As an atheist teacher in the Deep South, I can assure you that God's Not Dead got it backwards. Here's what happens in real life.
Given that the first installment of God’s Not Dead only took $2M to make but grossed $60M, Pure Flix Entertainment decided to bless the world with a second installment, due out on April Fool’s Day, rather uncreatively entitled God’s Not Dead 2: He’s Surely Alive. It takes place in Arkansas and centers around a fictitious teacher named Grace who had the audacity to openly admit her Christianity in a public school setting (The horror! In the Bible Belt no less!).
With the principal and superintendent teaming up with a zealous civil liberties group represented by an attorney with no love lost for God, Grace faces an epic court case with the help of sympathetic and charismatic defense lawyer, that could cost her the career she had always dreamed of — and expel God from the classroom once and for all.
The teacher, portrayed by Melissa Joan Hart, gets sued by an atheist student who couldn’t countenance an open demonstration of faith, and somehow she has the support of the principal as well as the superintendent (clearly the writers have never been to Arkansas). This scenario even puts the teacher on trial for her crime of openly speaking about Jesus.
Just as with the previous scenario in which an atheist professor demanded his students publicly renounce their faith on the first day of class (You can read my review of that cinematic train wreck here), the writers seem to have no idea how educational environments work. I’m guessing they also have no idea how the First Amendment is supposed to play out in government sponsored spaces.
Christian movies like this exist because real life doesn’t sufficiently validate people’s persecution complexes. Something more dramatic is needed to justify their fears. That’s where outfits like Pure Flix come in. They exist to feed Christian paranoia stemming from the belief that even though they make up the overwhelming majority of Americans (doubly so in Arkansas), somehow they are being mistreated by having to let other people occupy the same space.
Well, something like this plot does in fact happen in real life, and it happened in my own classroom—except in reverse, and minus the dramatic courtroom scene (again, that’s not how these things work). Let me tell you a story. This one, by the way, isn’t made up.
Confronted by a student during class
A few weeks into my previous teaching job, a seventh grader confronted me in front of the class, asking me if it was true that I am an atheist. At this point in time I wasn’t open about that, but she was digging around my Facebook profile and found evidence which I had not yet realized could be seen by the general public. I knew better than to openly admit my atheism in Mississippi, especially since I had only transferred to this school to be where my own children were. I didn’t want to jeopardize that, so I dodged her question and said that I wasn’t at liberty to discuss my religious affiliation in class.
She shot back, “Why didn’t you say no?!” See, just like with almost any other public school in the Bible Belt, at this school Christian teachers are free to be quite open about their religious beliefs. In fact, when my eldest was taking the same history class just the year before, her teacher livened up the story of Israel by marching around the room, blowing an imaginary trumpet to make the walls of Jericho come a-tumblin’ down. In case you wondered, no, that isn’t in the curriculum. But this is the Bible Belt. You can get away with stuff like that here and most people just eat it up. The parents in my county love that their children’s teachers are so demonstrative about their faith.
Well, that girl told all her friends and their parents that her teacher is an atheist. I refused to discuss the matter with anyone who asked me about it from that moment on, but it didn’t matter. The word had begun to circulate anyway. Which would explain why my principal showed up to my classroom, coincidentally enough, on the day I was slated to cover the history of Israel myself. Instead of sitting in the back and observing my instructional methods as our evaluation protocols prescribed, she interrupted my lesson and took over teaching the unit for nearly half an hour. I was a bit stunned. It was very awkward.
She grilled them about the Old Testament judges and asked them if the Israelites walked through the parted Red Sea on wet ground or dry (they all replied “dry!”) despite the fact that our text doesn’t cover miraculous claims from the Bible. She basically took over my class and turned it into a Sunday School lesson. After she left the room, one of my students turned to me and said, “What the heck was that?” They had never seen her just take over teaching a class like that before. It was out of the ordinary, and they weren’t exactly sure why it happened. It wouldn’t be the last intrusion.
Called on the carpet
Finally one day this principal showed up to my room before the start of class to begin outlining a host of topics I was not to discuss in my class. Nothing controversial, nothing that would stir up debate among the students. “They’re talking about your class out in the hallways and at home!” she told me. “That’s…good, right?” I asked. “It stops, right now!” she replied. She went on to prohibit talking about politics or religion (in my history class!) for the remainder of the year. Nothing that would get the kids talking too much about what Mr. Carter said in his class. At last I had to ask her, “Why? Why can’t we talk about these things?”
“Because there’s talk in the community that you told your students you’re an atheist,” she said. I assured her that I hadn’t discussed my religious beliefs with my students at all, but that wasn’t good enough for her. She reiterated once more the parameters of what I was allowed to discuss: For example, it was the morning after the 2012 Presidential election and she told me I wasn’t allowed to discuss the outcome with my students. That one really stung because I had succeeded in getting the students highly motivated to follow the race, and two weeks before the election we collectively predicted 50/50 states correctly, waiting only for Florida to make up its mind (we got that one right, too, btw).
I clammed up about anything remotely controversial, and did my best to follow her instructions because I really wanted to keep that job. I wanted desperately to teach where my own girls attended and I wasn’t willing to jeopardize that over an identity that I wasn’t even ready to publicize.
But then a couple of months later, she removed me from my history class in the middle of the year, placing me instead into a math class in a lower grade for the remainder of the year. My students cried, even some of the teenage boys. They begged me to stay and then went over her head, circulating a petition to get the head principal to bring me back, but to no avail. I finished the remainder of the year teaching math only to discover that they never had any intentions of bringing me back. At contract renewal time, they called me into the office and informed me that I wouldn’t be returning to that school—or any other school in the district in any capacity—ever again. They put it in writing but didn’t include any explanation for why I wasn’t welcome back. I felt like a convicted felon.
Incidentally, two weeks later I started this blog. That was just over two years ago, although this is the first time I’ve written this story out.
Another shot at classroom teaching
By the time I found out I didn’t have a job to return to, it was so late in the year that the only school system still hiring was the inner city school district. I took a job teaching math there and stayed for two years. After becoming the target of religiously-motivated bullying and what I came to call “evandalism” I decided to tender my resignation with that school district and now I’m looking to figure out what I should do next.
It seems to me that teaching in my area is a bad idea because now that the word is out that I’m an atheist, no one is going to want to hire me. I’ll be a liability for them because parents and students simply will not tolerate having an atheist in their classroom. It doesn’t matter that I never discuss my beliefs with them, nor did I even come out of the atheist “closet” until after people virtually pushed me out against my will.
The point is that the reality of teaching in the Bible Belt is the exact opposite of the fictitious scenario in God’s Not Dead 2. It’s a religious fiction concocted in order to feed the fears of Christians who interpret every minor loss of privilege as bona fide persecution.
They’re not converting people anymore (check the stats). They are no longer winning souls. They’re still selling a cure to a disease which people of this generation don’t even believe they have. But they’ve got to be about something. They have to matter to the world somehow. So now they’re manufacturing conflicts in order to have something to rally behind. It makes them feel more in touch with the early Church’s tumultuous beginnings.
But it takes a lot of smoke and mirrors to make it look like the people with the most privilege in a region (like Christians in the Bible Belt) are being mistreated by the people who run things. Where I live, all the judges, jurors, and attorneys are devout Christians. So are the teachers, the principal, and almost all of the parents.
That’s why they have to make movies like this. Because in real life it doesn’t play out like this, unless it’s in reverse.