'God's Not Dead' series seeks new life with timely tale of homeschoolers standing up to government

The latest installment in the Christian film series revives the feisty spirit of the original, which grossed a stunning $60 million.

Updated: October 2, 2021 - 10:39pm

Michael Scott, the founding partner of Pure Flix and Pinnacle Peak Pictures, admits the “God's Not Dead" franchise suffered a self-inflicted wound via the second sequel.

"God's Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness" (2018) tried to reach across the secular aisle, and the box office tally subsequently crashed.

The pro-Christian series began with a stunning $60 million box office haul in 2014 only to see those numbers plummet to $5.7 million for part three.

That film asked, "Is there a way we can come together?" says Scott. "In retrospect, I don't think that message resonated as well."

That won't be a problem with the latest "God's Not Dead" installment. Subtitled "We the People," the film returns the franchise to its blunt posture. A group of parents, including a dad played by Antonio Sabato, Jr., fight the U.S. government to maintain their faith-based homeschooling program.

The narrative feels ripped from recent headlines, and "We the People" isn't afraid to evoke a conservative icon in the process. The sequel opens with an ominous quote from President Ronald Reagan warning audiences, "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." 

Next, we meet parents forced to shut down their Christian-based homeschooling network or face severe fines levied by a no-nonsense judge (Fox News mainstay Jeanine Pirro).

"There is a time to come together, and there is a time to fight ... it's time not to lay down," Scott says of the current cultural landscape. "How can we speak to this in an intelligent manner, to stoke the conversation?"

It's not lost on Scott that a gaming CEO, Tripwire Interactive's John Gibson, just got squeezed out of his job for supporting Texas' pro-life legislation on Twitter. 

Or that Christian cake-baker Jack Phillips is enduring even more legal battles after stating he wouldn’t make a gay wedding cake, a battle that began nearly a decade ago.

It helped that Scott's creative team had a script already written that fit the tenor of the times. The screenwriters behind the first two installments, Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, had previously drafted a sequel tied to homeschooling.

"We weren't sure at the time it was timely, so we held it," says Scott, a producer on the new film. A few years later, homeschooling exploded nationwide as parents rebelled against what they viewed as draconian COVID-19 rules and a sudden push to inculcate Critical Race Theory in the classroom.

A U.S. Census Survey released earlier this year said homeschooling doubled during the pandemic.

"We went back and read [the Konzelman/Solomon script] ... 80 percent of this was exactly going on now," says Scott, who had screenwriter Tommy Blaze join the duo to pen the final version.

No matter where one stands on homeschooling, it's clear the "We the People" script caught the zeitgeist in a way many films can't match — and the sequel doubled down on that spirit once cameras started rolling. Scott says the production tweaked the material mid-shoot to enhance the story's timeliness. The editing process allowed for more subtle shadings to match evolving headlines.

It remains to be seen if a return to franchise form can revive the series' fortunes, especially since the film will be released via Fathom Events during a three-day theatrical window, Oct. 4-6.

Critics generally loathe the "God's Not Dead" films, scoffing at their perceived "persecution complex" regarding Christianity and preaching-to-the-choir tone. That won't change with the fourth installment, which brings a more fire and brimstone approach to the parents vs. U.S. Government angle, the latter personified by veteran actor William Forsythe ("Raising Arizona").

Scott gently disagrees with franchise critics, saying the series has always reflected reality. Attacks on Christians have "been ongoing and ramping up over the last 20 years," he says.

"God's Not Dead: We the People" features two stars who say they've been "cancelled" by Hollywood — Sabato and Isaiah Washington. 

Sabato, an openly conservative star, contends mainstream studios no longer consider him for roles due to his politics. He told Variety in 2020 that his pro-Trump rhetoric cost him several gigs, forcing him to temporarily leave show business.

Washington lost his job on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" after he allegedly used a homophobic slur against a costar, who wasn't present at the time of the argument. The actor apologized, adding he didn't aim the word in question against a gay costar. 

The actor cut a PSA for LGBTQ media watchdog group GLAAD following the dustup, but he still got cut from the popular show.

Both actors have expressed relatively positive views about former President Donald Trump.

Scott praised both actors for being the right fit for the film, but he adds their connection to the material heightened their performances. Both felt "passionately" about the movie's themes, Scott says.

Scott, a pioneer in the still-young faith-based storytelling space, says there's room for many Christian perspectives in the marketplace.

Stories that appeal directly to the devout "are needed, and they tell a compelling narrative," he says, adding that films with a lighter touch that pack an inspirational, faith-friendly message matter as well.

"There's room for both," he says. "We need to inspire people. We the people have a voice, in our government, in how we raise our kids. That's what 'God's Not Dead' is all about. It's time to stand up."