“God’s Not Dead 2” is a two hour straw-man argument regarding the separation of church and state, an Argument from Authority regarding the historicity of Jesus, and a delusional look into the minds of people who think Christians are a persecuted minority in the United States. If it’s not quite as morally reprehensible as the first film, it’s only because this film doesn’t seek to murder its atheist characters with hit-and-run accidents or depict Muslim parents are abusive heathens. We do still get racist Asian stereotypes, though.
The main story of the film involves a high school student named Brooke (Hayley Orrantia). Her brother has recently died, but her cold Atheist parents seem not to care, and are in a huge rush to donate all of the brother’s belongings to the Salvation Army. I’m surprised the parents would choose that most religious of charities, but if they hadn’t we wouldn’t be treated to a scene where Brooke sits on a bare mattress in her dead brother’s room crying while, I dunno, 7 different Salvation Army volunteers enter the room one at a time and each remove a single box, all while their walking and lifting sounds play loudly under the please-cry-now musical score of the movie. The scene goes on forever and the unmuted sound effects of the movers make it unintentionally hilarious. Once they’re done, another volunteer allows Brooke to keep her dead brother’s Bible. Apparently, this is a world where Christian children must hide their faith from their overbearing Atheist parents, lest they be cast out of the house. Not like our world, where Christian parents are more likely to disown and cast out their Atheist or, even more likely, homosexual children. I must have missed the scene where Dr. Who took us to this weird, alternate dimension.
In any case, Brooke starts to find faith and one day, in her AP History class, she asks the teacher, Grace (get it) Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart…yup), a question about whether Jesus’s “love your enemies” quote from the Bible is similar to Martin Luther King and Ghandi’s statements of non-violent resistance. Grace answers yes, and quotes a piece of the Bible with Jesus’s full quote. This interaction becomes the focal point of the film, so it’s important to spend a moment on it. The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause bars state endorsement of one religion over another. Some Christians, and even this film, will argue that the First Amendment is only meant to keep the State out of Church and not the other way around, but if that were so we wouldn’t have both the Establishment Clause AND the Free Exercise Clause. If both clauses were saying the same thing it would be redundant/ One clause protects the Church from the State, the other one protects the State from Church. That’s the way it is.
In the universe of this film, Grace’s conduct is supposed to be claimed by the Atheists in this film (represented by the ACLU, of course) to have violated the Establishment Clause. As an Atheist who was once a member of the ACLU (my membership has lapsed, but I may renew it after seeing this film), I can tell you that Grace’s conduct is not a violation, and no Atheist in the United States, and certainly no member of the ACLU who knows what they are talking about, would think this is a violation. Grace makes no comments as to Jesus’s divinity, or miracles, or any positive statements claiming Jesus was a god. Contrary to many Christian’s beliefs, Bibles are allowed in Public schools. When I was in high school, I had English assignments to read parts of Genesis and compare it to other literary myths, such as those of the Egyptians and Greeks. Some schools have comparative religion classes. There is a difference between teaching ABOUT religion, and teaching RELIGION. Some Christians clearly don’t know where the line is drawn between conversation and endorsement, but rest assured the ACLU does.
So, we have a straw man. This film misrepresents the ACTUAL issues that Atheists or other general fans of the Establishment Clause have with religious encroachment into public schools in order to stack the deck with a case in which the Christians are clearly on the right side of the law in order to make the Christians seem (somewhat) reasonable and portray the Atheists as petty jerks. That’s assuming the filmmakers actually KNOW better. If they do, it is reprehensible to form an argument that they know is based on falsity and to peddle it to a filmgoing audience that may not know any better and warping their view of the law, the Constitution, and the other side of their argument. If the filmmakers DON’T know any better, as I’m convinced they didn’t when they portrayed the field of Philosophy so inaccurately in the first film, then they’re simply idiots.
Grace’s conduct gets in her hot water with…the school board? Have I mentioned this film takes place in Arkansas? This film wants us to believe that a school board, elected by the people of Arkansas of all places, is full of rabid Atheists who will jump on a teacher for mentioning Jesus before any student or parent has even lodged a complaint? I used to live in Rhode Island, a very Liberal and Secular state compared to Arkansas. You should have seen how hard the school board fought when an Atheist student wanted a banner hanging in the public high school calling the students to pray removed. The ACLU took up and won that case after the school board voted against the girls’ request and the girl was subject to public ridicule from local businesses and elected officials. If there’s that much resistance in a state like Rhode Island, I highly doubt Arkansas, which once has Mike Huckabee as it’s governor, would be more inclined to crack down on possible infractions of the Establishment Clause. Anyway, Grace refuses to apologize for her conduct, leaving the school board to suspend her. Oddly, the school board has a weird plan after this. They don’t want to “get their hands dirty”, whatever that means. I think it means they don’t want to fire Grace. So, their plan is to get the ACLU to convince Brooke’s Atheist parents to file suit against the teacher (but not the school, because the board doesn’t want to pay out a settlement…sure, the ACLU will do that…) and force the board to fire her that way.
The lawyer for the ACLU is Pete Kane (get it), played in a gleefully over the top manner by Ray Wise. You may remember Ray Wise as playing the demon-possessed murderer of his daughter on “Twin Peaks”, or as playing Satan on “Reaper”. Here, he’s pretty much playing Satan again, including the gleeful, almost salivating manner in which he hands a pen over to Brooke’s parents to have them sign his retainer, leering over the paper and all but wringing his hands in a Mr. Burns-like manner. Kane dresses in nice suits, makes odd statements that come out of nowhere (“We’re going to prove once and for all…that God…is dead.” No Atheist has ever said that, ever, except when quoting this line and laughing at it), and expresses being physically sickened by Christianity. He’s this film’s answer to Kevin Sorbo’s highly unqualified Philosophy teacher in the first film, an arch Christian stereotype of an Evil Atheist. Ray Wise, unlike Sorbo, is a good actor and seems to be having fun with the role. I have no idea is Wise is sympathetic to the filmmakers position or simply took this role for the money (he was also briefly in the second “Atlas Shrugged” movie), but he’s fun to watch in a bad-Nicolas-Cage way in this film.
Lest you think this film forgot about characters from the first film, they’re here too. Remember the Liberal Atheist (because all Atheists are Liberal, right? Don’t tell Ayn Rand…) who was given cancer by god because she had the audacity to be an Atheist AND insult Duck Dynasty cast members? Well, after becoming friends with the Newsboys (the band who has the song that inspired these film’s titles, and whose albums these films are commercials for), god seems to have cured her of cancer. Perhaps some day Christian filmmakers will tell me why god is willing to cure cancer in middle class white Americans (“Miracles from Heaven”) but still allows children all over the world to be raped, murdered, and drone-bombed on a daily basis. Anyway, Liberal Atheist is Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache) spends the film covering the trial, but is otherwise fairly useless and unnecessary to the plot.
Also back from the first film is the weird, homoerotic subtextual relationship between Pastor Dave (David A.R. White) and African pastor Jude (Benjamin Onyango). You may remember them from the last film when they were way too happy after watching a man die on the street in front of them. This time, we’re still subject to poorly directed and poorly acted scenes from the two them that look suspiciously like the set-ups to gay porn scenes. In the first film, god punished Pastor Dave by making his car not start, because an omnipotent superbeing has time to flood your engine to punish you for something. In this film, Pastor Dave spills coffee on himself and gets appendicitis, and later he’s arrested. Maybe god doesn’t like you, Dave. Pastor Dave ends up briefly on the jury for Grace’s case, but he’s removed when his appendix is about to explode. He’s really only in the film so that the film can give us a brief subplot that sets up for a third film, and is based on really shaky ground.
There’s a scene about half way through the film where Dave is meeting with various other pastors, including the late Fred Thompson. Dave, who is still on the jury at this point and not supposed to discuss the case, discusses his impressions and biases regarding the case anyway. Then, and here’s a doozy, we learn that the government has decided to subpoena the last 120 days of sermons from all of the local pastors. For no reason. THIS would obviously be a violation of the Establishment Clause, not to mention a fishing expedition with no probable cause. The film still thinks this could happen, and mentions a case in Houston without giving the details of that case. Allow me to give you those details. The mayor of Houston signed a bill banning discrimination of homosexuals and transsexuals by businesses that serve the public, private employers, housing, city employment and city contracting. Following this, opponents of this law submitted a petition with 50,000 signatures asking to repeal it. The signature count was 2,000 valid signatures short because most pages of the petition were riddled with errors making many signatures invalid. Related to a legal challenge by the opponents to the law, the city attorney subpoenaed sermons related to the law, the petition, the mayor, and homosexuality and transgender issues. The purpose of this was merely to see if the pastors gave instructions to the opponents of the law (who were all Christians tied to these churches). To quote a news article about the issue: “What exactly the pastors said, and what the collectors knew about the rules, is one of the key issues in pending litigation around whether opponents of the law gathered enough signatures for a referendum.” The purpose of the sermons was not to censor content, but to clarify what instructions were given in relation to procedural issues at the heart of the matter. That is a long way from this film’s indication that the government would exercise prior restraint on pastors.
Lastly, we see the return of Chinese college student and ridiculously offensive stereotype Martin (Paul Kwo). He’s starting to move closer to Christianity, and is so Asian that he comes to Pastor Dave with 147 questions about the Bible, because all Asians are hilarious overachievers, right? Later, we get a scene where Martin’s Communist Father visits him at college simply to smack his son across the face and say that he has no son, because the writers must have heard that Asians do this when they disapprove of their children.
Don’t worry, we still have plenty of new characters packed into this mess. Grace’s attorney is Tom, played by the handsome but talentless Jesse Metcalfe. Metcalfe is never, for one moment, able to deliver a convincing line of dialogue or appear to be a convincing lawyer. If it weren’t for Pastor Dave, I’d say Metcalfe is the worst actor in this film, which admittedly has better acting on the whole than the first film did. We also get a embarrassed-looking Ernie Hudson as the judge presiding over the case (at least the film dispensed with the ridiculous broken gavel from the trailers) and Pat Boone as Grace’s father.
The depiction of the trial is inaccurate, even by movie standards. No one ever excuses witnesses from the stand (the entire court room empties out leaving Grace crying alone on the witness stand at one point). A lawyer is allowed to yell at a witness, his own client, because he’s able to “treat her like a hostile witness”. Treating someone as a hostile witness only means the attorney can ask leading questions, not berate them and testify in the guise of asking questions, but whatever. Also, witnesses are allowed to testify willy-nilly, even though any and all potential witnesses need to be disclosed before the trial, and people can’t just burst into a court room and demand to be heard. Also, by the end of the film, Tom should have easily been held in contempt and potentially facing ethics charges, but the film ignores his conduct as soon as it’s over. Also, since when can a judge decide to unilaterally forgo with closing arguments?
In a weird turn of events, Tom’s legal strategy turns on trying to affirmatively prove the historical existence of Jesus in order to justify quoting Jesus in a history class. While Grace’s quotation was, again, not a violation of the Establishment Clause, in real life is someone tried to use this argument to get away with ACTUAL preaching in the classroom, it’d be deemed irrelevant. But, the filmmakers, in addition to believing that Christians are persecuted, also seem to believe that denying the historicity of Jesus is an egregious commonality that the film must address. While I myself doubt the historicity of Jesus, most historians do not. You’d think the filmmakers, having the majority on their side for once, would make the most use of this. Nope.
The first witness called is Lee Strobel, a pastor and author of Christian apologetics. He’s not a historian, and his testimony in the film cites no evidence for a historical Jesus. Instead, he name checks two historians, one an atheist and one an agnostic, who state that Jesus is a historical figure, and that’s it. Argument from Authority and nothing more. The fact that the ACLU lawyer in the film doesn’t tear apart this testimony left me wanting to do cross-examination myself. You’d think the guy would have at least pulled Josephus out of his ass. Then we get one more witness, and that’s it. We get J. Warner Wallace, a former homicide detective who claims the gospels are true because they hold us as good eyewitness statements (never mind that the authors of the gospels did not personally witness the events they wrote about) and that any contradictions between them are reasonable considering contradictions in eyewitness statements from witnesses whose stories are all slightly different after witnessing the same event. Right, because whether the car that sped off after hitting a pedestrian was blue or purple is the same as not knowing if one person or many people came back from the dead after Jesus’s crucifixion. Also, the tacit argument here is that it doesn’t matter if the word of god is accurate all the way through, as long as the broad strokes are correct. He also oddly seems to claim that a later gospel fills in details of an earlier gospel, so they both must be true because one had a detail the other didn’t, but both describe the same event. Why does he not realize that the writer of a later gospel could have read the earlier one and fixed the continuity in the same way that “God’s Not Dead 2” clarifies that god didn’t kill Amy. Also, there is no chain of custody to the Gospels, nor any mention of oral tradition or Q document or anything else that actually explains why some gospels are similar and different. Geez, I could make a better argument that Jesus existed than these two witnesses, and I don’t even BELIEVE he existed.
I’m starting to think many of these Christian movies only exist to sell books, and not just Lee Strobel’s and J. Warner Wallace’s. The book “Man, Myth, Messiah” is shown in this film many times. I’m reminded of how “Fireproof” was mostly a commercial for the two books the filmmakers sold as aids to struggling couples to fix their marriages, or the book tie-ins to “War Room”. These films spend an inordinate amount of time pimping out products that can be found at Lifeway Christian Stores, especially since that MMM book isn’t really referenced in the case or in dialogue beyond a single name check, but the book and cover are shown repeatedly.
Needless to say, the film ends with Grace winning, thanks to a weird scene/emo girl with a cross tattoo on the back of her neck that no one saw, but replaced Pastor Dave on the jury. Given that tattoos are forbidden by the Bible (Leviticus 19:28) I’m shocked the filmmakers are okay with them. A protest outside the court room by Atheists is drowned out by pro-Grace supporters who begin chanting lines from the Newsboys song “God’s Not Dead”, and then we cut to a Newsboys concert where they sing a Christian song with bad legal puns in every line. Then the credits roll, and we get a post-credit sequence of Pastor Dave being arrested because, well, he refused to turn in his sermons to the government. The bored government official, by the way, gets WAY TOO OFFENDED by this act and stands up to threaten Pastor Dave. I’ve been to town hall and the DMV enough to know no government employee would ever give this much of a shit, no matter how anti-Christian they might be. Oh well, this thing’s going to be a franchise of illogical arguments and inaccurate looks at different schools of thought and professions.
While not as bad as the first film, “God’s Not Dead 2” is still morally repugnant. It presents a straw man argument to strengthen their imaginary conceit that the country is “out to get” Christians, feeding into their persecution complex and martyrdom fetish. It will harm its audience by giving them poor reasoning and debate skills, and passes off logical fallacies are perfectly reasonable ways to defend a position. Adults may be too far gone, but for all the children dragged to this film who would otherwise prefer to see “Zootopia”, you are damaging them beyond belief. While I’m no fan of Christianity and think the whole thing is hogwash, there are far more logically sound ways to argue that Jesus is a historical figure or that the legal system might be overly secular. This film isn’t concerned with that. This film wants to preach to the choir, and does their audience, as well as human intelligence and reasoning skills, a disservice.
Also, at one point the Pat Boone character claims Atheists have no hope. Mr. Boone, I remember when you were interviewed in the documentary “Fuck” and told the interviewer that you replace the F-word with your own last name. So, in honor of that, go Boone yourself. F.