Jack Jenkins is ThinkProgress’ Senior Religion Reporter and has a Master’s of Divinity from Harvard University. Zack Ford is ThinkProgress’ LGBT Editor and an out and proud atheist who has spoken at various secular conferences nationwide. This week, they went to see the new film God’s Not Dead 2 together. This is a slightly edited version of the conversation that followed.
Zack Ford: So, we just saw God’s Not Dead 2, which is the latest film from the Christian right about how persecuted they are in the 21st century (even Mike Huckabee makes a cameo to drive the point home). I wanted to see this with you Jack because we always have great conversations and debates about religion and this seemed like it would be a great catalyst for another.
I have to say that I kind of liked it; it’s at least watchable for the strawman farce that it is. I laughed a lot, but I probably wasn’t supposed to. I couldn’t help but notice that you were furiously taking far more notes than I was. We only had one pen between us to share and you held it most of the time. What did you think?
Jack Jenkins: :: sighs deeply, squints eyes, rubs bridge of nose :: I don’t even know where to begin, Zack.
ZF: There’s a ton to unpack, to be sure, but I think we both agree that it’s worth discussing because the film is — by design — an allegory for the current fight over the fate of “religious liberty” in this country. But how about we start at the beginning?
JJ: Well, I guess we should discuss the film’s deeply problematic premise, which is clearly designed to manipulate the audience into sympathizing with the “Christian” characters. (I put “Christian” in quotation marks not to question the faith of the characters, but because the producers of GND2 really only mean evangelical Christian; mainline liberal Christians, Catholics, or members of any other religious group are conveniently absent from this film.)
Anyway, the story essentially revolves around Grace Wesley, a high school history teacher portrayed by Melissa Joan Hart who also happens to be a teenage witch Bible-believing evangelical Christian. Grace is apparently an excellent teacher who cares deeply about her students — particularly Brooke Thawley (Hayley Orrantia), who is spacing out in class of late. Grace eventually asks Brooke what’s wrong, and the two agree to meet at a coffee shop after school to discuss the teenager’s myriad of issues — namely, the recent death of her brother in an unspecified “accident.” When Brooke asks Grace how she is able to maintain such a chipper attitude in the face of life’s problems, the teacher eagerly replies “Jesus!”
Fast forward to a few days later, when Grace is leading her class in a conversation about Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their belief in nonviolent resistance. Brooke, newly converted to Christianity, raises her hand and asks whether King’s belief relates to the peaceful “love your enemy” teachings of Jesus Christ, beginning a dialogue in which student and teacher showcase their Christian faith in the most evangelical way possible: by reciting scripture from memory, completely out-of-context.
An unseen student then texts…someone…about the exchange, and suddenly Grace is brought up on charges before the principal and the school board for supposedly failing to adhere to the separation of Church and State. Grace refuses to apologize, thus transforming the film into a courtroom drama.
Never mind that Grace clearly has a strong case, and that siding against her would be absolutely absurd. Evangelical Christians are persecuted, dangit, and the audience needs to sympathize with Grace’s cause.
ZF: Right, like, Brooke’s question was legit and thoughtful, and Grace’s response was also totally valid. I might not agree that the Bible is an accurate historic record of events (a major grounding of the film I’m sure we’ll talk more about), but I do agree that it’s an important piece of literature. It’s not like we atheists want to erase the Bible or pretend it never existed. We just want to make sure that when it’s being discussed in a public school, it’s not done in a way that forces students to accept faith-based beliefs as fact or to diminish what they otherwise believe or don’t believe. There was nothing controversial about the exchange, which means the entire premise of the film is one big strawman.
JJ: But see, Zack, your response is entirely reasonable, and that sort of attitude clearly is not welcome in Persecuted Evangelical Land (which, according to this film, is Arkansas).
Also, your logic doesn’t allow them to demonize everyone who isn’t an evangelical.
ZF: Here we see that everyone in the film who isn’t an evangelical Christian (or at least not yet) is a vile enemy of that Christianity. The school officials try to strongarm Grace, but when she doesn’t capitulate, they actually just sit back and let the ACLU —
JJ: Yes, folks, in the first of many explicit real-world references, they actually name-check the ACLU.
ZF: — sue on behalf of Brooke’s terribly disconnected parents, because those evil ACLU atheists have been dying for a case like this. The school officials wash their hands of it and openly acknowledge that they’ll keep Grace suspended without pay and then make a decision based on however the jury decides her fate. Besides, they’ve got their hands full explaining to the football coach that he can’t pray with the team.
Just to make sure we understand just how evil the school’s atheists are, they also censor Brooke and tell her she can’t speak to anybody about Grace’s suspension or her parents’ lawsuit or she’ll face consequences. Also, because she’s a minor, the evil atheist court doesn’t care what she has to say. Of course, this means she’ll later force her way into the courtroom and get to have her say.
Aside from all this, we have some periphery stuff that helps weave a thread from the first film to this one. There’s a sort of loser pastor, Rev. Dave (David A. R. White) — he’s just kind of a hot mess and we don’t why — who’s trying to help a Chinese immigrant understand his beliefs, and he ends up serving on Grace’s jury until the untimely burst of his appendix. The Chinese student happens to be none other than Martin (Paul Kwo), who first embraced his faith in the original God’s Not Dead.
There’s also some other girl’s aunt (Trisha LaFache), who is questioning her faith because her cancer went into remission and she’s blogging about that and about the trial. In the first film, she was an angry atheist journalist until she met the real-world band The Newsboys, who prayed over her. Now she’s either besties with or dating the lead singer, and they appear again for no apparent reason except to once again make us listen to their unoriginally named song, “God’s Not Dead,” at the denouement of the film.
JJ: Not all the music in the movie was bad, though. The one scene where the kids sing the hymn “How Great Thou Art” to Grace actually got us both choked up.
ZF: Yeah! I mean, with my background in music education, I’m always moved by people coming together and finding strength in music. And honestly, because the case was so stupid, I was basically rooting for Grace, Brooke, and all the anonymous Christian classmates that she suddenly became besties with.
Part of me wanted to give GND2 credit for being a step up from the first movie. Though admittedly neither of us have seen it, we’re both familiar with God’s Not Dead (1) and the fact that it’s based on those mythical email forwards your aunt sends you about how a freshman Christian student debunked the angry atheist professor’s claims about God not existing. The evil professor in that film loses the final debate with his student over the existence of God after admitting that he hates God over his mother’s death — because all atheists are just bitter and secretly still believe in God or something. The sequel is at least somewhat more original, if a total farce in the same fashion.
JJ: True, but — if I understand correctly — the goal of GND2 is a little different from its predecessor. Both films tap into the evangelical persecution narrative, which dates back a century or more. But whereas the original harps on old discussions of evolution and the desire for some atheists and evangelicals to literally debate the nature and existence of God, GND2 is clearly designed to speak to the current political moment — specifically, the idea that evangelicals are uniquely oppressed in contemporary America.
The film does this pretty cleverly, actually. The Chinese disciple Martin is developed slowly and carefully, and while his story only tangentially relates to the main plot, his interest in and eventual conversion to Christianity at the hands of Loser Rev. Dave is in many ways believable. This makes it all the more impactful when Martin’s angry father appears and demands that he recant his faith, beating him when he refuses.
The subtext here is that there is actual, real-world persecution of Christians in China, and the filmmakers are clearly working very hard to equate the Chinese government’s willingness to arrest Christian pastors with the supposed persecution of American evangelicals. They take pains to directly reference the recent instance in Houston when local pastors had their sermons subpoenaed.
ZF: In fact, the late Fred Thompson makes a cameo as the “Senior Pastor” in a scene where Loser Rev. Dave and his pastor buds are all having a cute little lunch together — I found myself wishing Elaine Stritch were still alive to sing about them — and announces that the city has subpoenaed all of their sermons for the past three months.
He never explains why, which is a telling omission. As I explained when it actually happened in Houston, there was quite good reason! The evangelical pastors there had specifically used their own churches and sermons to instruct their members how to collect signatures to overturn the city’s law protecting LGBT people from discrimination. In the ensuing legal fight over the validity of the signatures collected, the city sought to confirm whether those instructions were delivered properly. Because the pastors made such an uproar about this supposed imposition on their religious freedom, the city decided the controversy wasn’t worth it and rescinded the subpoenas.
LGBT people are never mentioned in GND2 —
JJ: Well, they did disqualify a juror in Grace’s trial simply because she was a fan of Pretty Little Liars.
ZF: — ugh, yeah, that made no sense to me — but we might still get to find out just what the subpoena business was all about. Increasingly-Inspired Rev. Dave has a scene where he delivers a thin envelope to the county clerk — another angry atheist — announcing he has only provided a letter explaining why he won’t be sharing his subpoenas (an explanation he doesn’t really share with the audience). Then, in a bonus scene at the end of the film’s credits (that we admittedly missed because we felt we’d dedicated enough time to the movie as it was), we see Now-More-Convicted Rev. Dave actually get arrested for resisting the subpoena! Director Harold Cronk admitted to the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins this week that it was, indeed, a teaser for a planned GND3, so get excited about that.
JJ: Actually, I want to talk about the film’s weird obsession with angry atheists. From start to finish, the entire movie is split into two concrete binary categories: people who believe in God and are thus naturally evangelical Christians, or atheists who are corrupt, unhappy, and quite literally hate evangelical Christians. The one exception is Grace’s dashing, J Crew gingham shirt-wearing lawyer (Jesse Metcalf), who is heavily implied to be a newly-converted evangelical Christian by the end of the film.
ZF: After originally being apathetic about religion and uninspired by Grace’s case, we see him at the end of the film reading Man, Myth, Messiah by Rice Broocks, who is one of the film’s several evangelicals who portray themselves as expert witnesses on Jesus.
JJ: Yeah, see, the weird thing here is that the courtroom drama eventually devolves into a debate over whether or not Jesus was an actual historical figure — an argument that is completely unnecessary to win Grace’s case, since she doesn’t need to prove whether Jesus existed in the literal sense to contend that Christianity and the Bible were directly relevant to the activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. (I don’t think anyone would dispute that it was).
ZF: I would think not! But that didn’t stop the evil atheist teacher from proudly testifying that if she taught “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” she’d leave out King’s biblical references, because ew. Icky.
JJ: But in so doing, the evangelical protagonists essentially resurrect a debate from around the turn of the 20th century, during the great schism between Modernist Christians (today’s mainliners, like me) and Fundamentalists (today’s evangelicals). But back then, fundamentalists actually opposed many Modernist Christian scholars who studied the historical Jesus, since the historical context they unearthed challenged many accepted theological truisms. In fact, the fundamentalists ended up losing most of their debates with liberal Christians — at least in the cultural sense. They failed to win ownership of radio waves, for instance, and while they got Prohibition for a while, they ultimately lost that, too, and right-wing Christians generally retreated from political life until the Red Scare. In the meantime, they set up many of their own systems outside of the mainstream, such as evangelical accreditation organizations to accredit Bible schools.
None of this is referenced in GND2, of course, but the tradition of creating an alternative, distinctly evangelical narrative and worldview — rooted in deeply problematic theology — is alive and well.
Like, at one point, a former forensics expert sits on the witness stand and explains that he came to Christ because he found the “eyewitness accounts” of the gospels to be similar to eyewitness accounts of crimes he researches, meaning they are inconsistent but ultimately convincing.
ZF: Yeah, I liked how he downplayed the importance of DNA in all the “cold cases” he investigates. Since when have eyewitness accounts — especially conflicting ones — ever been more reliable than solid scientific evidence like DNA?
JJ: Yeah, details are kind of thrown out the window in this part of the film. For instance: It would appear that no one told him — or the filmmakers — that few if any biblical scholars, evangelical or otherwise, believe the gospels were actually eyewitness accounts written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Rather, the gospels were almost certainly written by other people and attributed to them (a common practice in antiquity) and penned long, long after Christ’s crucifixion. In fact, even generous estimates say that Mark, the oldest gospel, was penned at least 40 years after Jesus’ death, and the earliest known manuscripts date from the 4th century.
But none of this seems to matter to the creators of GND2, or to the political actors who promote it. The goal here isn’t to delve into good theology or biblical scholarship, but to “win” a debate with a new boogie man that has apparently replaced liberal Christians: atheists.
As a liberal Christian, I’m mildly offended that my people are left out.
My Night At The Heritage Foundation Watching Rick Santorum’s New ‘Religious Liberty’ MovieLGBT by CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Zack Ford On Monday afternoon at 1:35 PM, I received an email from the National…thinkprogress.orgZF: We atheists are replacing you liberal Christians, aren’t we? I’m okay with that.
I think your “boogie man” description is an apt reduction of the atheists’ portrayal in this film. If we haven’t driven home the point yet, all of the non-evangelical Christians in the film are apparently atheists and they’re all super evil and out to get those Christians. Honestly, I found this portrayal so goofy and shallow as to be unbelievable (pun intended)! Do evangelical Christians really believe we atheists are like that?
JJ: Is that a rhetorical question?ZF: I mean, I guess they must, because they put it in the movie.
In one of the early scenes, Grace’s ailing grandfather (Pat Boone) literally says, “That’s the thing about atheism; it doesn’t take away the pain, it just takes away the hope.” I mean, have they ever met an atheist? The fact that we don’t waste our hope wondering what Heaven is like means we just have that much more to dedicate to life on Earth. I’ll happily visit any church and testify to just how much hope atheists can have.
Furthermore, I know a lot of atheists and even hardcore atheist activists, having spoken at numerous atheist conferences and such, and I have definitely never heard anyone say, “We’re going to prove once and for all that God is dead,” like Ray Wise’s conniving ACLU lawyer character says. We don’t believe God was ever alive or real, so why would we care if he’s dead? To us, he’s a fictional character no different from Voldemort or Sauron, and we have zero investment in trying to manipulate his fate.
JJ: Those are your go-to comparisons?
ZF: Have you read the Old Testament?
JJ: That’s not…Okay yeah God got pretty dark there for a while.
ZF: Later, the ACLU villain tells Grace’s dapper lawyer, “I hate what your client stands for.” Brooke’s “rationalist nontheist” father also testifies that he was “wholly offended” by what Grace said in the classroom.
Excuse me, but just because I’m not a Christian doesn’t mean I’m offended by Matthew 5:44. Hell, I survived grade school bullying by “killing them with kindness.” I don’t have to believe in God to agree that it’s a good strategy for overcoming persecution. Ironically, it’s the one tactic conservative evangelical Christians never seem to try with us LGBT folks or with us atheists.
JJ: That’s a good point. This film makes non-Christians look silly and tries to persuade them not through Christian acts of kindness, but through rhetorical finesse and force.
But that assumes the film really cares about “convincing” anyone, which I highly doubt. I think it exists primarily to provide an internal narrative for how evangelicals can see themselves in 2016, to both assuage their fears and give them a specific mission: fight back against the supposed persecution of their kind.
That’s why Mike Huckabee randomly shows up, why so many evangelical leaders make cameos, and why the whole thing ends with a giant list of “religious liberty” cases litigated by the Alliance Defending Freedom.
ZF: Seriously! We did stay long enough into the credits to see a list of 25 cases that ADF has litigated that inspired the film and somehow prove that “religious liberty” is truly under threat. We were so caught off-guard that we started pointing and yelling “Alliance Defending Freedom! Alliance Defending Freedom!” until we realized that every single anecdote was one of the conservative legal group’s cases.
These included GND2-type cases of professors who were denied promotions or fired for espousing their beliefs in the classroom — often anti-LGBT or anti-abortion — as well as GND1-type cases of Christian students somehow shut down by their professors for expressing the same beliefs.
Interestingly, ADF has either won or settled all of the listed cases that aren’t ongoing, and that’s not surprising. Many of the incidents are as obviously wrong as Grace’s response in the film is obviously not a problem at all. A student including a biblical reference in an art project receiving a zero for it? I mean, as much as I despise what ADF usually stands for, I still want them to win cases like that.
It’s unfortunate that they have to, but like, the fact that they win or settle just disproves the whole point of the movie. It seems like legitimate attacks on religious freedom are so exceptional as to only be slightly more common than voter fraud, and the rest is all just fake self-victimizing to try to impose social conservative beliefs and enforce discrimination.
JJ: Well, on a positive note, the film is actually surprisingly well-produced, and — as is common in evangelical productions for unclear reasons — pretty much everyone in the movie is beautiful.
ZF: Ugh, I think that’s why I actually found it watchable. Everybody in the film was very pretty. I honestly couldn’t decide which scruffy lawyer I wanted to root for. For as much as Jesse Metcalf was rocking that gingham, I think I have to go with Eamonn McCrystal, the Irish pop tenor who played the assistant counsel for the evil atheist ACLU. Given his last album was endorsed by the uber-conservative John Hagee, I don’t know how gay-friendly the guy is, but I’d take him under my wings any day.
JJ: No, but seriously everyone was striking and impeccably well put-together, even the random school board legal aide with only one line.
ZF: That’s because that scene was overpopulated by grumpy old men, so there had to be at least some eye candy on their side of the table.
JJ: I must’ve missed that part of evangelical theology.
ZF: Ah, you must not know my favorite hymn then.
At any rate, thanks for enduring this film with me, Jack. If ThinkProgress readers appreciate this review, maybe we can go back and do GND1. I’ll promise to let you pre-game this time.
JJ: You’re gonna need a lot of booze.