The Art of Artless Propaganda; or, the Enemies You Think You Are Fighting Are Not the Enemies You Actually Have

So I watched the trailer for God’s Not Dead 2 today. File this under job requirements, as the movie was filmed in Arkansas and it’s my job to keep up with stuff like this. As far as I can tell, the plot is this:

A female teacher mentions the name and ideology of Jesus in a historical context during a classroom discussion on the theme of non-violence. Some student films this, or tweets it, and said teacher is hauled before a committee which wants to know: Did you actually utter the name of Jesus in class? Said teacher is slated for the chopping block, but the community rallies behind her in defense of open expression of belief (which, actually, the classroom reference had nothing to do with, as she was simply putting something in a historical context). Enter the ACLU, which initiates a court case with the intent of disproving the existence of God. (And with this, Ray Wise, who apparently plays the lead ACLU lawyer, has hit the nadir of his career—and that career includes some straight-to-video schlock about Union and Confederate troops teaming up to fight zombies.) Much prayer is conducted. Christian lawyers give rousing speeches. And God, presumably, is proven to not be dead, again, I guess.

It’s always amusing to see propaganda veer so far afield from reality as to be unrecognizable to anyone living outside that bubble. I mean, everyone has their leanings, their inclinations, their beliefs, but I and friends of mine who aren’t radical secular leftists can usually agree upon a frame of reference, some kind of shared reality. But the world that produced, and is produced by, films like God’s Not Dead 2 has nothing in common with the world as I know it. I went to public school. I very much remember an AP European History course in which we were required to study the tenants of various Reformation movements and examine how theology influenced the development of society at the time. I went to a state university. During the first semester, I took a world literature course that incorporated parts of the Old and New testaments. Hell, during my Ph.D. program, I prepared a bibliographic essay on the sociological writings of Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest who made an academic study of religion. Nobody actually wants to expunge the name of Jesus or the discussion of religion from education—the study of history, literature, art, and music would be entirely incomplete without reference to the role of religion in their development.

In the real world, there is no all-out assault against religion in America. No war against the private practice of Christian faith or against properly contextual references to religious figures in the schools. No, what we have instead is a growing recognition of the need for neutral “official” space—not neutral public space, but rather for neutral “official” space, such being the space occupied by state institutions. I believe this growing recognition of the need for neutral “official” space grows out of two developments. First, there is the awareness that religion is not a domain for the production of knowledge. Not only has religious inquiry failed to produce evidence of its central tenant—the existence of a higher power—but religious investigations do not produce viable knowledge about real-world problems. If we want to invent a nuclear bomb or develop a vaccine, we do not hire shamans or priests to communicate with their deities and come back with schematics and formulae; no, we hire scientists and let them carry out experiments. Second, a state ostensibly exists to serve all of its citizens. One of the ironies of modern movement conservatism is that Baptists were one of the original groups advocating for more secular public schools—out of a fear that Catholic parochial schools would be eligible for state money (this during a time when the Catholic population was growing). In an era when denominational affiliation determined much more of one’s social sphere or even career potential, it made sense for official space to be neutral so as not to be seen as favoring one group over another.

Of course, movement conservatism has worked to build a pan-Christian identity, one that includes the previously unworkable pairing of Roman Catholics and southern evangelicals (a group that, in a previous generation, was heavily allied with the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan). I tend to think that this grouping relates quite a bit to a growing secularity among the American population, a phenomenon that binds together those who identify as religious against a common foe. But the secularity of the population relates, in part, to the high rate of change we are experiencing in our lifetimes, a theme that James Burke played with in his shows Connections and The Day the Universe Changed. Hundreds of years ago, one could traverse the entirety of one’s life without anything new entering it. You grow up on the farm, and you plough your fields the same way the day you die as you did when you were but a young boy. But nowadays…. I was born in a time when the home computer was a rarity, and I now live in a time when one can be in the middle of the Ozarks and watch Swedish-language soap operas on a phone that has more computing power than desktops of just a few years ago. When I was growing up, an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence, but now, even if there is no “cure” or vaccine on market, research is promising, and many people lead long and productive (not to mention sexually active) lives without endangering others. When I was born, most of our knowledge of the planets of our solar system was gained through telescopes, but we have now sent probes to all of our planets, even Pluto, and landed ON A FUCKING COMET, in addition to discovering hundreds of planets orbiting suns so many light-years away.

We have mapped the human genome. We have found the Higgs-Boson. Each year, we understand yet more about the nature of our universe. Each day is a day that the universe changes.

And this knowledge is the real enemy lurking behind the facade of some disbelieving ACLU lawyer in movies like God’s Not Dead 2, because the real threat to belief in this country is not some irrational hatred of God—it’s the irrelevance of religion to solving the problems for which we need solutions. What these passionate Christians most fear is not people persecuting them for their faith—it is people ignoring them. In G. K. Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross, two people on the opposite sides of the religious divide, Turnbull (editor of The Atheist newspaper) and MacIan (a devote Roman Catholic) recognize each other, in all their conflict, as soulmates of sorts because they are the only ones who believe that the existence or non-existence of God is a question worth pursuing and answering with all of one’s vigor—by contrast, the rest of society insists upon the relegation of religious matters to the private sphere. Likewise, there is, in the Ramayana, the story of Guha, who is disturbed when some brahmanas set up an image of Shiva near where he lives. Every day, after the Shiva worshippers depart, he goes and kicks the statue. Even on days when it rains, when the adherents of Shiva stay home in their dry huts, he goes and kicks the statue. He even has to wait out the wolves occasionally in order to go and offend the image. And when he dies, and Lord Yama is taking him off to the lands of death, Shiva intervenes and insists that Guha’s soul is his, that he showed more devotion to Shiva than did that deity’s own priests, who often stayed in the comfort of their homes during inclement weather.

The audience of something like God Is Not Dead 2—they don’t fear active opposition. They fear polite disinterest. And we live in an era of growing disinterest. Thus the need to summon the specter of persecution. Because, now, only persecution could justify their beliefs. God may not be alive, but any persecution threatens to put its victims in the position of the right, as Jack Miles noted in his opening chapter to Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. They need the persecution, or at least an exaggerated sense of its possibility, to prop up a theology that is showing its age in our Age of Change.

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