Instead of actually gaining any insight into stories like that — which might have been educational for teachers, school administrators, and students — the film neglects to do anything useful, opting for a bait-and-switch that grows more and more frustrating as the story unfolds. First there’s some ominous-seeming stuff about jury selection that will be familiar to anyone who’s done jury duty. And more importantly, we never find out what the specific regulations are in that school district, county, or state. Instead, we get Kane saying he’s going to prove once and for all that God is dead (I don’t think I need to explain the illogicality of a supposedly hotshot legal mind saying that). We get a bunch of statements about whether faith is or is not on trial.
The defense, for some reason, having realized very late in the game that they just have to separate the faith stuff from the history stuff to make the (reasonable) case that a history teacher can talk about a historical figure in history class without getting fired, brings in a few expert witnesses familiar to anyone who’s dabbled in Christian apologetics over the last two decades to testify that a person named Jesus existed in history. This upsets Kane, who seems convinced that testimony wrecks his case. (If only we knew what he thinks that case is.) In this regard, God’s Not Dead actually succeeded more than the sequel, because at least there, the showdown between Radisson and Wheaton was clearly delineated, by them, with topics, goals, and structures.
I’ll leave it to more knowledgeable folks to point out the gaps in the film’s Christian apologetics. It’s merely worth noting a gap in story logic: a shot from from the trailer that explained that a student from Grace’s class — not Brooke — was upset by Grace’s actions is completely gone. Now it’s Brooke’s parents suing Grace, presumably because they’re selfish, except that before they didn’t seem to even know whether she was in the house or not.
Lots of things happen after that, and there are angry protestors on the courtroom steps, and Amy-the-journalist starts following the case, but probably you can guess the outcome. There are some other subplots, too — most strikingly, one that seems inserted after the fact, in which genial Reverend David finds out that his sermons have been subpoenaed by the city so they can examine them. He refuses to turn them in. This seems to have been inspired by a series of events in late 2014 (referenced in the film), in which Houston mayor Annise Parker subpoenaed sermons from five churches in her city in an ill-advised reading of rules about churches, tax law, and politics. The subpoenas were rescinded a few months later, after widespread outcry and several lawsuits, as well as a national campaign to mail Bibles and sermon notes en masse to the Houston mayoral offices.
It’s unclear whether that turn of events exists in the God’s Not Dead universe, but [spoiler alert, I guess] after the credits, Pastor Dave is seen in handcuffs, being put into a police car, apparently for failing to comply. I half expected Nick Fury to be in the cop car.
But that little detail at the end acts as a pretty decent example of the problems with God’s Not Dead 2 — and I write as a practicing evangelical Christian who is sympathetic toward measures that ensure freedom of speech and religion for everyone. These films have a catastrophically low regard for the intellectual abilities of the people in their target market. Let’s imagine for a moment that your average faith-based movie ticket buyer isn’t familiar enough with academic philosophers to recognize how boneheaded Prof. Radisson is, he who lists “Ayn Rand” on his chalkboard in a list of great atheistic philosophers.
But step into the courtroom, and you’re in a whole different ballpark. Even if TV legal dramas have been serving up Legal Lite for decades, everybody kind of gets how a courtroom works. Emotional appeals are part of it, but you have to actually know what the case is about and what the court is trying to decide. Most jurors — in real life, but especially in a presumably conscientious faith-based audience — make a stab of integrity and try to keep an open mind, sorting through the evidence to the best of their abilities, without regard to their personal prejudices.
God’s Not Dead 2 does have a box full of jurors (including one with multicolored hair whom everyone is convinced is going to rule on the side of the ACLU, I guess because Christians don’t look like that, though thankfully the film proves them wrong). But in this universe, it’s a miracle if jurors rule in favor of someone whose religious beliefs they may not share. God’s Not Dead 2 appears to think that everyone who is a Christian will necessarily be on Team Grace — whether or not her actions were in violation of the law, which we never hear about — and everyone who is not will be on Team ACLU, with the other God-haters and historical-Jesus-doubters. Despite everyone’s declarations to the contrary, it’s completely obvious that the film actually thinks faith is what’s on trial.
The actual jurors, though, are the self-selected audience out in the theater. I’d guess that many viewers who don’t share Grace’s faith have never seriously doubted that a historical person named Jesus existed and started a religion called Christianity. The more salient question is how free speech and religious freedom ought to manifest in a pluralist public square — both from a legal perspective and from a Christian perspective. Yet by failing entirely to stay focused on what the court’s even trying to decide, the movie effectively swirls around us, distracts us with shiny things like evidence that Jesus existed! And rants about standing up for faith! And singing! And ominous but oddly vague threats of persecution! And Mike Huckabee! And then tells us to text our friends and tell them God’s not dead.
This is a true shame. Obviously the filmmakers have learned something since the first movie, turning out a technically competent film that mostly moves along at a good clip, and many performances are solid. Faith is an important and even foundational part of many people’s lives, and that merits representation on film. Maybe the next movie in this series will give them the respect they deserve.
Alissa Wilkinson is critic at large at Christianity Today and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She tweets @alissamarie.