by Aidan Stoddart
One odd scene in God’s Not Dead 2 really sticks in my mind because it epitomizes the sentiment that defines the entire God’s Not Dead franchise: the outlook dubbed by YouTuber Kevin McCreary (alias SayGoodnightKevin) as “the American Persecution Complex.”
Sitting around the brunch table in the scene is an assortment of local pastors, including Pastor Dave, a prominent character both in the original God’s Not Dead and its sequel. They all seem to be enjoying their meal until the eldest of the group sits down to join them and share some news.
“Gentlemen, I don’t want to spoil your brunch,” he says forebodingly, “but I’m hearing from a friend of mine in the prosecutor’s office about a subpoena that just came down demanding that we submit copies of our sermons for the last three months for review.”
An anxious conversation follows.
“Can they do that?” asks a pastor, incredulous.
“They tried it in Houston,” says the elder.
“So now the government can determine what we can and can’t preach at our churches?” asks another.
“Let’s not overreact,” says a young spectacled pastor. “I’m sure there’s no ill intent here.”
“Unfortunately I think this is just the beginning,” says the eldest pastor with a sigh. “We’ve been ignoring it, now we’re paying the price for it.”
A few more lines, and the more optimistic pastor persists in his opinion. “I’ll admit there’s pressure,” he says, “but I think with time this will correct itself.”
Pastor Dave finally adds his two cents to the debate. “Forgive me,” he interjects, “but I think you’re wrong…. If we stand by and do nothing, the pressure that we’re feeling today is gonna mean persecution tomorrow…. Whether we admit it or not, we’re at war.”
Rather than examine what the pastors in the film do in response to this situation, let’s examine the situation itself. The first question asked after the subpoena bomb is dropped is: “Can they do that?”
No. “They” can’t. And they haven’t succeeded at trying.
The situation in Houston to which the eldest pastor alludes happened back in 2014, when an openly-lesbian mayor attempted to issue similar subpoenas against some pastors in the city who responded negatively to progressive legislation regarding homosexuality and gender identity. The action received criticism from both sides of the political aisle and, of course, from Christians, and the subpoenas were quickly withdrawn, never put into action.
The situation in Houston was totally anomalous, and the Christian voices came out on top. The cautionary tale presented by the situation in God’s Not Dead 2 is contrived and unfounded. If, as Pastor Dave suggests, there is a war on Christianity, then let’s be clear. It is a war that Christian Americans (an endowed, tenured, and hardly silent majority) are predisposed to win.
But Harold Cronk and the folks behind the God’s Not Dead films disagree. They present an image of an America where Christians, a victimized, blameless group, are under attack from ferocious and bigoted atheist powers.
The franchise perpetuates more problematic images than this, of course, with its unconscionable use of stereotypes and poor theology. But this contrived quandary, this “American Persecution Complex,” is the fallacy at the heart of their message, and it is the theme I want to address.
The first God’s Not Dead tells the story of mild-mannered Christian college student Josh Wheaton, who has to contend with an extremely biased and acrimonious philosophy professor Radisson, an anti-theist intent on stamping out theism in his classroom.
Over the course of the film, Wheaton presents a defense of what Professor Radisson “the antithesis,” and during the climax of the film, one by one, each student in the class stands up and declares “God’s Not Dead” in a kitschy show of support for underdog Wheaton, and in an overwhelming decrial of Professor Radisson, who runs out of the classroom.
The film ends with Wheaton going to a Newsboys (famous Christian rock band) concert with new friend Martin, a classmate who decided to become a Christian after hearing Wheaton’s case for God.
Professor Radisson, meanwhile, in an exemplification of what I can only call a perversion of the idea of karma, gets hit by a car. Pastor Dave is coincidentally in the vicinity to watch the accident, and he ministers to Radisson on his deathbed (or death-asphalt).
Just before shuddering and breathing his last, Radisson whispers his acceptance of Jesus Christ, which is great because for a second we weren’t sure if he was going to Heaven or not.
God’s Not Dead 2 recounts the events that happen after public school history teacher Grace Wesley compares the nonviolent teachings of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., to the teachings of Jesus, in response to a student asking about parallels between the civil rights movements of the 20th century and the Jesus Movement of the 1st century.
Upon Wesley’s mention of Jesus and explanation of his nonviolent stance with a quote from the Bible, an unnamed student reports religious bias in the classroom via text message.
The situation inflates, and eventually Grace Wesley finds herself dealing with stressful litigation in a circuit court case. The case receives a lot of attention, and by the end of the film it is clear that the case is not only a fight for Wesley’s job, but a fight to defend “the right to believe.”
It’s Wesley and her public defendant, Tom Endler (Endler’s is the only positive portrayal of a non-Christian in the entire franchise) against a sinister, atheist lawyer, Pete Kane, whose motivation for taking this case is his desire to save impressionable children from the Christian “repressive belief system” (Kane, by the way, of course works for the ACLU). Grace Wesley wins the case, but seemingly against overwhelming odds, and the film ends with yet another Newsboys concert.
The problem with the films is that their central conflicts are so unrealistic they are almost silly.
No tenured professor of philosophy at any reputable academic institution in the United States could ever get away with trying to impose atheism on his students, especially if he were so anti-Christian. The philosophical battle that comprises God’s Not Dead didn’t have to happen; any prompt report by Josh Wheaton to the school’s administration would surely have resulted in the reprimanding or suspension of Professor Radisson.
As for the situation in God’s Not Dead 2, no teacher of AP history would be prosecuted (and, in effect, persecuted) for mentioning the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth and his movement, especially if the mention were in response to a student’s question.
To add legitimacy to the franchise, the editors of the God’s Not Dead films began the credit sequences of both movies with a list of court cases that supposedly inspired the events in the films. But the situations in the real life court cases were nothing like the central plotlines of God’s Not Dead or God’s Not Dead 2.
“Not a single one of them plays out anything like the film,” states McCreary in his critique of God’s Not Dead. “Most of them don’t have anything to do with religion but rather political issues that tend to be more conservative, and without exception, they are cases of Christians filing lawsuits against schools…. Not a single one of them [is a] cut and dry case of Christians being mistreated.”
No group deserves to be persecuted, and the situations in the God’s Not Dead franchise are inexcusable. But they are also not reality. I think that white Protestant Christians have been in control for so long in America that, for some more reactionary Christians, the recent increases in tolerance for religious diversity (and the secularization of public institutions that comes as a result) are interpreted only as a threat; the God’s Not Dead franchise is the cinematic manifestation of that response.
It’s an increasingly pluralistic world, and as a Christian I think the Christ-like thing to do is embrace diversity and build bridges and fight stigmas and stereotypes; the Christ-like thing to do is welcome change and truth with an open heart and an open mind. But Harold Cronk and the people behind the God’s Not Dead films do anything but.