Protocols Redux

“Vocabularies of motive are woven into narratives of harm and safety, victimization and salvation, which people use to construct themselves as victims of another group—or as potential redeemers of a nation.”

—Nicole Rafter, The Crime of Crimes: Toward a Criminology of Genocide

So David A. R. White, the producer of God’s Not Dead 2 (who also stars in the movie), was quoted shortly before the film’s release as saying, “It’s an interesting thing, because, if it wasn’t real, why do they [that is, atheists] get so offended by it? I don’t think it would annoy people if it wasn’t true.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. Yes, something like Star Trek, for example, is not true and does not offend me. I am not, in general, offended by fiction. However, many Christian are, and if David A. R. White wants to lambast secular types for taking offense at his film, he needs to remember how Christians reacted to the release of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. I remember the violence and the threats against theater owners. I remember our local cable provider broadcasting two hours of blank screen when the movie was being shown on HBO. I remember being yelled at by someone I thought my friend when I was found reading the book out of curiosity in high school.

As far as I know, no atheist has phoned in bomb threats or staged protests of theaters showing God’s Not Dead 2. If the story of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ wasn’t real, why were Christians so offended by it?

Secular types are not offended by this latest Harold Cronk movie because it relates to matters of faith. No atheist felt threatened by Fireproof or Saving Christmas, two other high profile faith-based movies. These movies, as ridiculous as they no doubt were, at least were able to deal with matters of personal faith without engaging in ant-secular propaganda.

Because that, fundamentally, is what God’s Not Dead 2 was. Mr. White, I was not “offended” by your movie. Sure, it’s annoying to see you paint secular folk as overwhelmingly consumed with a hatred of God and absolutely allergic to any mention of religion—a strange combination, that. After all, most diehard atheists of my acquaintance are not constantly scheming how they can destroy religious belief but are just trying to get through the day. You may find this even more threatening, but they are rarely thinking about God. They are not your mirror image, with hatred substituting for belief. They simply have no belief, and they get along fine without it.

No, your movie did not offend me. It terrified me. Because there have been many times in history when something that “wasn’t real,” like your movie, destroyed lives. For example, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a patent forgery that represented a secret Jewish plan to take over the world, but enough people believed the fiction it peddled that it contributed greatly to the Holocaust. The book, play, and film of The Birth of a Nation were all fiction, but they inspired the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and a new wave of racial violence in the United States.

And yes, there are similarities with your movie. Both the Protocols and Birth managed to convince majority populations that their lives and lifestyles were threatened by conniving and vicious minorities (Jews and black people, respectively). Likewise does your movie insist that Christians, the majority population of the United States, holding literally all the political power from president on down (quick, name an atheist congressman or governor!) are having their freedom of religion threatened by non-believers, especially by ACLU members who are dying to prove the non-existence of God. Moreover, these atheists apparently hold positions of power—in Arkansas, of all places, where our Christianist governor is a graduate of Bob Jones University and where nary a school board or city council meeting begins without some invocation of the divine. But people will buy this persecution fable. For many decades now, science and history have been forcing a retreat from literalist truth claims regarding the Bible. Available birth control has separated sexual activity from procreation, while the growing visibility of the broader spectrum of sexual and gender identity has challenged the sort of social behavior that used to be taken for granted. Old-fashioned bigotry is no longer in vogue, and for many, the loss of those norms can feel like persecution, because now if you’re a football coach who calls one of his players “faggot,” someone is likely to jump down your throat for it. It’s not persecution, but having to account for a variety of perspectives and identities when you really don’t want to can feel like it.

We do live in an era of social turmoil. I don’t doubt that. But so did our ancestors in the United States of the 1910s. There was high immigration from abroad, especially eastern Europe. There was the suffragette movement. Labor unions were fighting to overturn the existing economic structure, while anarchists seemed determined to overthrow everything. African Americans were resisting the strictures of Jim Crow. And Darwinism was catching on and threatening to overturn the old order.

Into this mix came The Birth of a Nation, and suddenly good, Christian, white men had the cure for all the social uncertainty that faced them—don a hood, burn a cross, and bring those old times back, by force if necessary.

God’s Not Dead 2 is just another iteration of the same theme, the same desire for certainty, and the same willingness to achieve that desire through the sacrifice of a scapegoat. In this case, secular-minded people are the villains whose defeat will bring the nation together. No, telling that story doesn’t offend me. It terrifies me, because we have seen how this story ended before.

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