One scene in God’s Not Dead 2 rings truer than the overwhelming majority of the film that surrounds it. A young college student, curious about the Gospel and a regular in his campus’ chapel to eagerly ask questions of the reverend, is rejected by his domineering father, told he’s brought dishonor to his family with his newfound faith. He returns to the church, devastated and lost, and it’s a piano with the sheet music for “Nearer My God To Thee” that grabs his attention. In the lovely piece of music, he finds peace and kinship. He finds hope where previously he saw none. And if it’s a moment built by the histrionics to which the film is so often partial, it’s a reminder of what the Gospel the film extolls can accomplish in the best and most open hearts.
Shortly thereafter, the author Lee Strobel makes an extended cameo as an expert witness in a legal case to both plug his book The Case For Christ and insist for several mostly uninterrupted minutes that there is credible, indisputable scientific evidence that the Bible is a work of historical documentation. This is the brush with which the God’s Not Dead franchise paints, ready to spread the hope and glory of Christianity between prolonged stretches of hot-topic evangelical opportunism.
This much can be said for God’s Not Dead 2: it drops virtually all pretenses about its intentions. The sequel to 2014’s breakout faith-based hit, the film raises the stakes by taking the fight for the rights of American Christians to the legal sector. The film’s many disparate storylines (it’s an ensemble piece, like the first) all revolve in some way around the case brought against Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart), a high school history teacher. See, one day a student asks a question in order to draw comparisons between Jesus and the work of Gandhi and Dr. King. Grace, in response, acknowledges that she believes similarities exist based on the accounts of Christ in the Bible.
Grace is viciously persecuted for the next 100 minutes or so because of this, first by her school and eventually by a perpetually scowling liberal media that accuses her of proselytizing every time the television is on and wants her teaching license revoked for spreading the filth of religion to her students. This is the film’s tonal approach to the material, not a bit of critical license, and it makes Dead an aggressive slog. If director Harold Cronk absolutely dials back the long-winded screeds delivered by snarling intellectuals, and directs it with a kind of professionalism the first installment lacked, the film is still hardly short on other, only marginally more nuanced strawman arguments from start to finish. Cronk also directs the film with the subtlety of a bludgeon; Grace’s name is no accident when you consider that the film’s narrative crux is based around her legal appeal that she has the right to acknowledge her faith in the classroom. It’s all about saving grace, after all.
A note before we continue: the film cannot be discussed without addressing the default assumption around which it’s built, which is to say the war on Christianity. The film embraces this notion, fully inhabiting a world in which a generally kind teacher is torn to shreds for even daring to mention her faith in public. The young student who feels accountable for her teacher’s suspension is screamed at by red-faced Democrat protestors, whose angry theatrics the film contrasts with the peaceful resistance of the devout. Reverend Dave (David A.R. White), a holdover from the first film’s cast, declares outright that “we are at war…against the powers of this world” when a court injunction demands three years of local churches’ sermons for a Red Scare-style witch hunt.
And inside the courtroom, Grace’s lawyer Tom (Jesse Metcalfe) and the school board’s prosecutor Pete Kane (Ray Wise) do battle for the rights of Christians to be open and proud, to not have to hide in the shadows while the secular world abuses their rights. There’s not a shred of self-reflexive irony in the film’s DNA, particularly as it relates to its heavy reliance on a persecution complex, and it’s comical up to a point and dispiriting beyond that. Dead’s objective reality is one in which the snaky prosecutor (Wise portrays him as an infinitely smirking Lucifer in the film’s polite universe) openly heckles Reverend Dave when his appendix bursts and declares that “we will prove once and for all that God is dead” as a pitch for his legal services. It’s also one in which Tom, a skeptic, can be won over to Grace’s cause by understanding that it’s her legal right to declare her Christianity as freely as she may choose, by arguing to a jury that to deny Grace her rights would be the first step to a national registry of Christians, kept in line under threat of death. (This is an actual argument the film makes, at shouted length.)
To Dead, middle-class (and largely, though not exclusively, white) Christians are the truly embattled class in America today. And that’s the subtext that makes it difficult to appreciate even Dead’s most sincerely open-hearted moments of evangelism, like a former liberal blogger’s examinations of faith after going into cancer remission. There is a tone of anger that sneaks out of the film in even its moments of levity, when a character forlornly shakes his head at wayward atheists everywhere or another of the film’s cameos/expert witnesses declares that “I’m a Christian because it’s evidentially true.” The film’s core dialogues may be less venomous than its predecessor’s, but Dead 2 is nevertheless firmly invested in the importance of spreading awareness about the real oppression going on today. And when you consider all the ones that tangibly exist, the ones that don’t exist in the film’s squeaky-clean, easily digested world of true believers and amoral backsliders, it leaves a rotten taste on the palate long after the film ends.
God’s Not Dead 2 concludes with an invocation, on a black screen, encouraging viewers to “Join the Movement. Text everyone you know.” After all, there’s a war brewing, one the film illustrates in great detail. And this vehicle designed for the whole family with laughs and tears and courtroom melodrama aplenty is here to recruit.