In a city like many others in the United States, a diverse group of students and faculty go about their daily routines. The football team bends a knee in prayer and the flag is prominent. In a history class about non-violence to achieve civil rights Brooke (Hayley Orrantia), a junior, asks the teacher Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) if the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are like those of Jesus because they all taught nonviolence, stood up for what they believed in and died for it. Grace agrees and quotes Matthew 5:44 to illustrate that Dr. King used scripture to motivate his nonviolence and Gandhi showed how to live it.
But a student secretly records Grace when he realizes where the conversation is going by bringing in Jesus. In short order Grace is suspended from her job and Brooke's parents, incited by the American Civil Liberties Union, file a civil case against Grace because she is "preaching" rather than "teaching" and has harmed their daughter whom they brought up as a freethinker. The American Civil Liberties Union lawyer (played by a slick, nefarious looking Ray Wise) tells Brooke's parents that this case will help their daughter get into an Ivy League school and win enough money to pay for it. Grace discovers that when she quoted words allegedly made by Jesus this allegedly proves she is not in compliance with local, state and federal regulations.
Grace lives with her grandfather (Pat Boone) and he tells her that atheists don't take away life's pain but hope.
Meanwhile, a young woman, Amy (Trisha LaFache), a non-believer, learns she is cancer free and decides to start writing about her search for faith. Martin, a student from China approaches Pastor Dave (David A.R. White, who also appeared in the original "God's Not Dead") with 147 questions about the Bible. When his father comes to take Martin back to China because of his new faith, his father strikes him in anger. Martin later decides he wants to become a minister.
Grace's public defender is Tom Endler (Jesse Metcalfe) and he doesn't really have a plan to win the case until the very end of the trial. But midtrial a group of pastors meet with their Senior Pastor (the late Fred Dalton Thompson) who tells them that they all will be receiving a subpoena to turn over transcripts of the last three months of their sermons to the district attorney. As things are going, a pastor says, it's moving from pressure to persecution [of Christians] by the government and the next thing you know they'll be seizing your property at the end of a gun. Pastor Dave agrees that things are getting bad for Christians.
"God's Not Dead 2" follows the successful 2014 film "God's Not Dead." Both are directed by Harold Cronk and written by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon. The premise of both films is nothing more than politicized religion as a vehicle to feed conspiracy theories. According to the film, Christianity together with authentic American patriotism are under attack in America, especially politically conservative and evangelical, Bible-based Christianity.
The cast for "God's Not Dead 2" gives solid performances and the film, released under the Pure Flix label, has high production values. I must say that actor and Christian crooner Pat Boone, at 81, still looks good. There are some faith-affirming statements in the film and it would be nice if young people would read the Bible and reflect on biblical teaching. It shows people searching for God and they find God in the Bible, though it is always a solitary endeavor, between each one and God.
I have great reservations about "God's Not Dead 2" (as I did for the first film) because Christians are shown to be victims and the government, with its evil agent the ACLU, are out to get us. Well, not all of us, but the evangelical Christians, the real Americans. The film looks like entertainment but it is "preaching and teaching" Protestant evangelical "sola scriptura" Christianity and citizenship to the audience. The film does exactly what Grace is accused of doing. This is preaching not entertainment.
The Senior Pastor (Thompson; this was his last film as he died shortly after filming) never explains the reason for the subpoena for the transcripts of three months of sermons "like in Houston," and this makes the insertion of this scene in the narrative all the more odd. It's just one more thing to prove that Christians are victims. The scene is unhelpful and almost inflammatory without any context. The "Houston case" was about the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in 2014 that banned discrimination against anyone on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.
A Christian advocacy group that opposed same-sex marriage and abortion gathered signatures to have the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance repealed. The city said they did not have enough signatures to put it on the ballot and as a legal case challenging the city progressed, pro bono attorneys for the city did subpoena pastors' sermons, but they assert it was to find out what instructions pastors gave about collecting signatures. Others believe the city attorneys wanted to repeal the churches' tax exempt status. Later the mayor said the pro bono attorneys acted without her knowledge or that of the city attorney.
This gratuitous sequence in the film made me think that it was telling us to form a militia because the next stop will be something like, well, like Ruby Ridge.
Some evangelical Christians may find the film interesting and even inspiring if you accept the victim premise. Melissa Joan Hart's character is very appealing and she never overreaches. But if Catholic audiences in particular do not question the film they may lose sight of the issue of Jesus' nonviolence to put on the mantle of victimhood and a silo mentality of what it means to be a Catholic Christian in the modern world. They may not even notice that the sacraments and common worship to celebrate the Eucharist, the celebration of Word and Sacrament, the sign of our unity, are missing. At the end, when students are all chanting the lyrics of a Newsboys' song (they appear in the film as well), "God's not dead, he's surely alive," I got the feeling that the film thinks that if you chant or sing it long enough you'll believe and it doesn't matter if you don't understand what the film implies.
As Pope Francis said to journalists on his return to Rome from Mexico, he who builds walls and not bridges is not a Christian. I think "God's Not Dead 2" conflates evangelism and the filmmaker's view of American patriotism into a single idea and doesn't build the bridges we need for mutual respect for, and acceptance of, persons whose beliefs differ from ours. The pope encourages bridge building because we are, as Pope Francis reminds us, "political animals." We live in a democracy that is pluralistic and while I respect evangelical Christians, I cannot accept or celebrate the kind of Christianity put forth in the film. American democracy is not predicated on evangelical Christianity. As Catholic Christians we are a church called to live faith, hope and charity in the world -- not create a fraternity of victims and prepare to take defensive action. It is most regrettable that the film reinforces this idea. I bet the next sequel will show the town's people holed up on a mountain.
To be noted is that the odd meeting of pastors is just plunked in the middle of the film. I have a feeling the writers saw this in the newspaper when they were writing the script and thought it was a good idea to include it. The scene doesn't go anywhere or contribute to the resolution of the conflict, which means it is only there to anchor the film's political religious ideology.
"God's Not Dead 2" is political theater at a small-town American evangelical Sunday school in an election year. I don't do thumbs, stars or fruits or vegetables so I will just say that this film flatlines.
[Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.]