The end credits of “God’s Not Dead 2,” similar to those of its smash-hit predecessor, begin with a detailed text scroll of court cases, both federal and local, that supposedly informed its legal-themed narrative about a high school teacher on trial for invoking Jesus in the classroom. Blink and you’ll miss them, as they fly by at a speed that is barely legible. But this seems to be quite deliberate on the part of the filmmakers: they rattle off the laundry list of cases to provide the illusion of credibility, without actually allowing the viewer the necessary amount of time to interrogate how relevant the cases actually are to the material at hand. Suspecting that this block of text was coming, having watched the original “God’s Not Dead” just last night, I paid extra careful attention. And it is with little surprise that I can report the only thing that most of the cases share in common with the fictional one depicted in “God’s Not Dead 2” is the presence of educators and some element of Christianity. Their existence lends little credence to the film’s story, which exists, quite plainly, in a fantasy realm.
Far be it from me to deny that judicial activism and the noticeable push towards liberal secularism in the United States has resulted in a number of cases that arguably impinge upon American Christians’ religious liberty. As one often sympathetic to conservative ideas, I recognize the validity of this political assessment where my left-leaning peers in film criticism do not. But the fundamental problem with the “God’s Not Dead” movies is not that they tackle alleged threats towards religious liberty head-on. It’s that they hyperbolize those threats and reframe them in such a way that the narratives barely even resemble real life. The characters might as well be growing potatoes with Matt Damon on Mars. “God’s Not Dead 2” tells the story of Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart), a tenth-grade AP history teacher whose career and livelihood are threatened when a lawsuit is filed against her for merely answering a student question that compares Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. The movie makes certain to remind us countless times that Ms. Wesley never preached and never prayed in front of the class. Rather, she’s taken to court after she refuses to apologize for so much as saying the word “Jesus.” Indeed, such a case would be an outrage if it existed in real life. The only problem: it doesn’t, nor does any case like it, contrary to what the credits may try to goad viewers into believing.
As with the first “God’s Not Dead,” which depicted the liberal atheism of higher academia in a manner that couldn’t have been farther removed from the actual liberal atheism of higher academia, this sequel characterizes secular liberals as insidious “enemies” who will stop at nothing to destroy the Evangelical Christian way of life. Such a far-reaching, black-and-white depiction is ironic, given that the film repeatedly accuses such secular liberals of the same brand of broad-brushed “intolerance.” This is a fundamentally dangerous message in that it effectively purports that discourse, or any type of reasoned argument and/or reconciliation between the two parties, is impossible. Sure, “God’s Not Dead 2” features a scene in which Rev. Dave (David A.R. White) asserts the importance of the Christian moral of loving one’s enemy just as one loves one’s friend. But given that the film’s overarching thesis is that the American Left seeks to castrate all committed Christians and destroy their way of life, without precondition, how could one possibly glean a loving message from its contents? The underlying implications of the movie’s surface appeals for tolerance are as ugly and hypocritical as Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s recent appeals to “Make America Great Again.”
And yet, while this is an often ideologically dangerous movie, as an aesthetician and avid follower of film style I must recognize the fact that “God’s Not Dead 2,” in a seemingly watershed moment for Evangelical Christian cinema, makes reasonably effective use of film grammar. This subgenre has long been characterized by stylistic amateurishness, largely due to its lack of Hollywood-level funding and interest, but this film is surprisingly effective as a courtroom melodrama. The pacing is tight, even with a two-hour runtime, and the lighting and camerawork are eons beyond the infomercial-looking early films of Alex Kendrick (“Fireproof”) and Fox News-marketed efforts like “Persecuted” and “Last Ounce of Courage.” And in addition to the technical merits, a number of professional actors—from Hart to Ray Wise to Jesse Metcalfe to the late, great Fred Dalton Thompson—have joined the cast and fleshed out actual characters in a manner that the no-names of the previous film (most of whom are back, with modest improvements) were not skilled enough to achieve. In spite of the problematic nature of much of the film’s content, it’s compulsively watchable and entertaining when taken as a straightforward potboiler. That doesn’t excuse its faults, but given that I have spent the bulk of my tenure as a film critic vouching for the aesthetic and visceral pleasures of films of questionably leftist persuasions, it’s only fair that I extend the same courtesy to a work espousing the opposite extreme.
“God’s Not Dead 2” ends with a post-credits scene that sets up the plot of “God’s Not Dead 3,” which is certain to get the green light if this reasonably low-budget effort earns even a quarter of the theatrical box office of its cultural phenomenon of a predecessor. The proposed premise seems to be even more inflammatory than the last two, which is a far from encouraging sign. But one senses that, as with the record-setting rallies of the aforementioned Trump, it’s this inflammatory quality that attracts audiences, not the lesson of tolerance that the films purport to espouse. God may not be dead, but He is watching with weary eyes.