Who enjoyed God’s Not Dead? If you want to relive that unrealistic bit of Christian persecution porn, read my review of that movie.
Who wants a sequel? Me neither, but for the sake of journalistic completeness, let’s review the 2016 movie God’s Not Dead 2.
Variety predicted a successful opening despite its harsh review: “The franchise’s disciples will surely fill its collection plate as full as 2014’s $60-million-grossing original, but this paranoid persecution-complex fantasy is unlikely to win many converts.” In fact, GND2 delivered about a third of the gross of the original.
Plot with spoilers
Here’s the unsurprising plot. Grace is a kind-hearted high school teacher who takes good care of her live-in grandfather (played by Pat Boone). Brooke is a student in her AP History class whose callous freethinking parents quickly got over their son’s accidental death, leaving Brooke feeling empty and alone. In a class discussion about Martin Luther King and Gandhi, Brooke asks a question about the relevance of Jesus as a peacekeeper, and Grace replies with a relevant Bible quote. Another student complains, but he’s told that the mention of Jesus, including quotes from the Bible, are not amiss in public schools, assuming that the material is stated in the context of teaching rather than proselytization, which this clearly was. The End.
Kidding! Of course, the movie lives in Everyone Is Mean to Christians and the Sky Is Falling Land, and the school board gets involved. Then the ACLU (hiss!) files a lawsuit, and the lead lawyer isn’t shy about their agenda: “We’re going to prove once and for all that God is dead.” After a little prayer in the darkest hour of the courtroom proceedings, our heroine is acquitted, and once again we’re told that God’s not dead (and asked to tweet that to all our friends).
Though the movie launched on April 1, there was no April Fool’s Day gotcha at the end. Since Jesus promised persecution, maybe Christians think they’re doing it wrong if there isn’t any. (And in the U.S., there isn’t.)
GND: the franchise
The amount of continuity between the two God’s Not Dead movies surprised me. Martin the Asian student makes a return appearance. In GND1, a Muslim student was disowned by her father, but Martin takes that role in the sequel when his father disowns him for his faith. Pastors Dave and Jude are back. The atheist-now-Christian reporter who got a cancer diagnosis in GND1 has a miraculous remission. Duck Dynasty is given as an answer to “What’s your favorite TV show?” in jury selection, and the daughter of the two Duck Dynasty characters who made cameos in GND1 plays a small part. And there’s a Newsboys concert at the end.
Who’s eager for God’s Not Dead 3?!
What about all those court cases showing Christian persecution?
As with the GND1, this movie ends with a handful of court cases that it claims illustrate “the very real threats to religious liberty that occur daily in the public square.” These all had the Alliance Defending Freedom on the Christian side, and the ADF web site crowed about the release of GND2, which they say was “inspired by ADF cases.”
Friendly Atheist responded to every one of those cases. Spoiler: the ADF case isn’t much by the end of this critique.
And the ADF may not be that noble an ally when the Human Rights Campaign labeled them as “one of the nation’s most dangerous organizations working to prevent equality for LGBT people.” They seem to take a zero-sum approach to the public square, enlarging their rights at the expense of others’.
The Supreme Court’s tests for religion in public schools are clear (see my summary of the Lemon test for violations of the First Amendment’s Establishment clause and the Sherbert test for violations of the Free Exercise clause).
Is the ACLU really that evil?
The American Civil Liberties Union is a popular bad guy in conservatives’ imagination, though its mission in the religion domain seems easy to accept: “The ACLU strives to safeguard the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty by ensuring that laws and governmental practices neither promote religion nor interfere with its free exercise.”
They might talk a good story, but let’s check the evidence. In front of a list of more than two hundred cases going back twenty years (which contains “only recent examples”), they say:
The ACLU vigorously defends the rights of all Americans to practice their religion. But because the ACLU is often better known for its work preventing the government from promoting and funding selected religious activities, it is sometimes wrongly assumed that the ACLU does not zealously defend the rights of all religious believers to practice their faith. The actions described below—over half of which were brought on behalf of self-identified Christians, with the remaining cases defending the rights of a wide range of minority faiths—reveal just how mistaken such assumptions are.
I won’t do a thorough takedown of the movie, but let me touch on a few points that I can’t overlook.
- Product-Placement Santa came early for several apologists brought in as witnesses for the defense, playing themselves. Lee Strobel mentioned his Case for Christ, and J. Warner Wallace was asked for both the title (Cold-Case Christianity) and then the subtitle (A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels) of his book. And the defense lawyer in the movie is given Man, Myth, Messiah by Rice Broocks, the movie’s apologetics consultant.
- Amy is the reporter who unexplainably recovered from cancer. Someone asked (paraphrased), “But isn’t that what you prayed for?” Though she didn’t say this, she might as well have replied, “Well, yeah, but everyone knows it doesn’t work like that!”
- Pat Boone the grandfather said, “Atheism doesn’t take away the pain, it just takes away the hope.”
- The ACLU lawyer (think of him as Satan) and his team meet Brooke’s parents and say that being part of an important lawsuit would bring publicity and a financial settlement that would help Brooke get into Stanford. The scene ended with Dad signing a contract—basically, a deal with the devil. I almost expected to see smoke as the pen touched the paper. (Perhaps Satan forgot Jessica Ahlquist from Rhode Island who participated in a 2012 lawsuit to remove an overtly Christian prayer in her high school. She was publicly called “an evil little thing” by a state representative, and she received hate mail and death threats. No, you don’t get just accolades when you push back against Christian privilege.)
- The case gets local publicity, and protesters from both sides are on the steps of the courthouse. The Christians are sitting silently and peacefully with their signs, and the atheists, every one of them, are facing them and shouting. (Wow—I didn’t realize atheists were so universally hateful. I need to get with the program.)
- Mike Huckabee interviews yet another real-life apologist and concludes that Christians will soon have to pick the law of Man or the law of God. This was echoed by a Ratio Christi promo for the movie: “If Christians don’t take a stand today, will we even have a choice tomorrow?” (In the first place, your “law of God” is legal here thanks to the U.S. Constitution. You should at least have a little appreciation as well as some knowledge of civics. In the second, atheists want only to remove excesses that favor Christianity over other worldviews. That’s it.)
- The argument from the defense was that Grace made a justifiable secular statement in a public school classroom. But once they win, the secular pretense is out the window and everybody is chanting, “God’s not dead, he’s surely alive,” a line from a Newsboys song.
In the courtroom, Satan inverts the case for the jury’s benefit. Suppose that, instead of a Christian quoting from the Bible, we had a Muslim quoting from the Qur’an? Wouldn’t that clearly be proselytization? (Hardly—I can quote the Bible better than most Christians. When I do so, I most certainly am not proselytizing.)
But let’s take this further. Suppose the movie were actually changed in this way, with a Muslim teacher giving a relevant, non-proselytizing quote from the Qur’an about Mohammed in a public school history class. Would the Christian fans of the movie support this teacher’s rights in a secular country? Or is the First Amendment relevant only when it supports a Christian?
The atheists would be unchanged by such a case. It wasn’t a problem with the Christian, and it’s not a problem with the Muslim. How about it, Christians? This would make your case stronger, because your support for the Muslim teacher would show that this wasn’t simply an attempt to get favors just for your religion—which, I must confess, is pretty much what it looks like.
God’s Not Dead 3?
Let me bring this too-long post to a close. I need to respond to the post-credits Easter egg where Pastor Dave is hauled off in handcuffs, setting up the to-be-thrilling sequel.
Earlier in the movie, a group of local pastors had been told that the last four months of their sermons were being subpoenaed. No reason is given; this is just a demand out of the blue.
The script had a 2014 Houston case in mind, and one character even alluded to it, but that was a very different case. Instead of some government body demanding pastors’ sermons for no stated reason, the Houston case started with a lawsuit from conservative groups against the city of Houston to attack new provisions to provide trans access to bathrooms matching gender identity. In response, the city subpoenaed five local conservative pastors to find statements they’d made relevant to the case.
The city quickly reversed itself, and even atheists pushed back against the logic of the request. Eager to crank up the hysteria dial, however, the movie turned a response to a conservative lawsuit into an unprovoked attack on Christian liberty.
Maybe my shock at the ridiculousness of the movie is off base. Perhaps everyone already knows that this is just persecution porn and, like a romance novel that must have a happy ending, this is just a genre thing. Staying in close contact with reality isn’t the way it works here. If so, perhaps I’m the one fooled with this April Fool’s Day movie.
(BTW, for the best in Christian movie takedowns, let me recommend the God Awful Movies podcast. Here’s their takedown of GND2.)
My review of GND3 here.
Will the persecution never stop??
— Friendly Atheist commenter,
on a possible plot summary of God’s Not Dead 3
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 4/2/16.)
Image credit: PUREFLIX