Four months after “God’s Not Dead” depicted American academia as a seething hotbed of liberal atheism, along comes “Persecuted,” a Christian-themed minister-on-the-run thriller bent on exposing the government’s insidious multifaith agenda. Straw-man cinema doesn’t get much more ludicrous than this foolish and heavy-handed drama about an uncompromising preacher who finds himself the Job-like target of various crooked politicians and corrupt religious leaders, all bent on watering down the gospel for their own wicked gains. Speaking of which: Assuming it successfully taps into the victim complex afflicting certain members of its target audience, this slickly made item could do solid if perhaps not “God’s Not Dead”-level indie biz.
James Remar plays John Luther (no joke), the founder of Truth, a well-funded, highly influential evangelical ministry that appears to be the lone upholder of Christian values in a dangerously tolerant, increasingly secular age. Chief among those human serpents trying to tempt Luther into weakening his rigid ideological stance is Sen. Donald Harrison (Bruce Davison), who asks him to endorse the Faith and Fairness Act, a vaguely worded religious-reform bill that will not only guarantee equal treatment and recognition for all systems of belief (something already provided for by the Constitution), but also demonstrate that the U.S. “is no longer a Christian nation — in fact, it never has been,” in Harrison’s words. But Luther refuses to cave in to either political pressure or the will of the masses, continuing to preach his own conviction that “only the Word of God can bring peace.”
Luther knows of what he speaks, having overcome his own personal demons en route to the pulpit — and it’s these demons exploited by Harrison and his shadowy co-conspirators, including the president (James R. Higgins), in an attempt to destroy his spiritual authority. Driving home one night, Luther is knocked unconscious by an unseen attacker, and awakens to find himself accused of raping and murdering a teenage girl. Now a fugitive, he seeks help from his father (Fred Dalton Thompson), a priest who solemnly warns of “a powerful political movement based on deceit,” and tries to contact his wife (Christian singer-songwriter Natalie Grant), who desperately clings to her belief in her husband’s innocence. She, meanwhile, must fend off the creepy romantic overtures of Luther’s treacherous ministry partner (Brad Stine), who’s visibly delighted by the tax benefits that Truth will enjoy under the new bill.
It’s never explicitly stated when all this is taking place — presumably sometime during the present day, and presumably on planet Earth, as indicated by occasional nighttime shots of the Capitol building and other areas of Washington, D.C. (Thompson, not just a character actor but also a longtime Republican politician, has wishfully likened the movie to “House of Cards.”) Writer-director Daniel Lusko’s script posits a world where truly God-fearing Christians represent a brave, principled minority under violent attack by “those who believe in nothing,” and blithely assumes that we will recognize that world as our own. Never mind that the dramatic stakes feel ridiculously rigged, the specific antagonists ill defined, the entire movie suspended in an atmosphere of context-free paranoia. If there’s a reason why “Persecuted” is so unpersuasive, it’s because it’s the product of a sensibility that assumes its audience doesn’t need to be persuaded of anything.
There is, to be sure, an intelligent and provocative film to be made about how the language of tolerance can itself propagate a form of intolerance, and also about the very real tension that so many followers of Jesus (this critic included) often feel between their personal beliefs and the values of the postmodern world — a tension that the Bible itself understands and allows for. But that film would have to be framed as something other than a paranoid thriller, and it would have to translate its discourse into something more sophisticated than the crude, well-worn grammar of the American action movie, with its routine shootouts and fisticuffs. It would also have to accord those characters at odds with its message — atheists and agnostics, prostitutes and politicians — at least a modicum of motivational complexity, if not something approaching the level of compassion that Christ implored His disciples to show their enemies.
Said movie might still topline James Remar, a reliably brooding B-movie veteran who deserves a better leading-man showcase than he gets here. But it definitely wouldn’t climax with a shot of a gun and a rosary clutched in the same bloodstained fist — an image that manages to be simultaneously laughable and horrific, and that reads as nothing so much as an incitement to violence in the Lord’s name. At a time when the world offers us no shortage of examples of what actual religious persecution looks like, for a film to indulge in this particular brand of self-righteous fearmongering isn’t just clueless or reckless; it’s an act of contemptible irresponsibility.