Reconsidering Evangelicals and “Tough on Crime” Politics

We are excited to kick off our Religion and Mass Incarceration: New Scholarly Directions series with a blog post from Aaron Griffith on the role of evangelicals in the rise of the prison industrial complex!


Reconsidering Evangelicals
and “Tough on Crime” Politics

by Aaron Griffith

falwellcolson

Charles Colson | Jerry Falwell

Evangelicals make an appearance in a good deal of the writing about religion and prisons, and they usually don’t look too good. To reference just two examples, evangelicals are often linked to the rise of the prison industrial complex either in their seeming unwillingness to challenge its growth or, as Winnifred Fallers Sullivan writes about one evangelical prison ministry, in their inherently complementary nature:

Whether one can conclude that dominant contemporary Christian theologies of punishment actually contributed directly to the increased punitive nature of U.S. society, there is no question that the two are culturally congruent and mutually recognizable (101).

But what if the linkage between evangelicalism and the post-1960s rise of mass incarceration (as well as the “law and order” rhetoric and politics that undergirds it) isn’t so clear cut? To be sure, there were some conservative Protestants very much in support of making laws tougher and punishments harsher. In general, these evangelicals would fall under the broad Christian Right umbrella, seen most prominently in groups like the Moral Majority and in leaders like Jerry Falwell. The Christian Right saw recovering law and order as part and parcel of their broader culture war agenda from the 1970s onward. Jerry Falwell penned newspaper columns that lamented how “Crime is epidemic” and that “Criminals are better protected by the law than the people on whom they prey.” His organization hosted rallies for political candidates that promised to toe the law and order line. The Moral Majority also successfully pushed Congress to get tougher on crime, calling for stiffer penalties and use of the death penalty while causing some congressmen to withdraw their support for bills that would have taken criminal laws in a less harsh direction.[1]

Thus far it would seem that the prison industrial complex and modern evangelicalism are indeed comfortable bedfellows (though it is important to remember that similar “tough on crime” efforts showed up in American culture from all sides of the political spectrum). But this story is an incomplete one, for some evangelicals fought harsh retributive rhetoric and questioned “tough on crime” policies. Though I’m exploring multiple ways that evangelicals challenged the criminal justice status quo in my research, here I will simply discuss one, a misunderstood figure who often is lumped in with the Christian Right by both scholars and popular critics: Charles “Chuck” Colson.

Colson’s story is well known: he converted to Christianity while under investigation for Watergate crimes (he would later serve one year in prison) and eventually founded and led the evangelical Prison Fellowship Ministries. Colson frequently spoke out against the injustices of the U.S criminal justice system and the political culture that sustained it. Consider three examples. In 1981 he called U.S. prison conditions “revolting” and its unfair sentencing laws “insane” and “ludicrous.”[2] In 1983 he wrote approvingly of two courageous judges who bucked callous trends in their state by declaring mandatory minimums unconstitutional and who attempted to grant leniency to a reformed convict. According to Colson, those who are willing to fight the cruel overreaches of American penal practice are heroes; in contrast, “Lady Justice, blindfolded to avoid partiality, is sometimes just plain blind.”[3] Though his conservative political advocacy intensified in the 1990s, Colson maintained his strident views on criminal justice. In a column in the early 1990s he decried politicians’ use of law and order tropes to further their own agenda. “Willie Hortonism” (a reference to the George H.W. Bush race-baiting campaign commercial) and pandering to the public via support of the death penalty were in Colson’s eyes absolute moral scandals.[4]

Much more could be said about Colson and other evangelical attempts to challenge “tough on crime” criminal justice and the rise of the prison industrial complex. And, as scholars like Winnifred Fallers Sullivan have indicated, the story of Colson and Prison Fellowship’s actual work in reforming American prisons is complicated by missteps and overreaches. But the contrast between Falwell and Colson is clear enough. Two questions remain: will scholars recognize this contrast in future studies of evangelicalism and prisons, and will activists committed to challenging the American system of criminal injustice be willing to see certain evangelicals as friends more than foes?

——

[1] Beth Spring, “Moral Majority Aims at the Criminal Code,” Christianity Today, February 5, 1982, 49.

[2] Tom Minnery, “Lawyers Are Challenged to Battle Secularist Inroads,” Christianity Today, May 29, 1981, 31.

[3] Charles W. Colson, “Taking a Stand When Law and Justice Conflict,” Christianity Today, February 4, 1983, 41.

[4] Charles Colson, “Voting for the Executioner,” Christianity Today, October 8, 1990, 112.


Aaron Griffith is a doctoral student studying American Christianity at Duke Divinity School.

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