God’s Law and Order: A Conversation with Aaron Griffith

God’s Law and Order: A Conversation with Aaron Griffith December 17, 2020

Aaron Griffith is assistant professor of history at  Sattler College and the author of God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America, just published by Harvard University Press. Thank you, Aaron, for stopping by The Anxious Bench to discuss matters that are both persistently relevant and timely.

Let’s start with some big-picture questions, and I apologize for  the deluge! The United States has a prison and jail population of more than two million people and the world’s highest incarceration rate. Why? Is it because we have more criminality than, say, Germany or Canada or Japan? Or do we just lock people up unnecessarily? At the same time, rates of violent crime have plunged since the early 1990s, when American politicians – including president-elect Joe Biden – enacted tough-on-crime sentencing laws and guidelines. The human cost of those laws is immense. More than two million people behind bars. And the racial disparities are sobering. As you note in your book, black men are more than six times as likely as white men to be imprisoned. Nevertheless, could one not argue that these punitive policies helped reverse high rates of violent crime?

First of all, thanks for speaking with me, John. I am a big fan of The Anxious Bench, so it’s an honor to talk with you.

Studies have shown that nonlethal crime rates (like property crime) in the US are roughly the same as other comparable nations. The difference is violent crime, gun violence in particular. You can probably imagine on one level why this is (the US simply has more guns than many other similar nations), though I would also note our nation’s persistent inequality (whether economic, educational, racial, residential, or otherwise) as an important context as well. But, as many scholars have pointed out, our systems of criminalization and mass incarceration are themselves to blame. These systems, in their removal of residents from their home communities through incarceration, disrupt and destabilize families and neighborhoods. This creates conditions for urban unrest, which in turn pushes leaders to crack down even harder, further exacerbating problems.

The question of necessity is complicated, because it forces us to nail down exactly what we think our criminal justice system is for. Many people who have argued for more “law and order” (and with it, expanded prisons) saw this approach as necessary for dealing with crime, whether through deterrence, incapacitation, or simply as retribution, a way to “balance the scales” of justice.

But whatever one’s sense of what the criminal justice system is supposed to be doing, it is indisputable that our criminal justice system places disproportionate burdens on people of color and the poor. For example, as many scholars and legal experts have pointed out, drug usage rates are nearly identical among black and white Americans. And yet, black Americans are nine times more likely than whites to be locked up for drug crimes. It is difficult for many Americans to defend themselves against prosecution, given the high costs of hiring a lawyer and the underfunding of public defenders’ offices. This is to say nothing of American prisons’ inhumane conditions, the ways overcrowding and lack of programs therein make rehabilitation difficult.

But, to cap it all off, our system of mass incarceration has also been shown to have a limited effect in actually reducing crime (especially violent crime) or addressing the very real harms victims of crime endure. Regarding the former, our nation has invested in incarceration instead of other approaches that have been shown to reduce crime, such as expanded educational opportunities or mental health. And even though protection of crime victims and calls for “victim’s rights” have been common refrains for quite some time, our system actually does very little to make sure that the needs of communities and victims affected by crime receive compensation or have their needs taken into consideration when offenses do occur. 

Now let’s turn to the particular subject of God’s Law and Order: evangelical prison ministries and their response to both crime and incarceration. How significant are evangelical ministries? What is their place within the American prison system?

Evangelical ministries are important actors within the US prison system as providers of religious and rehabilitative services. Some of these ministries are large, like Prison Fellowship, which has a presence in hundreds of correctional facilities across the country and an annual budget of over $40 million. Others are smaller “mom and pop” ministries that are run by just a few employees or volunteers. These ministries are a regular point of contact for incarcerated people, whether through regular Bible studies, evangelistic events, Christmas present drives for prisoners’ children, or, in some cases, the provision of rehabilitative and educational services as part of the prison itself. Though these ministries rely on close relationships with correctional staff in order to gain access to incarcerated people, they are different than the chaplains employed by many state and federal prisons. Chaplains, though typically associated with a religious body or denomination of some kind, are designated as general providers of religious services for a very diverse prison population. A chaplain has to serve all incarcerated people, whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise. By contrast, evangelical ministries are, well, evangelical – they proselytize. Though they have to negotiate the complications of working within pluralistic prison spaces, they are generally unapologetic with regards to their evangelistic mission to tell prisoners about Jesus and to disciple them in the Christian faith.

There are several great books on the influence of evangelical ministries within contemporary prison life, such as those by Tanya Erzen and Winnifred Sullivan. My book differs in how I drill into the emergence of many of these ministries in the historical moment of 1960s and 70s. This was a time when many evangelicals were adapting to the cultural and political changes of postwar American life by investing in new forms of ecclesial and social engagement, such as parachurch ministries and small group fellowships. Prison ministries were an important kind of “special purpose group” (to use Robert Wuthnow’s phrase) that adapted to the growing power of the carceral state. Evangelicals, like many other Americans, were also worried about crime and disorder around this time, and these ministries also served as important interpreters of crime and punishment concerns to the broader public. Prison ministries seemed to many to be an acceptable form of religious engagement with prisoners that, in theory, could reduce crime by bringing criminals to Christ. It also served as a form of engagement that many incarcerated people appreciated and engaged with but, at the same time, did not question the presence of the prison itself in American life.

In your book, you talk about evangelical icons such as Chuck Colson, but you also introduce less familiar figures like Consuella York? I found her captivating. Could you tell our readers about her?

Consuella York was a very interesting figure to me, someone (unlike Chuck Colson) who I knew nothing about before I started my research. She was an African-American Baptist minister at Cook County Jail in Chicago from 1952 until her death in the mid-1990s. She would visit the jail with a red wagon filled with toiletries and gifts to preach, counsel, and encourage the people incarcerated there.

York became a bit of a minor celebrity in Chicago, with newspapers and television programs covering her work near the end of her career. I was fortunate to benefit from a great oral history interview that Billy Graham Center archivist Bob Shuster did with her, that offered a great deal of helpful information about her early life and ministry. There are so many historical gems about York I could share, but one that sticks out to me was her repeated insistence on her calling as a woman to preach. She often encountered hostility to this calling, both inside and outside of prison. When prisoners would give her a hard time on this point, she had some good-natured rebukes for them, like “If some of you men would get up and do as you were [supposed to] . . . He wouldn’t have to call so many of us [women].” In this York was very much emblematic of a longer history of women ministering and preaching in men’s prisons, sometimes because they were the only ones willing to do this work.

To me, York (or “Mother York” as she was known) was also emblematic of the independent “mom and pop” evangelical prison ministry approach I mentioned earlier. She reminded me of the many prison ministry workers and volunteers I’ve met over the years, and those who routinely showed up in my historical research without much fanfare (usually as brief references in Christian magazines or denominational publications). York did not draw a salary for her prison work, and she did not have a public relations program or any of the accoutrements one might associate with successful ministry or non-profit work. But was a regular presence at the jail, and someone who the people incarcerated there greatly admired and respected. She also was unapologetic about her conversionist focus – she loved everyone at the jail and would help anyone there who needed it, but she believed she had a distinctly Christian calling to preach the message of salvation and bring people to Jesus. I included her in the book not only because she was a fascinating character, but because she helps us broaden our understanding of postwar evangelicalism’s actors (beyond white men) and ministry forms (it’s not simply giant, multi-million dollar enterprises with a big public presence).

“Evangelicals … are the ones who show up.” Among American Christians, they are the most likely to spend time ministering to prisoners. At the same time, evangelicals have supported policies that have led to mass incarceration, especially of African American men. Which of those realities is more significant? The personal or the political? Or, how do you as an author hold those two things in tension?

At times, the personal and political reinforced each other. As I show in the book, some vocally law-and-order evangelicals hailed prison ministry as complementary to their punitive politics. Prison ministry programs were a boon for conservative politicians like California Governor Ronald Reagan, who wanted to reduce governmental expenditures on social services at the same time he was ramping up anti-crime efforts. For them, private prison ministries offered an alternative to state services, ideal exemplifications of Governor Reagan’s “Creative Society.” Indeed, one of the architects of Governor Reagan’s tough anti-crime policies was himself active in prison ministry.

Other times, the personal provided a context for evangelicals to see that something was wrong with American criminal justice and the punitive politics that enabling it. This was the story of Nixon advisor Chuck Colson, who was incarcerated for obstruction of justice (he became a Christian shortly before entering prison). Colson saw firsthand while in federal prison how bad things could be. Colson’s frustrations with the inhumane conditions of the US prison system grew as he began evangelistic ministry to incarcerated people following his release. All of these personal experiences, combined with his own conservative skepticism of governmental power, pushed him to think more critically about the criminal justice system and to work for reform. This is a complicated story, to be sure, as Colson still believed policing and prisons were necessary (to the point that, later in his career, he started defending policies like “broken windows” policing and he renounced his earlier opposition to the death penalty). But I think Colson provides a powerful example of someone whose personal experiences pushed him to rethink prisons and the politics that propped them up. And I think this is still happening today when many evangelicals visit prisons and see for themselves what they are like and listen to the voices of the people incarcerated within them.

What made a difference was when evangelicals developed their critical faculties on two points: the role of the state, particularly the state’s ability to use violent force, and on race. For some evangelicals I write about, the ability to criticize the state grew out of their theological commitments to nonviolence (like anabaptism). Others, like Colson, found intellectual resources in philosophers like Jacques Ellul, a Christian anarchist, and even C. S. Lewis, whose essay on punishment gave Colson tools to understand the oppressive qualities of bureaucratic state power with regards oppressive forms of “rehabilitation.”

On race, many white evangelicals adopted a “colorblind” outlook that allowed them to decry acts of overt racial hatred but limited their ability to see systemic injustices (like the disproportionately high numbers of black people behind bars) or the ways racial coding worked in law-and-order appeals. Black evangelicals like Tom Skinner, a former gang member who had a remarkable personal conversion experience as a young man, were far more attuned to systemic injustices and more willing to call out the race-baiting common in law-and-order politicking. In a famous speech in 1970 at the InterVarsity Urbana conference, Skinner blasted police as an “occupational force” in black communities, one that was existed for “maintaining the interests of white society” He castigated white evangelicals for their unwillingness to speak out, declaring that what law and order actually means is “all the order for us and all the law for them.” As you might imagine, white evangelicals did not appreciate this prophetic word, and found ways to limit Skinner’s influence in years to come. On both state violence and race, these more critical perspectives were largely minority reports.

So, in sum, I’ve learned to hold evangelicals’ personal and political frames in tension. They often worked together in ways that resulted in punitive outcomes in terms of criminal justice. But there were times when evangelicals drew on their personal faith and experiences to try to check these outcomes.

Could you tell us a bit about your own experiences with prison ministry? How did they influence your approach to this subject?

As I mention in the introduction of my book, I volunteered with a prison ministry for several years while I was in graduate school. That experience showed me the innumerable complexities of ministry within correctional contexts, from the unpredictability of prison schedules to the understandable limitations that ministries face in speaking critically about problems within the criminal justice system. The best part of that work was simply hearing the stories and testimonies of people who were incarcerated, and seeing the passion for ministry and the well-being of incarcerated people among my fellow volunteers. More than anything, those conversations and relationships pushed me to do work that (I hope) does justice to the stories of those who are incarcerated, the challenges they face, and the intricacies of ministry work within prisons.


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