God’s Not Dead 2 is the second installment in the popular Christian films series. The first film, God’s Not Dead, hit theaters in 2014. The plot of that movie featured a Christian college student who accepted a challenge from his atheist professor to convince the class of God’s existence. The third film, God’s Not Dead 3, is scheduled to be released in the Spring of 2018.
God’s Not Dead 2 (2016) depicts the persecution of a Christian public school teacher who was sued because of her mention of Jesus in the classroom. Grace, a dedicated history teacher at Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial High School, taught a lesson on how Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi both used non-violent methods to effect major social change in their countries. A student asked whether Jesus’ statement to “Love your enemies” was similar. The teacher agreed and mentioned how Martin Luther King, Jr. was heavily influenced by Scripture. She was disciplined by the school board, and sued by the ACLU for violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. This storyline resonates with Christians in America where bakers, florists, photographers, and the like, are losing their businesses because their convictions clash with the popular secular humanist ethics of the day.
The movie has a few side plots to go along with the main story. A female reporter/blogger, Amy Ryan, a former antagonist to Christianity, discovers her cancer is in remission. (See God’s Not Dead for more on this storyline.) Now, she is struggling with thoughts that her new-found faith was merely an emotional response to her cancer. She begins a journey to explore this faith now without the interference of that crisis. This subplot of a miraculous cure for cancer after conversion and prayer has the tendency to perpetuate the thinking that prayer will always be answered the way we want, and that all you have to do to be healed is to believe hard enough. As any Christian who has been tested will tell you, that is not the case. (Here is an example of what I mean from my own life experience.) The subplot, however, is not too over-the-top with Christian emotionalism that leaves sound doctrine in the shadows. The movie awkwardly gets free-lance reporter, played by Trisha LaFache, involved in the lawsuit when her niece, played by Sadie Robertson of Duck Dynasty, asks for her help. Her role was supposedly to get the word out that a Christian school teacher was being persecuted for her faith. This part of the movie has no real flow, or believability.
Pastor Dave Hill, played by David A.R. White, seems to be going through a slump. He stubs his toe at breakfast, has iced coffee spilled down the front of his shirt, and he inadvertently dumps his coffee when trying to unlock the church office door. The slump continued with the mail: bills, bills, bills, junk mail, and, to top it off, a jury summons. In his rut, he seems to be questioning God’s purpose for his life. As the lawsuit moves on, that purpose is to be Juror No. 12. He is a pastor with a cynical outlook on life, as portrayed by his reading the newspaper instead of paying attention to his online jury orientation. He figures, as 1 of 300 jurors summoned, he has a better chance at getting struck by lightning than being assigned to the jury, so why should he waste his time. (Incidentally, according to National Geographic News, the odds of getting struck by lightning in the U.S. are around 1 in 700,000. So, Pastor Dave would be incorrect that his 1 out of 300 odds to be paneled on the jury is a longer shot than being struck by lightning.) Instead of lightning, he is struck with acute appendicitis while in the courtroom. He again wonders what the purpose for his jury service was. He saw the opportunity to make a difference for God by being on the jury, but now he is in a hospital, recovering from surgery. His friend encourages him to have faith, God’s plan is at work.
God often orchestrates events that do not make sense to us. We can see only partly. We do not have all the necessary information to understand events or motives. But “[W]e know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28. Do we really trust God? That is what faith really is about: trust. Not believing hard enough that something is true. Faith is about trusting what God said, even when our circumstances tell us otherwise. (See my post A Celebration of Life.) Our approach to our faith in God is often with the same cynical nature as Pastor Dave. (I am looking me straight in the mirror.) We come to expect disappointments from God because he seems to so often answer our prayers with “No” or “I have something else for you.” But, this cynicism really stems from both ingratitude and mistrust. We are ungrateful for what God does give us and we do not really believe God’s plan for us is for our good. God does not always orchestrate our healing from cancer, or our winning court cases against secular humanists that seem to permeate all levels of government. But, trust God we must.
The central struggle in this movie is certainly plausible. An anonymous tip to an anti-Christian organization brings a team of angry atheist lawyers against a school teacher or school policy. Organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU all are antagonistic toward God, and therefore to his family. We have seen them persecute Christian bakers in Colorado and Oregon, a florist in Washington, photographers in New Mexico. The list doesn’t stop there. Military personnel, monuments, high-school coaches, college students, government mandated abortion coverage. I could go on. So, the plot in God’s Not Dead 2 is not only believable, it is already a reality.
Despite the plausibility of the plot, the storyline really has some glaring problems from a legal perspective. Although the case is styled as a civil lawsuit, Thawley v. Wesley, it comes off as if Grace is a criminal defendant. First, she is the only defendant. The school district is not on trial. While this is not unusual for a state employee to be personally liable for violations of the Constitution, a lawsuit almost always includes the “deep pockets” as a defendant because that is how lawyers make their money. In the movie, however, the school board attorney stated that the ACLU was not interested in suing the school, only the teacher. This point is later contradicted by the ACLU attorney, but a second lawsuit against the school board may go nowhere because the plaintiff’s failed to join the necessary party for the first lawsuit. A second reason the case comes across as a criminal trial stems from Grace’s first meeting with her union appointed attorney who was hired from the public defender’s office. She insists to him that she is not a criminal. Her attorney said “Don’t be so sure about that.” Third, when Grace is called to the stand she questions the judge whether she is required to testify, as if a civil defendant has the same Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination as a criminal defendant. Fourthly, after the examination of Grace as a witness, the judge asks her attorney if he would like to change her plea. He answers “No, your Honor. I say she is innocent of all wrongdoing” which sounds a lot like discussion about a criminal defendant. Several aspects about this script make the nature of the case unclear.
Without getting into an esoteric discussion about the dynamics of the way voir dire (jury selection) was conducted (eg. attorneys do not object to jurors in front of the jury), or the fact that the lawyer for the defendant went straight into closing argument while his client was still on the stand, this trial scene was hard to watch as an attorney. It makes for good theatre, but the movie script was very sloppy surrounding the trial.
More problematic for this movie than the sloppy script was the huge violations of the rules of professional conduct by Grace’s attorney. Let’s start with their first meeting. Grace meets with her new attorney in the non-confidential, public place of a coffee shop. According to Arkansas Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.6 (c) (the setting of the movie is in Arkansas) states “A lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation of a client.” By meeting in a public place where anyone could overhear their discussion, the lawyer might be violating this rule. Also, he may lose the claim for Attorney-Client Privilege for the discussion in the coffee shop because the communication was not kept in confidence.
The most egregious violations, however, occurred when Grace’s lawyer put her on the stand. First, in putting her on the stand against her will he violated Rule 1.2(a) where a lawyer shall abide by a client’s decisions concerning the objectives of representation, and, as required by Rule 1.4, shall consult with the client as to the means by which they are to be pursued. Rule 1.4(a)(2) requires the attorney reasonably consult with the client about the means by which the client’s objectives are to be accomplished. By surprising his client with his antagonistic tactic, he failed to consult with her on the objectives of the representation.
Second, in his questioning of his client on the stand he asks her to apologize and to admit she made a mistake. She told the court that she couldn’t do it because she did not believe she did anything wrong. Her attorney then said “As your attorney, I’m advising you to do it anyway.” By advising his client to lie under oath, he violated Rule 1.2(d) “A lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent….” Perjury is a crime. Advising his client to testify to the court something that she believes to be a lie is counseling her to commit a crime.
Third, he revealed confidential communications of his client to the court without consulting her in violation of Rule 1.6(a) “A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent, the disclosure is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation or the disclosure is permitted….” Grace had told her attorney that God had spoken to her when she encountered a church sign that read “Who do you say that I am?” In his witness examination of her, he revealed the existence and nature of that conversation to the court. Thus, revealing information relating to the representation of his client without consulting her.
Grace’s attorney is more of a clown than an attorney. He comes across as incompetent when it comes to the rules of conduct he must uphold (which would violate Rule 1.1). His behavior would certainly warrant disciplinary action from his state bar.
The most disappointing part of the movie was, however, the whole trial strategy employed by Grace and her attorney to transform the case from being about religious expression in the classroom to merely a discussion on what is or is not historical fact. Grace tells her attorney “Listen, this isn’t about faith. This is about history…Their whole attack is about me preaching in class, but I didn’t do that…We can separate the history based elements of Jesus’ life from the faith based element.” No longer was that case about her being persecuted for expressing her faith in school. It became a trial on whether Jesus Christ existed. Who is even arguing that Jesus never existed? I suppose for a movie called God’s Not Dead, the existence of God the Son would be central to the plot. However, the movie portrays her as a martyr who was persecuted for her faith, when in the end her defense was simply “Nuh-uh, I didn’t express my faith in the classroom. I simply talked about an historical figure. See, Jesus is an historical figure just like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi.” The implication is that expressions of faith still do not belong in the classroom. The movie pretends to champion religious liberty. But in the end it just reinforced the “separation of Church and State” myth by making the case about history instead of faith.
For a Christian movie, it was rather disappointing. If this movie sought to inspire the faithful to endure such persecutions, this movie was a dud, a swing-and-a-miss. In fact, the true metaphor for this movie is to compare it to scoring on your own goal. Instead of slaying a giant (the prohibition of religious expression in the classroom), the movie settled for knocking down a straw man (that Jesus Christ did not exist as an historical figure). In doing so, this movie perpetuates the myth of separation of Church and state. (And there goes the ball into our own net.)
I hope God’s Not Dead 3 is better.