Persecution Pays: How Right-Wing Christian Films Like 'God's Not Dead' And 'Persecuted' Monetize The Persecution Complex

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A still from "God's Not Dead" featuring "Duck Dynasty" star Willie Robertson

This spring, theaters will see a veritable deluge of biblically inspired films hitting the box office. From Darren Aronofsky's reimagining of Noah's Ark and the flood to the History Channel's "Son of God," a makeshift blockbuster stitched together from its miniseries "The Bible," filmgoers will have no shortage of options for religious-themed entertainment.

Oddly enough, though, the two films with the most overtly Christian messages this spring may not draw from the Bible itself. And they may not rake in as much as Aronofsky’s blockbuster epic "Noah," which grossed $95 million worldwide on its opening weekend in late March. But a pair of independently financed Christian films are poised not only to reinforce the faithful's values, but to profit by exploiting believers’ fear of persecution.

“Persecuted," which previewed at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last month, follows the tribulations of less-than-subtly-named evangelist John Luther. A shadowy conspiracy involving a senator and the president needs Luther’s help drumming up support for the Faith and Fairness Act, a vaguely explained bill that would recognize the equality of all religions. When Luther refuses, he is framed for a call girl’s murder and must clear his name.

“Persecuted” isn’t the only conservative Christian film premiering this season to star a long-suffering evangelical hero fighting back against his liberal tormentors. Despite a plot cribbed wholesale from an email chain letter that made the rounds in the mid-1990s, the independent film “God’s Not Dead” has grossed more than $34 million since its release in March.

In between subplots featuring a Chinese exchange student who wants to learn about Christianity and a Muslim girl who converts despite her parents’ protests, “God’s Not Dead” mostly centers around a college freshman who stands up to an atheist philosophy professor hellbent on converting his students to non-belief.

“Persecuted” won’t open for another month (though IBT obtained a screener copy), but “God’s Not Dead” has already made a significant impact at the box office.

The film opened in fourth place the weekend of March 21, grossing $9.2 million in a weekend that also saw the release of Hollywood blockbusters “Divergent” and “Muppets Most Wanted.” Though it opened on only 720 screens, Box Office Mojo reports that “God’s Not Dead” held an impressive per-screen average of $11,817, hinting at a dedicated audience. Since its release, “God’s Not Dead” has yet to fall from the top five films, despite fierce competition from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Not bad for an independent Christian movie that cost a paltry $2 million to make.

Both films primarily work to comfort conservative Christians who feel threatened by the world. In both films, the white male Christian protagonists are ultimately victorious, their values vindicated to the audiences. “Persecuted” and “God’s Not Dead” don’t just drive home the idea that their viewers are in the right, however. They capitalize on the idea that the audience is constantly, viciously under attack from vaguely defined anti-Christian forces.

Russell Wolfe, CEO of “God’s Not Dead” distributor Pure Flix, admitted in an interview with the Blaze, the Glenn Beck site,  that the film is, by and large, “preaching to the choir,” saying that “God’s Not Dead” helps “people know more of why they believe what they believe.” But what values is the film teaching? Between the film’s abusive Muslims and angry atheists, the biggest take-home is that everyone is out to get Christians. Even the right-wing group Focus on the Family notes that “pretty much everyone who's not a Christian in this story is villainized for being mean, abusive, grouchy or narrow-minded.”

What exactly is behind the idea that modern Christians are a threatened breed?

The idea that Christians are persecuted isn’t new. Jesus, beginning his ministry at the Sermon on the Mount, admonished his followers to love those who hate them and rejoice in their own sufferings. The Book of Acts is filled with descriptions of Christians dying for their faith, and the apocalyptic Book of Revelation celebrates the righteous who died in the name of Christ. The Old Testament as well is full of stories of the faithful enduring hardship after hardship. 

Martyrdom is a strong part of Christian tradition, in large part because the religion grew out of it. When the New Testament was being written in the mid-first century, Christians in the Roman Empire were indeed persecuted, most notably by the Emperor Nero. It makes sense for texts written under a hostile government to encourage followers not to lose hope amid cruel persecution.

For more than a millennium after the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced the religion in the early fourth century, however, Christendom established a veritable hegemony over Europe and then much of the world beyond. In the modern world, Christianity, counting all churches together, is the globe's largest religion, and applying first-century standards of persecution simply doesn’t fit.

But as more and more Americans openly identify as having no religion, some Christians may look out into a world where they are no longer the dominant social and political force and conclude that the world is out to get them. When they do, films like “God’s Not There” and “Persecuted” are right there to play into the view that Christians are under attack.

Dianna Anderson, author of “Damaged Goods,” a forthcoming book examining evangelical Protestant "purity" culture, explains that films like “God’s Not Dead” and “Persecuted” can offer a convenient narrative for believers who want to feel vindicated in their beliefs.

“I think it's especially important that this persecution complex is mostly confined to middle-class white Christians, who are, by definition, one of the most heavily represented groups in media and culture today,” Anderson told IBT.

Anderson says that for some Christians in America, “'persecution' has come to mean ‘anything that makes me feel bad about my faith.’ … The persecution complex allows white evangelicals to cast themselves as the underdogs, the ‘real heroes’ of the story in a hostile world.”

This need to be an underdog hero is exactly the sentiment that films like “God’s Not Dead” work so hard to exploit. Wolfe told the Blaze that his film is based on real-life persecution, but the stories he brought out to make his claim bear little to no resemblance to a professor forcing his student to become an atheist, likely because such things simply don’t happen in modern America. By framing the film as a “true to life” story of persecution, audiences are more likely to believe it. And when they do, there’s always plenty of merchandise for sale.

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