(CN: Spoilers and fantasized religious persecution.)
Last time we talked about the Oncoming Bus Gambit–that popular Christian thought experiment–because the movie God’s Club is built around this trope. The story centers around the efforts of protagonist schoolteacher Michael Evans to proselytize kids at his public school, the pushback he receives as a result of his “help,” and how he overcomes this persecution.
Today I’ll show you one way that Christians misrepresent persecution–and why they do it.
They’re Just Being Nice.
We’ve talked off and on about this tendency of Christians to see themselves as the compassionate and benevolent rescuers of those less fortunate than themselves: as surrogate parents, saviors, teachers, gurus, lawgivers, organizers, and the like.
When you know what you’re looking for, you’ll notice this characterization of fundagelicals in a great many of their stories and anecdotes about themselves. By casting themselves in the role of Designated Adult, they simultaneously rationalize their mistreatment of others and justify their various evangelism efforts. This self-image is so powerful that it will admit absolutely no contradictions to their perception.
There’s a distinct air of “White Man’s Burden” about it all–a malevolent colonialism in which Christians imagine themselves as bringing nothing but wonderful advancement and healing to the people they’ve targeted, while in reality they are actually waging a vicious, brutal, no-holds-barred war for dominance and, increasingly, ideological survival.
In the movie we’ve been talking about lately, God’s Club, protagonist Michael Evans (who I’ve nicknamed “Squinty” for obvious reasons because I couldn’t tell in the movie what his name was; he’s played by Stephen Baldwin) and his wife Christine (Alison MacInnis, previously seen in various Power Rangers movies as, well, the Pink Ranger) are a pair of teachers at a public high school in fictional Echo Grove, Vermont, a town presented as overwhelmingly atheist. Christine wants to start up a “Bible Club” at her school in total absence of any student demand or support and for the unstated reason of proselytizing other people’s children without consent.
It’s a timely topic, to be sure, with the school year starting up again all over the country. These Christian clubs are seen by fundagelicals as absolutely essential for gaining converts in those critical years before kids realize just how incomprehensible and daffy Christian mythology is. Christians know that they have to hit kids very young with their message of terror and shame, before those kids get older and learn some critical thinking skills. We’ll talk later about how absolutely wasted this effort is, but for now, I’ll just say that it’s a given in their culture that they must evangelize kids and that they see public schools as both battlegrounds and mission fields.
As their clout in Western society (and America in particular) has declined, these overzealous Christians are waging a covert guerilla war behind the scenes to try to make up some of their catastrophic losses in membership. Ed Brayton has been writing a lot lately about exactly this topic, and for good reason. Fundagelicals don’t care that they have lost, grandly, just about every single lawsuit that’s been filed about their various illegal and predatory activities in public schools. They are on a mission, and every bit of pushback they receive is just further proof to them that they’re doing the right thing.
Of course, Christine–our stand-in for fundagelical America in God’s Club–doesn’t care that there’s no demand for her club. She certainly doesn’t care about gaining the other parents’ consent to proselytize their children. She thinks the students of Echo Grove High School need to be converted to Christianity for their own good. She sees what she’s doing as helping them–even though nobody asked for that help. When presenting her club idea to the other parents, she declares to them that she wishes to teach “peace, love, and tolerance,” because she clearly thinks those kids will never learn any of those good qualities from their godless parents. However, in private, on the ride home, she confesses to her less-fanatical husband her real motivations in this wooden exchange of meandering, disjointed dialogue:
Christine: I don’t understand those people!
Squinty: This whole thing’s been a waste of time, babe. It’s just not worth it.
C: If we could just reach one kid.
S: I was talking about your career.
C: Do you not support the Bible Club?
S: I’m not opposed to anything you support. It’s just, it’s not my thing.
C: Littlefield’s daughter is talking about what to do if she gets pregnant. And Victor Rivers, walking around listening to music that glorifies drugs and violence.
S: And our little Bible Club is gonna change all that?
C: Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But we are leaders. Teachers. That makes us accountable for leading.
S: But it doesn’t make us accountable for the parents.
C: Accountable to God.
Christine preaches to the choir about how she wants to teach “Biblical precepts like love, forgiveness, joy,” and, she adds with a lopsided smirk and considerable emphasis, “respect for authority”–like hers, one supposes–and “self-worth.” (Really. She said that getting indoctrinated would help schoolchildren learn self-worth.) This declaration is literally the last thing she says before
being stuffed in a refrigerator to give the hero his necessary man-pain getting into a fatal car accident.
At no point does she address the fact that the other parents did not ask for her assistance in parenting their children, that her club flat-out violates the law if it’s seeking to proselytize, that she has vastly misrepresented her club to the school board and other parents alike, and that she has not actually been hired by the school to be a moral guru but is rather creating that mantle for herself. When Squinty even tries to indirectly bring some of those points to her attention, she rebuffs him with a canned talking point because none of that matters. To Christine, the club is a tool she plans to use to convert the children who form her captive audience. And she will do anything it takes, even if she must be dishonest with the other parents about what the club is and what its goals and methods are, to convert their children. (One wonders how she’d feel if the tables were turned and it was some fanatical Scientologist proselytizing her own child on the sly.)
Squinty offers token resistance to her zeal before starting the Bible Club in her honor after her death. He attracts a few kids, two of whom are there purely to troll him (rather ineptly). And then he proceeds to indoctrinate them just like his beloved wife would have wanted.
We are expected to approve and applaud his actions, and further to see the pushback he receives as typical of what fundagelicals must endure in our culture as part of their divinely-given burden.
Mischaracterization in Motion.
Because the movie’s creators take for granted that Christians in America face overwhelming persecution for their beliefs (a belief which its target audience of fundagelicals almost universally shares), the godless atheists in this movie must be shown as abusing the Christians. This abuse must be over-the-top, unilateral, and completely, utterly undeserved.
What I’ve described is how Christians who buy into the fundagelical persecution fantasy see things. They think that they’re trying their best to be nice and do nice things for non-Christians, and all they get for it is abuse. Jesus told them that they’d be hated and persecuted, the Bible insists, even that they’d be martyred and driven from their homes* for his sake, so they use that abuse as a barometer to tell how well they are fulfilling his commands.
But in one of the most baffling aspects of the movie, the moviemakers can’t actually come up with any actual persecution. After spending what must have been rather a lot of money to make a movie completely to their own specifications that will totally resonate with their target audience, they create some of the most non-persecution-like persecution that I’ve ever seen. Even in their pipe dreams they can’t come up with any plausible persecution.
The moviemakers think they’re quite the clever little dickenses because they’ve created a two-tiered conflict. The two conflicts come together at the middle and are resolved at the very end when the parents rush to the rescue when one of their kids freaks out and threatens to kill himself. (There are no words, bee tee dubs, for how beyond-inept, insulting, and trivializing that whole subplot is. We’ll have to try to find some later, though.) It’s a bit like Crash and numerous Christian movies in that it features all these little subplots that collide (or “crash”! LOL! IKR?) together at the very end of the movie and then resolve.
Spencer Rivers is a lawyer who is willing to do anything legal to limit Christian proselytizing in the town’s school; he’s Victor’s father, and even the movie can’t obscure that he loves his son and wants to do what’s best for him. Littlefield is just generally anti-theist–and he’s the one who will get into the physical altercation with Squinty. Littlefield has two kids, both enrolled in the high school: Bernice and Stewart. These atheists’ kids form part of the second half of the conflict in the movie.
Stewart is one of the two trolls who joins the Bible Club–the other is, I think, the son of the obnoxious blonde lady who said that her Billy wouldn’t ever join up–which means that Squinty is 100% aware that he does not have these boys’ parents’ permission for them to be at his meetings regardless of what they blandly say about their parents not caring where they are (and Littlefield makes it glaringly clear in short order that he cares enormously!). Bernice, meanwhile, is one of the two Mean Girls who harasses Squinty’s daughter Rebecca and is probably the one having an on-again-off-again relationship with Victor. Whichever of the Mean Girls it is, both of them are enraged that Vic is getting interested in Rebecca. This anger fuels quite a bit of the two girls’ antagonism, but it’s noteworthy that not a single bit of what I’ve described here could actually be viewed as religious persecution by any reasonable observer.
After the fight between Littlefield and Squinty, Littlefield’s daughter decides she’s had enough of Squinty and his daughter. She and her Mean Girl pal destroy his classroom and later set his goddamned house on fire.
But nothing the girls do is actually done because of Squinty’s wondrous Good News.
Their vandalism is done specifically as an act of retaliation for Squinty’s physical attack on Littlefield. It has nothing whatsoever to do with Squinty’s evangelism or the Bible Club in any way whatsoever. It’s done because Littlefield’s daughter Bernice is angry that Squinty hit her dad–which the movie makes repeatedly clear he deserved.
But the movie tries so, so hard to turn this vandalism into an act of real live persecution. The administrator mentions in the aftermath, “Lots of hate, from the way they tore up the Bibles,” to which Squinty replies very solemnly “I’ve never seen anything like this,” but this is a very irresponsible mischaracterization on the filmmakers’ parts. Squinty even figures that his Bible Club might be the vandals’ motivation, but the movie won’t dwell on that idea much.
Later on, the girls will escalate their violence–but again, not because they’re wishing to persecute Squinty for just being Christian. In fact, the exact thing that one of the girls actually says before throwing her Molotov Cocktail at the house is this: “Steal my boyfriend, will you?” The violence here is directed at Rebecca, not Squinty this time, and has absolutely nothing to do with religion.
When surveying the arson damage this time, Squinty tells his daughter, with his most solemn pout-and-squint yet, “I’m done with this town and everyone in it. . . I can’ t believe your mother even thought there was a spark of humanity here. . . Try to be nice and this is what you get in return.”
That scene irked me very badly because it is a blatant mischaracterization of what actually happened. The arson had nothing to do with his evangelism, any more than the vandalism did. But the movie presents Squinty’s declaration not as the words of an unreliable narrator, a device which actually might have made for an interesting movie, but rather as an accurate observation echoing how Christians feel about where they stand in American culture:
They’re trying so so so hard to be nice, and this is what they’re getting in return.
Non-Christians are such ungrateful little beasts. Just look at what we do whenever Christians lower themselves to interact with us.
Whenever Christians try to characterize the pushback they get as happening because of Jesus, or because they were “trying to be nice,” reality doesn’t bear them out. As I’ve written in the past, Christians can be counted upon to lie about exactly why they are facing pushback and to vastly exaggerate or mischaracterize that pushback in order to sell their fantasy and give themselves permission to double down on whatever it is that they were doing–which usually involves lying or viciously harassing and oppressing the marginalized groups they want to destroy and control.
This tendency to dishonestly misrepresent events is largely why our community here on R2D recently completely rejected a drive-by Christian’s characterization of pushback against witnessing as “[spitting] in the Christian’s face.” David drilled down on this characterization despite repeated questions about exactly what the phrase meant —was it metaphorical? Literal? Did he really think this happens?–until I finally banned his ass for violating our RoE. I don’t think he, or any other fundagelicals who sincerely think this kind of over-the-top rejection happens, ever really understood what damage he did to his credibility by characterizing non-believers in this manner. And it’s worth noting that the post he wrote in response to my post still stands, and it still implies that persecution totally happens in America and offers his beleaguered Christian flock ideas on how to handle it (as well as a side swipe at me for, apparently, “slandering” Christians–though he never identifies anything I wrote that is untrue; it seems like he just thinks anything critical of Christians counts as slander).
He’s corrected my gender pronouns since his foray into our comments (he initially referred to me as male throughout the piece, a common mistake I see out of his tribe), but it doesn’t look like he’s messed with the bits about persecution–because he, as a fundagelical, believes that persecution is a real problem for his tribe and that his tribe needs guidance on how to respond when they think they’re experiencing it.
But you won’t often see a fundagelical leader writing a thought piece about how his tribe needs to stop seeing persecution where it doesn’t exist. Non-fundagelicals sometimes issue these admonishments. John Pavlovitz sometimes tackles the subject, as do various progressive Christians like Benjamin Dixon. But their voices are nowhere near as loud as those of fundagelical leaders like Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee. Fundagelicals know their masters’ voices and will ignore or negate anyone saying anything different.
Thanks to the insular nature of the fundagelical cultural bubble, even if we escape the religion it can be really hard to start dismantling an inaccurate perception about ourselves. Squinty and Christine never manage the trick in the movie, and I don’t think I have yet seen a fundagelical realize that their cultural self-perception as a persecuted minority in America is wildly inaccurate at best and a self-serving permission slip used to abuse others at worst.
But it is possible to make such a course correction. I’ll show you how next time as we examine Christian charity efforts.
* Interestingly, Matthew 10:22-23 tells Christians to flee their homes to live elsewhere when they are persecuted in one town and that they “will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” This isn’t the first time in the Gospels that Jesus predicts his triumphant–and imminent–return in glory; it’s one of the New Testament’s most glaring unfulfilled prophecies. Oops!