November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
September 2, 2021
Aaron Griffith, God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020).
Brenda Salter McNeil,Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now (Ada, MI: Brazos Press, 2020).
If one positive thing can be said for the Trump era, it is that his time in office yielded a slew of impressive books on white evangelicalism. And there are more to be published in the coming years, for good reason. White evangelicals’ transaction with Trump—supporting his candidacy and legislative agenda in exchange for the promise of public power and a reshaped judiciary—will bring lasting repercussions for both American evangelicalism and the nation at large. What is clear in the interim, however, is that President Trump’s law-and-order mantra became a deadly mockery on January 6, 2021, when insurgents breached the Capitol, reportedly on the hunt for Vice President Pence and members of Congress who would not “stop the steal” in conjunction with a conspiracy theory that alleged massive voter fraud.
Many presidents have focused on crime and punishment, at least rhetorically if not legislatively, but Trump imagined law and order to be an extension of his whims. He conceived of the Justice Department as his personal fleet of attorneys, and police officers and military personnel controlled his environment so that he could insulate himself from any dissenting voices. The events of January 6 fall within this same scope, an egomaniac in the Oval Office using armed civilians to perform his self-serving tasks.
In the mass of angry humanity that day, Trump flags, Confederate flags, and American flags flew alongside Christian flags and banners adorned with slogans like “Jesus Saves” and “Jesus 2020.” Proud Boys were prayed over, as if they were marching into battle. Pastors of so-called patriot churches blessed the day. In a shocking echo of James Cone’s work, a cross and noose were both erected by the crowd on the Capitol grounds.1
Five people dead. Over five hundred charged. One hundred and forty police officers injured. Two Capitol police officers died by suicide. Thousands, likely millions, more living in a fantasy spurred on by the former president. The warped vision of law and order we witnessed at the outset of 2021 is revealing that certain strands of Christianity have always sided with authoritarianism and violence.
Aaron Griffith’s God’s Law and Order brings the words of Ecclesiastes 1:9–10 to mind:
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been,
in the ages before us. (NRSV)
Griffith’s first book plumbs the depths of how evangelicalism’s rise in the mid-twentieth century overlapped with and connected to the expansion of the criminal punishment system. Along with briefly restating the historical trends he highlights, I will show how Griffith’s work contextualizes our current political moment, revealing yet again how there is “nothing new under the sun.”
First, Griffith explains how evangelicals increased their engagement in criminal justice matters during the latter half of the twentieth century, including support for the emerging carceral state. Such engagement was “central to their entry into American public life,” he says. Christian responses to rising crime in the early twentieth century illustrated a theological divergence between fundamentalists and modernists. Punitive approaches to criminal justice named moral decline and individual culpability as the key to understanding every social problem, not unlike the fundamentalist conception of the world, whereas the progressive approach recognized that a variety of social factors were linked to crime and insisted that alleviating those influences could conceivably reduce the crime rate. Both sides, however, agreed that state power provided the best solution to address the spike in violent crime, as murder rates had increased by 50 percent from 1900 to 1925.2
Second, evangelicals sold a vision of “law and order” to their constituents, framing prison expansion as a vital component to maintaining a safe society for their children, yet it was an aspiration that centered upon the ongoing control of people of color. Evangelicals maintained that the law was neutral and colorblind, but, as the lie of Black criminality festered, the law was anything but neutral. This fearful vision of neighbor was animated by a widening gap in proximity, as white evangelicals left cities for the newly constructed suburbs, concretizing cities as dangerous, Black, criminal spaces in the white evangelical imagination.3
Lastly, evangelicals understood their political engagement, including crime and punishment, in terms of individual conversion. Prisoners were sinners who had violated not only humanity’s laws but God’s law. Likewise, sinners must confess wrongdoing in order to receive God’s forgiveness via Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. The criminal-as-sinner paradigm reinforced the state’s role in submitting the offender to Jesus, with severe punishment as a divine stand-in. Moreover, because evangelicals were concerned for prisoners’ souls, they built personal relationships with prisoners, and in some cases, this led evangelicals to seek reform on behalf of those they now considered to be brothers and sisters in Christ.
The tumult of civil rights demonstrations, alongside Supreme Court decisions that evangelicals perceived to be defeats—for example, Engel v. Vitale in 1962, which struck down state-sponsored prayer in public school, and Abingdon School District v. Schempp in 1963, which declared school-sponsored Bible reading requirements to be unconstitutional—helped them realize the power of the state. Thus, evangelical leaders began to show more willingness to speak out on policy matters, irrespective of the negative impact it would have upon their relationships with people of color within the faith. Billy Graham, for instance, previously reticent to comment upon specific policies, repeatedly favored “tough new laws” to address social unrest throughout the civil rights movement era.4 What could have been an opportunity for reconciliation at an inflection point in race relations was instead exacerbated by white Christians who chose self-preservation through political power.
Evangelical prison ministries have afforded opportunities to Christians outside of the professional chaplaincy and clerical ranks to serve others, particularly among unlikely figures. In the mid-seventies, former Nixon staffer Charles “Chuck” Colson became the model of sorts for these ministries. Colson served seven months in federal prison for crimes uncovered during the Watergate investigation. Colson was born again before entering prison, and his incarceration provided a space to listen to his fellow inmates in order to understand the life circumstances that had contributed to their imprisonment. Colson found purpose in prison: he used his legal training to assist fellow inmates, at times drafting letters to judges for illiterate inmates. Griffith summarizes Colson’s burgeoning mission this way:
The fact that prisoners had so few resources that illiterate inmates could not even read their own charges, much less argue about them, was infuriating to Colson. As he left Maxwell after a seven-month sentence, he told his new friends that he would not forget them.5
True to his word, Colson founded Prison Fellowship in 1976 and built his network through individual relationships with inmates and their families.
Prison Fellowship was contemporaneous with Jerry Falwell Sr.’s Moral Majority (founded in 1979) and other right-leaning groups, all of which supported harsher sentences for violent and sex-related crimes, as well as increased attention to victims’ rights. The late seventies and early eighties were a difficult time to court sympathy for inmates, particularly with Ronald Reagan’s administration, whose cachet with conservative Christians began during his tenure as California governor. Ever the politically savvy operator, Colson carefully chose which battles to wage regarding prison policy reforms, never knowing which relationships would be beneficial down the road. Eventually, he launched Justice Fellowship in 1991 to promote restorative justice efforts, setting up task forces in twenty-two states that helped pass twenty-one bills to reduce prison overcrowding and mandate restitutions for victims.6 For this reason, Colson’s impact remains remarkable, if not nearly unthinkable, in the zero-sum game of politics that has emerged in the last quarter-century.
What Colson failed to recognize—like other Republicans and Democrats at the time, Christians included—was the manner in which every area of the criminal justice system was affected by racial prejudice. Because evangelicalism’s majority white constituency has largely conceived of racial tensions in individualistic terms, their experiences in prisons filled with people of color did not necessarily translate into understanding systemic problems. On this point Griffith is insightful and unflinching: reinstituting a robust criminal justice system was a frontline issue for conservative evangelicals because the rending of cultural norms was terrifying. Griffith says that in the evangelical mindset of the era, “law and order was something that had been lost; America’s moral foundations were crumbling as a result of the rising tides of secularism, feminism, and humanism.” Preserving a supposedly endangered way of life via “law and order” remains the pick-and-roll of the evangelical political playbook.7
The problem with law and order sloganizing is that for too long it papered over the growing problem of mass incarceration, mandatory minimums, militarized police forces, disproportionate uses of violence, and little legal accountability for police killings. Any political will to reimagine crime and punishment over the decades has been throttled by the fear of being labeled “soft on crime” by one’s opponent.8
Griffith’s work sparked this lasting thought for me: The tragic irony of pressing the state to become the primary enforcer of desired social norms is that evangelicals capitulated to unimaginative solutions and kneecapped their proclaimed theological tenets. That is, they supported policies that ignored the possibility of people changing through personal relationships, the importance of deep communal roots to foster that change, and the transformative work of the Holy Spirit, all of which are more consistent with holistic notions of reparation and rehabilitation. As Griffith reminds the reader: “Evangelical personal influence may have been flawed as a strategy for ridding America of crime or the systemic social realities that cause it, but it was a tangible way for criminals to be rehumanized in a society that was prone to forget them.”9 The way forward in criminal justice reform will require the help of evangelicals to connect their personal concern for salvation to the complex, systemic web that so easily ensnares the hurting before they inflict harm.
Brenda Salter McNeil, one of the foremost voices in racial reconciliation, notes in Becoming Brave that her students’ convicting questions regarding justice and the church have shaped the latest iteration of her work and ministry. McNeil’s thick description of reconciliation counters inadequate notions of reconciliation that merely signify forgiveness for the sake of ending conflict. She writes: “Reconciliation is an ongoing spiritual process involving forgiveness, repentance, and justice; it’s goal is to transform broken relationships and systems so that they better reflect God’s original intention for all creation to flourish.” McNeil confesses she has been “deeply concerned with how my message will be received by white people,” yet with her latest work, McNeil signals that she is not yielding to white expectations for easy forgiveness and is resolute to pursue justice in new ways.10
McNeil finds the book of Esther to be the exemplar for “unlikely activist[s]” everywhere.11 Activists are not born; they are formed within the circumstances of everyday life. McNeil compares Esther, the orphaned and exiled Jewish teenager in ancient Persia, to modern-day human trafficking victims, taking to task biblical interpreters who miss altogether Esther’s circumstances, particularly her first appearance before King Xerxes:
Many prominent male Bible teachers have suggested that Hadassah, who became known by her Persian name Esther when she was forced into the contest, used her feminine wiles to secure herself a spot as queen. This erroneous teaching implies that she was some sort of schemer at best, or a cunning seductress at worst. It is important to remember that Esther did not have a choice about entering that contest. She did not stand before King Xerxes because she hoped to seduce him for her own political gain. She didn’t look at an advertisement for the beauty pageant and decide to enter it to win a scholarship or prize money. She entered because she had to.12
Esther settles into palace life as a captive queen, cut off from her people’s plight. The lure of becoming “palace people”—an isolated and insulated people, consumed by busyness and generally ignorant of others’ suffering—is one that McNeil suggests can plague us all.13
McNeil admits that she was disconnected from what local organizers faced on the ground, but Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri, was a transformative time for her as she joined local and national leaders in 2014 for prayer, planning, and, ultimately, protest. In McNeil’s account, traveling to the site of trauma and pain was a way of leaving the palace. She writes, “I traveled to Ferguson to learn, listen, advise, and consult; I was not ready to actively participate.”14 And yet, McNeil was thrust into the midst of distraught activists and came face-to-face with a militarized police force that posed a threat to her safety. Most importantly, McNeil faced young Christians who wanted to know whether the church cared about justice.
Readers who know Brenda Salter McNeil’s work will find in Becoming Brave the same wisdom they have become accustomed to receiving. Yet the crucial caveat for white readers to understand is how and why McNeil’s work shifted post-Ferguson: her pursuit of racial justice will no longer be carried out on white terms. Too many women of color know the exhausting fight of searching for allies. Black women, in particular, McNeil states, “bear the weight of reconciliation in our bodies,”15 adding the following:
Yes, we are dying of generosity, of the generous gift of offering ourselves—our bodies, our emotions, our spirits—to people who don’t really want it or deserve it and who are often hostile to it. Frequently those people are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and yes, this is devastating.16
The weight of advocating for justice in white spaces, in an age of ramped-up white supremacy, has caught up to McNeil, and here, she offers the hard-earned wisdom of practicing self-care and doing only invigorating work. As one who is grateful for McNeil’s faithful work in majority-white spaces, I believe I speak for many when I say that she does not owe us or institutions her martyrdom.
McNeil’s Becoming Brave speaks into the national moment where reconciliation is desired and necessary but the sequence of achieving reconciliation remains in dispute due to deep definitional misunderstandings of the term. Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, for example, instead call for “racial conciliation” because reconciliation “implies a preexisting harmony and unity,” which never existed. They add that “conciliation does not happen without truth telling. Conciliation without truth is trying to bring health without a comprehensive diagnosis.”17
Mere hours after the Capitol siege, many of the politicians who had instigated the insurrection or forwarded the lies that sparked it called for unity. The most startling example came from Vice President Mike Pence, who himself had been a target of the terrorists. Pence responded to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s call to invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to remove President Trump from office utilizing Ecclesiastes 3:
After the horrific events of this last week, our Administration’s energy is directed to ensuring an orderly transition. The Bible says that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven . . . a time to heal . . . and a time to build up.” That time is now. In the midst of a global pandemic, economic hardship for millions of Americans, and the tragic events of January 6, now is the time for us to come together, now is the time to heal.18
Pence’s tactical omissions distorted the context of his biblical selection. After all, excluding “a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;a time to kill” and “a time to break down” (3:2–3) alters the Scripture’s intention. Furthermore, if there is not a time to weep and mourn (3:4), a time “to refrain from embracing” (3:5), a time to lose and to throw away (3:6), then the actual power of reconciliation is lost.
Reconciliation requires prior relationships bound by truthfulness where we honestly face the harms committed. McNeil says—again, from deep experience—that white individuals and institutions have not exhibited a willingness to, first, confess, so as to be forgiven, reconciled, and restored: “We won’t allow ourselves the chance to tell the truth about our past, and without that truth telling we have very little hope of achieving the reconciliation we so desperately need.” Instead, we have chosen to live in ignorance and isolation, both in our racial-ethnic spaces and, ideologically, through our curated media consumption, and in so doing, McNeil says, this choice “serves to augment fear. Ignorance and isolation feed off of our fear, and vice versa.” Few people think clearly when they are afraid, and when fear is exponentially replicated throughout the body politic, without commitment to discourse, too many people tend to cry out for law and order to ease their fears. Doing that is easier than confession and repentance.19
At George Wallace’s 1963 inaugural gubernatorial address, in the context of a raging civil rights fight in Alabama and the threat of federal intervention in southern states, he bellowed, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.” Wallace placed himself within the historical line of the “Great Anglo-Saxon Southland,” a line he referred to as “the greatest people that have ever trod this earth.” He called upon southerners scattered across the nation, invoking the tradition of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis to “join with us” in the electoral fight, to protect a Constitution that was under threat from judges, secularists, and integrationists.20
Wallace, a master at ginning up fear-based populism, painted for Alabamans a picture of the “changing world” and their shrinking place within it:
As the national racism of Hitler’s Germany persecuted a national minority to the whim of a national majority . . . so the international racism of the liberals seek to persecute the international white minority to the whim of the international colored majority . . . so that we are footballed about according to the favor of the Afro-Asian bloc.21
During that speech, Wallace restated the need for segregation before ultimately offering what he believed to be an olive branch: “We invite the negro citizens of Alabama to work with us from his separate racial station . . . as we will work with him . . . develop, to grow in individual freedom and enrichment.”22
Wallace offered a call to arms. A list of grievances. A supposedly magnanimous offering for peace. Does any of this sound familiar?
In Tennessee, where several staffers of The Other Journal live, we have become accustomed to receiving confusing messages from government officials regarding how to heal racial wounds. For example, in the summer of 2019, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed the annual proclamation of Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, which honored the former Confederate general, slaver, war criminal, and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Lee, like every governor who preceded him since 1921, has been bound by the Tennessee constitution to make odious proclamations honoring Confederate leaders.
Controversy erupted over a bust of Forrest that rests in the rotunda of the Tennessee Capitol. Lee exhibited reluctance to remove it, saying it would be “a mistake to whitewash history.” One year later, as protests filled the streets following the death of George Floyd, Governor Lee seemed to grasp the significance of the Forrest bust and said he was committed to “racial reconciliation,” which he did not define beyond saying that it required him to listen to others. In the following weeks, Lee called racial reconciliation a “spiritual issue” because “every human being is created by God in His image.” Lee later said he would be open to moving the bust–and indeed, the bust was finally moved to a museum in July 2021, as part of a grand bargain that also included the removal of the busts of a Union and World War I admiral–while adding that Forrest “died a reconciled man, who recognized the mistakes he had made, and he turned from his ways. And at a minimum, there should be context around Forrest, to acknowledge his complexity to the legacy of Tennessee.”23
Of course, there should be context in all things, so it’s vital to understand Lee’s comments in the context of last summer’s protests, when he refused to meet with Black constituents who demonstrated at the Tennessee Capitol for months in order to dialogue with the governor. In August 2020, the Tennessee legislature convened a special session, which included passing legislation that would make camping out on state property a felony, a direct reaction to the protesters. Another proposed bill, which would have protected motorists who ran over protesters blocking roads from prosecution, never came to a vote in the 2021 session, but similar laws were passed in Oklahoma and Iowa.24 Given this context in the state legislature, coupled with several US representatives from Tennessee signing on to President Trump’s lawsuit to overturn the presidential election, how can calls for reconciliation be much more than old-school pleas for the status quo to continue unchecked? Calls for reconciliation in Tennessee coming from those in power merely parallel Wallace’s infamous declaration of segregation: Reconciliation now. Reconciliation forever.
Aaron Griffith’s God’s Law and Order calls Christians to look back, to consider our past in order to understand our current civic confusion, particularly the ways in which our ancestors may have been the offenders. In Becoming Brave, Brenda Salter McNeil beckons us to take stock of this moment, to speak and act more boldly for the sake of healing the innumerable wounds inflicted upon the vulnerable. She calls us to be like Esther—to match the courage of a young woman who refused to abandon her people to the whims of tyranny.
Justin R. Phillips
Justin R. Phillips is the executive editor for The Other Journal. He earned a PhD in Christian ethics from Fuller Theological Seminary, and his book Know Your Place: Helping White, Southern Evangelicals Cope with the End of The(ir) World, was recently published by Cascade Books. Phillips lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, and you can follow his work at justinrphillips.com.