LOS ANGELES — The original “God’s Not Dead” became the largest-grossing faith-based film when it was released in 2014 — earning $60 million at the box office — so it’s no surprise there’s a sequel.
Though there are a number of recurring characters in “God’s Not Dead 2,” star Melissa Joan Hart stressed that “our film really is merely about taking the conversation about faith in the public forum to a new level.”
Whereas the original movie was focused on a college setting, the new film zeroes in on a case involving a high school teacher discussing Jesus in her classroom. Hart’s Grace Wesley gets into trouble in her history class when she responds to a student’s question and compares the teachings of Jesus Christ with those of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That leads to the school demanding she apologize for violating the policy supporting the strict separation of church and state. When she refuses, a civil rights group convinces the student’s parents to sue Wesley in a landmark case designed to prove that there’s no historical proof Christ lived.
“For the longest time, while I played a witch on television [on ‘Sabrina, The Teenage Witch’], the Christian community attacked me for popularizing the magic aspects on that secular TV show,” Hart said.
“Now it’s the opposite. I’m getting grief for playing the good Christian woman who is being persecuted by the outside world!”
The actress, who makes no secret of her strong commitment to Christianity, said she felt a calling to make this film. “Today, there are a lot of Christians being persecuted for their faith,” said Hart, maintaining the strict separation of church and state has been taken to a new level, “far beyond the freedoms this country was founded on.”
In the process of making this movie, she was made aware of a couple of ironies. “In the past, mainstream Christians were members of what we could call the big powerhouse religion at the time — and may have been doing a fair amount of persecuting minority religions. But now those Christians feel their faith is something that is trampled on or ignored. Now the tables have turned.”
“Desperate Housewives” and “Dallas” alum Jesse Metcalfe plays Grace Wesley’s attorney. I’ve always been intrigued by the law and specifically court cases. “My girlfriend and I watch a lot of ‘Dateline’ and ’20/20′ shows,” he said. “Lately, we’ve been very much into ‘The People vs. O.J. [Simpson]’ — which is re-exploring that entire trial.
“I’ve always had an interest in law, but obviously a lot of preparation went into doing this role. I’ve never had to memorize a six, six-and-a-half page monologue before — the way an attorney would make a case in court. It was a challenge. But it was fun.”
As Hart sees it, “we can’t simply lump everyone into two camps — the believers and the non-believers. There are so many shades of opinion on the subject of religion.
“There are all sorts of segments of the Christian community, from Catholic to Presbyterian to Methodist. Even within the Evangelical community. There’s so much room in there to interpret faith. … My hope is simply that this film lead to a more respectful discourse on the role that religion should play in our society. It is a debate that is raging in our country.”