God’s Not Dead: We The People is the fourth installment of Pure Flix’s movie series centering on evangelical persecution porn. The movie concerns a group of evangelical homeschooling parents persecuted by a local social worker and judge for teaching children about Noah’s Flood. The parents travel to Washington D.C. to lobby against a related federal bill that would nationalize educational standards in the US and make homeschooling illegal.
Pure Flix, the evangelical version of Netflix that was acquired by Sony in 2020, is run by David A.R. White, who has starred in all four of the “God’s Not Dead” films. A Mennonite pastor’s kid who moved to Hollywood when he was 19, White isn’t just the head of Pure Flix, he’s the animating force behind the movie series as well. With the goal of expanding “territories for God’s kingdom” through filmmaking, White fits in perfectly with the dominionism that’s ubiquitous in today’s far-right and evangelical circles.
Variations on a persecution fantasy
The “God’s Not Dead” series was originally inspired by a chain email popular in the 1990s among evangelicals. The email, which revolved around a Christian college student who challenges his atheist professor about the existence of God, was fictional. Its purpose was to inspire young evangelicals to stand up for their faith in secular educational environments.
In 2014, Pure Flix decided the story deserved to be a movie. Enlisting the acting help of conservative Hollywood star Kevin Sorbo, best known for his role as the title character in the mid-to-late-90s Hercules TV series, and music from the contemporary Christian music band Newsboys, the original God’s Not Dead was a relative success, racking up over $64 million in the box office and over $32 million in DVD and Blu-Ray sales.
Despite making millions, it was panned by critics who argued that the film offered banal cliches about non-Christians and atheism. Pure Flix nonetheless ran full-steam ahead, cranking out three sequels in the span of 7 years, each depicting a slight variation of what is essentially the same evangelical persecution fantasy. God’s Not Dead 2 (2016) featured the persecution of a public high school teacher who dares to mention Jesus in her classroom; God’s Not Dead 3: A Light in Darkness (2018), concerned the persecution of a pastor who refuses to turn over his sermon notes to the federal government; and finally, this year’s, God’s Not Dead 4: We The People, is about the persecution of evangelical homeschoolers. (Cracked.com has a humorous summary of the entire series here.)
The latest installment, We The People, was released on October 4, 2021 to a limited theater audience and on October 22, 2021 to streaming via Pure Flix. The movie was a flop. While evangelical movie review sites like Plugged In claim that it “provokes believers to ask some critically important questions,” even they criticize the caricatures of liberals and progressives, calling the movie “one-sided,” “oversimplified,” and even “melodramatic.” The evangelical creationist organization Answers in Genesis similarly notes that the plot is “farfetched” and the characters “contrived.” Audiences seem to agree: the movie only lasted 3 days in theaters.
Despite its failure, it’s important to grapple with the film’s message and intentions. We The People presents a fictional world where homeschoolers can be prosecuted for failing to meet certain educational standards. Because this prospect is absolutely terrifying to evangelicals, it’s worth understanding exactly why.
We The People begins with a scene at a homeschool co-op. As a pastor teaches a group of homeschooled children about Noah’s Flood, a social worker shows up to assess the quality of the co-op’s lesson plans. When the social worker determines the children are not being taught properly, she reports the co-op and the parents in charge are required to go to court. There, a judge rules against the co-op, forcing the parents to either enroll their children in an accredited school or face fines and jail time.
At the same time, the federal government considers a bill that would nationalize educational standards—like Common Core, which is frequently targeted in the film—and ban homeschooling. A conservative politician involved in the bill’s hearings learns the plight of the co-op and invites the parents to Washington D.C. to testify against the bill. In D.C., the parents justify homeschooling before a hostile government committee, eventually swaying public opinion against the bill.
The movie ends with the judge, who originally ruled against the co-op, dramatically ripping up her order against them.
What We The People gets wrong
There’s so much We The People gets wrong about homeschooling, it’s hard to know where to begin. In order to avoid getting lost in legal minutiae, let’s just focus on the film’s central fear of an Orwellian intrusion into the lives of homeschooling parents.
While some European countries (which are, of course, disparaged in the film) have social workers assess homeschoolers’ lesson plans and learning environments, this is not the case in the United States. In the US, homeschooling is almost entirely deregulated—and intentionally so. The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), the most powerful lobbying organization for homeschooling parents, has fought for decades to keep homeschooling free from oversight.
HSLDA has been extraordinarily successful in this regard. According to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, the only non-profit organization in the world dedicated to advocating for the rights of homeschooled children, few states have any substantive oversight of homeschoolers:
- Almost a dozen states do not require homeschool parents to notify anyone when they withdraw their children to homeschool them.
- 39 states have no parent qualification requirements, allowing parents without high school diplomas or GEDs to homeschool.
- Many states do not require homeschoolers to teach any particular subjects; the ones that do mostly lack enforcement mechanisms.
- Most states do not require homeschoolers to keep records of students’ academic progress, and the majority of states require no assessments of that progress as well.
- Only two states have protections for at-risk children, such as children with parents convicted of child abuse. In other words, it is perfectly legal for convicted child abusers to homeschool their children in 48 states.
This libertarian approach to homeschool oversight, which is unique to the United States, has allowed abuse and neglect to thrive. At least 172 homeschooled children have been killed by their parents since 1986, indicating homeschooled children face a greater risk of dying from child abuse than other children. Additionally, a recent survey of 3,702 homeschool alumni found over half (51%) experienced abuse during childhood. A further 26% reported knowing an abused homeschooled peer.
Given the almost total absence of interference with homeschooling in the US, therefore, the fears of We The People are very much unfounded. Those fears are what have inspired homeschool lobbyists and apologists to use their power for the last several decades to push local, state, and federal authorities to be noticeably and profoundly hands-off when it comes to homeschooling—to the detriment of children’s lives. The majority of states do not require any assessments whatsoever of homeschooled children, let alone home visits from hostile social workers as portrayed in We The People.
In the few states that do have assessments, most include exemptions allowing parents to bypass the requirements. And the most common assessments are standardized testing and portfolio reviews—a far cry from home visits by social workers. Unannounced home visits of homeschoolers like in We The People are, according to HSLDA, “strictly unconstitutional” due to the 4th Amendment. So they not only don’t happen, they’re illegal unless certain narrow requirements are met.
But at least the depiction of inaccurate history is accurate
While We The People fails spectacularly in presenting an accurate and factual picture of homeschooling, it does get a few things right. One is the reality of homeschool curricula. In the film, the homeschool co-op’s curriculum for “reading and theology” is nothing more than the Bible. While some homeschooling families do exclusively use the Bible for teaching, mainstream homeschool curricula aren’t much better.
Three of the most popular curriculum companies in homeschooling—Abeka, Bob Jones, and ACE—all started as providers to whites-only, religious private schools. Unsurprisingly, then, this trinity of companies publishes curricula that are chock-full of historical revisionism, Christian Nationalism, and even straightforward racism. In short, they promote exactly the same teachings highlighted in We The People when the pastor of the homeschooling families goes on a rant about the United States’ allegedly Christian heritage.
Another accurate point the film makes is that secular and other non-Christian homeschoolers are generally supportive of evangelicals’ libertarian approach to homeschool policy. In the movie, a diverse group of homeschoolers (parents of color, parents of disabled children, and even liberal parents!) show up in D.C. to support the evangelical homeschoolers.
This parallels real life. Homeschoolers of all stripes react strongly to any attempts by any governmental body to protect children’s rights in the context of homeschooling. Opposing even the most basic, common-sensical safeguards like requiring background checks of homeschool teachers, secular and other non-Christian homeschoolers have bought into the parental rights absolutism promoted by HSLDA and other evangelical homeschoolers. As education professor Robert Kunzman writes in Write These Laws on Your Children, “The right of parents to raise and educate their children—and the complete lack of government authority in that regard—is perhaps the foundational conviction in homeschooling.”
God’s Not Dead: We The People may be persecution porn that even far-right evangelical allies don’t find credible, but what it does manage to perfectly capture is the current state of homeschooling politics, which is currently shot through with fear and paranoia about government intervention. Because of this, homeschooling is almost entirely deregulated. Since any efforts to address problems in homeschooling environments are universally rejected by those who hold power in the movement, abuse and neglect continue to thrive in disproportionate numbers—an issue apparently left on the cutting room floor.