God's Not Dead 2, the follow-up to 2014's hugely profitable God's Not Dead, moves its focus from a college campus to a high-school classroom. Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) is a deeply devout Christian and AP History teacher. One of her students, Brooke Thawley (Hayley Orrantia) is reeling from the death of her brother and isn't getting any support from her career-minded parents, who have quickly and inexplicably moved on. Outside of school, Brooke is encouraged by Wesley to find strength in Jesus Christ, and she discovers that her brother was a secret believer who possessed a heavily annotated Bible. During class the next day, Brooke asks a question about the teachings of Jesus in relation to the nonviolent protests of Gandhi and MLK, and Wesley's seemingly innocuous response includes a Bible verse -- which causes a controversy when a student texts his parents about the exchange. Soon enough, Wesley is reprimanded by the school board, who demand that she either apologize or face legal action. She chooses the latter, and is appointed district-approved lawyer Tom Endler (Jesse Metcalfe). The school district, on the other hand, is represented by crotchety ACLU lawyer Pete Kane (Ray Wise), whose antireligious fervor drives the ensuing two hours of courtroom battles, the defense's attempts to prove the historical existence of Jesus, and other really depressing events.
The overwhelming, alarming tone of God's Not Dead 2 is thinly veiled (and sometimes not veiled at all) hatred and contempt. Every nonbeliever (except for defense lawyer Endler) is depicted in such an exaggerated, campy tone, and their dialogue simply exists to dig deeper trenches in a culture war that the filmmakers are convinced is the biggest threat to our nation today. Or as Reverend Dave (David A.R. White) puts it, "We're at war; if we insist on denying that, we've already lost." The biggest culprit of this mischaracterization is Leland Palmer -- wait, no, Pete Kane; his bloodlust for destroying the word of God and punishing those who follow it is mind-numbingly absurd (not to mention, something that would have gotten him disbarred years prior). The purported trial is about Wesley's "preaching" in a public school, but Kane's sinister motives are clear: "We're going to prove, once and for all, that God is dead." Brooke's parents' eyes light up with dollar signs when they are given the chance to be plaintiffs in a case that an elementary-school student could recognize would never reach a courtroom. Even the staunchest atheist would be hard pressed to identify with the film's cartoonish depiction of the irreligious, as the scenes of anti-Christian television personalities and foaming-at-the-mouth secular protestors are only intended to create a dangerous fantasy world of Christian martyrdom.
The imagery and rhetoric -- borderline if not outright propaganda -- portray Wesley as the last glimmering hope of faith in a desolate, godless America. When the charges are first brought up against her, she sits alone on one side of a boardroom-meeting-type table, while scores of the ravenous school board's henchmen are seated directly across from her. Kane singles out a marine during the jury-selection process and bars him from the proceedings, because all secularists hate the troops and all marines are evangelicals. Wesley's grandfather (Pat Boone) chides the "enemy" by remarking, "Atheism doesn't take away the pain: It takes away the hope." In addition to this ludicrous lack of nuance, God's Not Dead 2 is stiffly acted and larded with confounding subplots. A woman prays away her cancer and somehow becomes involved in the trial as a blogger. A meek Asian college student finds faith and is then screamed at, slapped, and disowned by his father.
But what's the point in even getting worked up about these sermons disguised as movies anymore? The filmmakers have found a hugely successful box-office model (miniscule overhead and a targeted, devoted demographic), and they will continue to flood the theaters for as long as doing so remains financially viable. And truthfully, that's fine; it isn't this reviewer's place to comment on what films should or shouldn't reach the silver screen. The creators of God's Not Dead 2 want critics to scream "Ban this!" from their keyboards in order to prove their own belief that Christianity is truly under attack from the powers at be, but cinema at its core is best served as a medium that's open to all voices. If anything, director Harold Cronk and his cohorts do a disservice to their own congregation, as believers deserve better than this pandering, hate-filled paranoia. God's Not Dead 2 is so woefully misguided, so self-aggrandizing, that it becomes the antithesis of the values of the man it wishes to defend.