Clint: That’s a good point.
Jey: And I think that can be really important because isolation is what gives these churches a lot of power over people’s lives. And any exposure that starts to crack that facade is a step in the right direction.
Clint: Absolutely. I’m not convinced it outweighs the indoctrination that happens while there but if the kids believe all that shit anyway, I guess it doesn’t really matter.
Clint: Well, I guess that just about does it. Don’t send your kids to Evangelical summer camp, y’all. Just send them to a regular summer camp so they can have fun. Jey, where can people find us?
Jey: We are @HowGayThouArt on all platforms, mainly Twitter and Instagram. You can also find us at howgaythouart.com and on Patreon.
Clint: Wow, we really have a monopoly on this name.
Jey: Yeah, we do. I monopolized it everywhere I could.
Clint: Amazing. Thank you, everyone, so much for listening. We will see you back here in 2 weeks for our season 1 finale. We’re diving into the topic that probably fucked us all up the most - purity culture.
Jey: Stay gay, kids.
Jey: I think we should come up with our own spirit paddle chant.
Clint: Yeah, we should get a spirit paddle. I mean, I've got a nice handmade paddle in the bedroom. Can we just endow it with the holy spirit?
Jey: Yeah, it’s like how you bless holy water.
Clint: We’ll have to look into that.