In a rare moment of brevity in the most recent addition to the conservative Christian God’s Not Dead film franchise, protagonist Pastor Dave Hill advises his adversary, “I’d be careful about going to war against God’s church…The gates of hell will not prevail against it.” The liberal congressman, having relentlessly toiled to deny patriotic Bible-believing Christians the ability to homeschool their children, replies, “This is not hell, Mr. Hill. This is Washington.”
“Close enough,” quips Pastor Dave.
Viewers in the Oklahoma theater where I watched the film cheered so loudly at the jab that I could not make out the following line. The seat of the federal government is hell on earth right now. But, this movie argues, it wasn’t always that way. And, more to the point, it doesn’t have to be that way in the future—if only Christians would pay attention.
With its sights on the nation’s capital and its spotlight on hot-topic political issues that galvanize White evangelical Protestants, God’s Not Dead: We the People repeats a formula that has worked well for this series, now in its fourth installation. Caricatured enemies persecute U.S. Christians. Christians defend themselves. Their detractors do not prevail. The 2014 original film, in which a college student successfully challenged a belligerent atheist college professor’s assertion that “God is dead,” was a surprise box office hit, pulling in $9 million on opening weekend and nearly $65 million in total. We the People, by contrast, ran only as a three-night special event in theaters. Yet as distribution has gone down, the narrative stakes have gone up. No longer is the perceived threat to an individual in a university classroom where he chooses to be. This time, persecution suddenly enters a home in the heartland.
A dour social services representative knocks on the door of a White Christian family in Hope Springs, Arkansas, performing an unannounced inspection of their church-affiliated homeschooling co-op. She observes Pastor Dave teaching students with the Bible as a textbook. After she reports the co-op for failing to conform to district norms, a local family court judge finds that if they refuse to modify their curriculum, they must enroll the children in an accredited school or face fines, jail time, and maybe even loss of custody. Determined to fight, the group of parents travels with Pastor Dave to Washington to testify at a congressional hearing and argue their case.
Over the course of the film, the primary issue at hand shifts from parental rights to “religious freedom” and ultimately to the respectability of Christianity in the United States. The apologetics aim at moving targets—but that inconsistency is instructive as we consider what this film is really all about for its insider Christian audience.
Front and center is Christian nationalism. The film takes viewers on a virtual Christian heritage tour of U.S. monuments and other landmarks in Washington, D.C. Our guide is a minor character named Martin, a Chinese immigrant who converted to Christianity in the first God’s Not Dead film. In We the People he becomes an evangelist for the U.S. Constitution, earning well his nickname “Yankee Doodle Martin” with a series of stilted lines like “the Constitution is an amazing document.” In one scene, he reads a guidebook aloud to us as he and Pastor Dave admire war memorials on the National Mall. In another dramatic moment, he reveals that the Washington Monument has the words “Laus Deo” inscribed on it—praise be to God. Herein lies evidence for this film, as it does in Christian heritage tourism, that Christians once were the nation’s quintessential insiders who must now work against their unjust marginalization in American society.
Christian nationalist rhetoric pops up more overtly when the Christian homeschooling parents, all White, testify to the dangers of public schooling. Not only are they concerned that a lack of religion in school will lead to moral relativism and decline, or that birth control pamphlets have apparently been distributed to second graders, but they are also distressed about what they see as a changing curriculum that they believe infringes on their religious freedom.
One homeschooling mom complains in the hearing that her family’s public school district teaches a “revisionist history” that ignores America’s Christian founding. Pastor Dave offers Thanksgiving as an example, suggesting that the Pilgrims would be surprised that some educators want to perpetuate a “common core myth” by using the holiday as an opportunity to celebrate diversity rather than to worship God. No one seems to wonder why the Pilgrims’ expectations should arbitrate, but Dave is confident that the European settler-colonists should be centered. “They came together to thank God for the bountiful harvest,” he says. The Native Americans were merely “fellow guests.”
Racism is the glue that holds the film’s “grievance gumbo” together. There’s a history that explains why. In the mid-twentieth century, White resistance to desegregation of schools was a major force both in the galvanizing of American evangelicalism as a movement and in the advent and mainstreaming of homeschooling in the United States. As historian of education Milton Gaither has pointed out, key to the development of conservative Christian homeschooling was the combination of the Supreme Court’s desegregation decisions with rulings in the early 1960s making school-sponsored prayer and Bible study unlawful. “With minorities in and God out,” he quips, “many conservative Protestants left.”
We the People is a film made possible by the long history of racism in conservative White Christianity. But it’s also a film of the moment. Today, conservative Christian angst at the nexus of race, religion, and education is concentrated in activism against the perceived threat of critical race theory in public schools. We the People endeavors to explain why critical race theory should concern viewers. In one scene, a Black congressman on the Christian homeschoolers’ side (played by Trump supporter and erstwhile Grey’s Anatomy star Isaiah Washington) whispers to Pastor Dave about a liberal conspiracy to mandate a curriculum “at odds with the Christian worldview.” He warns, in part, that “by middle school there’s a discernible political agenda behind the classroom reading lessons.”
He then turns to address how the U.S. founders are portrayed: “Ask your average millennial about our founding fathers and they’ll tell you that they were all a bunch of old and rich, oppressive slave-owners. That perspective came from somewhere.” Pastor Dave voices what all of us are thinking in response: “But weren’t they?” The congressman concedes that “some did” own slaves—but not before excusing them. They only enslaved other human beings because of youthful folly. “Most of ‘em were just kids,” he states baldly. If they are tarred in the curriculum, he suggests, then God-given liberties will be replaced with government control.
Outsiders to the transparent White evangelical polemic will see the film’s portrayal as exaggerated, uncritical, and unconvincing. I think this is the point, though—the rhetoric serves primarily to energize an already sympathetic audience, to enhance the perceived dangers of the current culture wars so that they are more clear and more present. Having a Black actor voice opposition to critical race theory (as the film portrays it) gives White Christians in the audience permission to feel good about opposing it too. It makes White supremacy feel less racist.
In a departure from the more modest goals of the original film, this sequel also works to help conservative Christians answer potential charges that their “worldview” is backwards and bigoted. Let’s take two examples: one science, one sexism.
The congressional hearing becomes at times a referendum on Christianity itself. When a hostile liberal congressman suggests that a “faith-based education” might be “anti-rational and anti-science,” a homeschooling mother named Taylor speaks up. “The Bible isn’t anti-science,” she asserts with an unexpected level of confidence. Until now, she has been meek, mousy, and a bit mysterious. Her moment to demonstrate courage becomes ours to find out her story, to understand why her opinion matters. To everyone’s surprise, she is not merely a restaurant manager struggling to make ends meet. She has an advanced degree in engineering and previously worked for NASA. (She took a less demanding job after her military husband died in order to care for her son.)
With her credentials now apparent, Taylor proceeds to defend the Bible from its detractor. But her argument does not address the contents of the Bible at all. She reports that the first food or drink consumed on the moon was communion, that the book of Genesis has been read by people in space, and that her son knows that “Jesus” is not an acceptable answer to chemistry questions. Her reasoning will appear strained to outsiders, but for the intended viewers the speech inspires confidence, principally through affect, that biblicist Christians can be smart too.
The crescendo of Taylor’s speech takes a surprising turn. She demands that the now-abashed congressman no longer address her as “Ms. Hays” but instead call her “Mrs. Hays”—out of respect to her marriage and her husband’s memory. This request marks the second moment of anxiety in the film around female honorifics. Earlier, when the social services representative inspecting the church co-op introduced herself as Ms. Dowd, one of the homeschooled children immediately asked whether it stands for “Mrs.” or “Miss.” Dowd, confused, replied that it is not short for anything. A parent then intervened to explain that the little girl was “just asking if you’re single or married so she might address you properly” (as if this is a perfectly normal thing to do). Ms. Dowd’s contempt-filled answer is meant to make her look ridiculous. “I identify as self-partnered” is a line played for laughs.
Yet as the film normalizes a conservative Christian accounting of gender and marriage, insisting that women be addressed in relationship to men, it attempts to distance such patriarchal practice from accusations of sexism. Pastor Dave testifies in the congressional hearing, for example, that “the Bible is one of the most pro-feminist documents in history.” This claim is patently false, but it makes perfect sense in a film that is participating in White evangelical apologetics around the goodness of the Bible and, by implication, of their beliefs and practices that are deemed biblical.
We the People’s defensiveness around conservative White Christian respectability in the U.S. is fundamental to its Christian nationalist vision. Christians can and should be centered in the nation once again, the logic goes, because it is Christians who are protecting the kids, the truth, the past, and the future. The film’s polemics make plain that the “we” in We the People really means White evangelical Christians, who are aggrieved as they perceive all hell break loose around them.
Jill Hicks-Keeton is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Her new book, Does Scripture Speak for Itself? The Museum of the Bible and the Politics of Interpretation (with Cavan Concannon), is due out from Cambridge University Press in 2022. She is currently at work on a book entitled Good Book: How White Evangelicals Save the Bible to Save Themselves. Find her on Twitter @JillHicksKeeton.