God’s Law & Order

on November 24, 2020

Tooley: Hello, this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, speaking to you from a very deserted empty Washington DC, at least its downtown neighborhood. And having the pleasure today of talking with Aaron Griffith, a professor at Sattler College in Boston, a relatively new school of which maybe he’ll tell us a little bit. But we’re talking about his new book, God’s…, now I’m having a brain lapse and forgetting the name of the book.

Griffith: Yeah, I actually have it here with me, Mark.

Tooley: Please hold it up. God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America.

Griffith: Evangelical America. Yeah.

Tooley: It’s already gotten some attention in Religion News Service, and Christianity Today, and a few other outlets. So, thank you for joining this conversation, and please tell us what’s the central premise of your book.

Griffith: Sure. Well, first of all, thanks for having me, Mark. It’s really good to be here with you. The central tenant of my book is basically that I was interested in exploring how evangelicalism and sort of the growth of evangelical influence in culture and politics over the course of the 20th century, how that intersected with the growth of the criminal justice system and the growth of prisons over the same time period. And I wanted to see in this book how those two realities relate, how they connect, and so the book really just tries to draw out the connection, not only in terms of policy, whether law and order politics or criminal justice reform, although I do talk about both of those at length. But also, the way that evangelicals were active in the criminal justice system, in prison ministry to gangs and to juvenile delinquents, and the ways that matters of crime and punishment resonated in broader evangelical culture, in evangelical pop culture, in evangelical magazines, and books, and how prisons, policing, crime, and punishment, were frequent cultural references in those media.

Tooley: And so, evangelicals since the 1960s, if not before, have been known for being pro-law and order. At the same time, especially since the 1970s, and especially the case with Chuck Colson in prison ministry, also very interested in ministries of compassion and outreach to those who are incarcerated. So, how do you put those two together?

Griffith: Yeah, that was a big puzzle. And this book was trying to figure out how evangelicalism historically, and I think even in the contemporary moment, how they could vote for politicians who were self-described law and order candidates and how evangelicals could be much more likely to support capital punishment, for example, than the rest of the, certainly than other Christians or the rest of the American populace. But at the same time, and I talked about this a lot in the book, evangelicals are on the front lines of engagement in American prison life and in criminal justice reform. And I in the book really try to tease out this tension and showcase that the common concern, whether it’s on the law and order side or on the reform side, and certainly in the middle as well is this broader sense among evangelicals that conversion matters. So, conversion of hearts of those who are incarcerated or those who are caught up in the criminal justice system, as well as the conversion of people who need to become aware of problems in the justice system. Chuck Colson, this is his awakening that he had. So, Chuck Colson, for those of you who might be watching who are not familiar, he was a Nixon operative, sometimes referred to as Nixon’s hatchet man, who goes to prison himself in Alabama. Federal prison in Alabama for some crimes in the Nixon administration. And he has this remarkable transformation around the same time, and leaves prison about seven or eight months later with a new heart to not only reach those who have been incarcerated, because his heart has been touched by this, but to also bring Christians into an awareness of the problems in the prison system. And I really think that Colson is so effective in being able to do this and becomes such a major evangelical figure because he’s able to channel those same assumptions that are operating among law and order, or among conservative evangelicals, elsewhere. So, for Colson, Colson does not talk about problems in the prison system like a progressive. He talks about it like a dyed in the wool conservative, and says this is a problem of big government. And what we need to do is to recover individual self-worth from the trapping of governmental bureaucracy. And that helps a lot of evangelicals see some of these problems. And I think it really helps us make sense of even our present moment right now, like Donald Trump is leaving office. He was the self-proclaimed law and order candidate who appealed to white evangelicalism quite effectively, but at the same time throughout his presidency and campaign he talked a lot about criminal justice reform and really heralded his passing of the First Step Act, a major piece of criminal justice legislation as a signature victory over and against Joe Biden. So, that’s the way I try to make sense of it, is just through that common sense of evangelical’s own frames around whether it’s the state or conversion, how they’re able to do these as internal debates.

Tooley: How do evangelicals look at the issues of law and order compared to say mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics?

Griffith: Yeah, that’s a good question. So, one of the stories I try to tell in the book is the way that evangelical Christians were able to define themselves as a distinct movement over and against mainline Protestants on issues related to crime and punishment. So, for example, conservative Presbyterians in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a lot of Presbyterians are within the, conservative and liberal Presbyterians, are still within the same denominational systems, and they’re often arguing with one another about all kinds of different things related to scripture or ordination of women. And they’re also arguing about crime and punishment a lot, to the point that the Presbyterian Journal, which is a conservative Presbyterian magazine, publishes a ton of pro-death penalty and pro-law and order pieces in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, really trying to chart out this position that if you’re going to be a conservative Presbyterian, you should feel a certain way about issues of crime and punishment. And what I noticed while they were doing that within this mainline denominational ethos is that the same authors, people like L. Nelson Bell, are also starting to use the word evangelical to describe themselves, and saying that we are actually evangelicals as we are making these arguments, whether it’s for more conservative gender roles or an urgency, in terms of scriptural interpretation, but also on issues of capital punishment, on issues of law and order politics, or discipline more generally. And they were really successful. And I tried to show how evangelicals really had tapped into something that a lot of other Americans were feeling as well. And this was a big point of contrast between a lot of mainline Protestant leaders who were more progressive on issues of capital punishment, and law and order, and prison. And as a result, were losing interest and losing sympathy from laypeople within their denomination. A parallel example here is in the Southern Baptist Convention. So, the Southern Baptist Convention, for much of the 20th century, was a very diverse, politically diverse, denomination in terms of just the variety of political positions that its members and that is leaders held. And in the 60s, there are a number of Southern Baptist leaders and administrate denominational administrators who vocally say, “We are against capital punishment, and we are not for law and order politics.” And if you look at polling at that time, they don’t reflect how most people in the Southern Baptist Convention actually feel. And conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention point this out, and they’re like, “Hey, you’re voicing this perspective that’s not in line with the way that many SBC laypeople actually feel.” And so, I really try to show how these concerns about law and order and crime and punishment become a wedge issue that really starts to push to define the mainline and define evangelicalism as separate entities. And that obviously resonates into the ‘70s and ‘80s as groups like the Southern Baptist Convention expunge the moderate and progressive voices and become conservative, and become largely evangelical themselves as we know it. So, Roman Catholics are an interesting parallel as well, and I try to include Catholic voices in the book. And I see that evangelicals often would find allies among Roman Catholics. And in some ways, that as at mid-century, especially as a lot of evangelical Christians are still nervous about Catholic participation in political life, that law and order issues become a way for them to grow more accepting of Catholic voices. So, one example is an attorney named Genevieve Black who publishes this piece that’s an addendum to a report put out in the Johnson Administration, and she basically in this report provides kind of like a minority report or a dissent to the rest of the report. That’s the overarching message of this report, is that crime has social causes. Crime is something we can combat through more social services. And generally, the Roman Catholic says no, the issue here is that we are as a nation losing our spiritual foundation. We need to realize that religion is a real weapon, is the phrase she uses. And evangelicals love it; they totally agree with her. And it was funny, in the book I mentioned this, there’s one Angelica magazine that reprints her whole dissent. So, they give this Roman Catholic woman space in their magazine and sort of save her piece. And then like on the next page over, there’s the ad for a ministry to Roman Catholics like to try to convert them away from Catholicism. And I thought that was an interesting juxtaposition that gets at how they were finding some common purpose on this issue, even as they might remain suspicious of one another.

Tooley: How evangelicals address capital punishment is an interesting issue. Generally, they have been, and remain, one of the most pro-capital punishment religious demographics in America. Chuck Colson himself I think initially stepped away from support of capital punishment and then reverted back to his support for it. The National Association of Evangelicals officially had supported it for decades. They seem to have stepped away from that stance in more recent years. And obviously, evangelicals would now have a very different stance compared to where the Roman Catholic Church is now officially, especially under Pope Francis. So, to what extent do you cover that in your book?

Griffith: Yeah, I talked a lot about that. And I talk about Colson, we might say Colson’s own conversion on this. So, Colson in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s speaks out against capital punishment, and he’s not as vocal about it as many anti-death penalty activists, but it comes up. And he gives a speech in fact to the Southern Baptist Convention, I think it’s in ‘79 or ’80, where he comes on and says, “I don’t believe that the state should have the power to take life.” And he says this as a conservative. He’s like, I don’t think, I don’t trust the state to do all these other things. And I don’t trust them to have the power to do this. And he is pretty vocal about this. In evangelical circles it becomes noteworthy that he’s making this part of his public appeal. But then in the mid-1980s, he has this transformation, and I think it’s a transformation that occurs over several years. But he points to it later on in his own writing, a moment he has where he meets the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, or he has a correspondence with Gacy. And Colson is horrified by the correspondence and by what he calls Gacy’s unrepentant attitude and just the horrors of his crimes, combined with the just the way that that Gacy is still persistent and denying any culpability or responsibility. And Colson says like, this is a moment where I realized like, “Oh, capital punishment still is important for addressing unspeakable evils like this.” And he writes some op-eds where he takes that position, and it gets a lot of traction I think in helping pro-death penalty evangelicals really refine their thinking on that position. And say, okay, so if a prison reformer, if a prison minister can hold the position, then so can we. So yeah, I think this is one place where even though Colson had his own transformation on that issue, I think Colson and other, probably a lot of other, evangelicals today would still acknowledge the problems that persists within the way we do capital punishment in this country, even if you’re not philosophically opposed to it. The fact that it is predominantly something that affects people of color, people who are poor, and that there’s been mistakes, there’s been errors, and that we have just a very unequal way that capital punishment is practiced, that’s the problem. And I think probably Colson would be much more circumspect in sort of his endorsement of capital punishment, with awareness of just the broader issues.

Tooley: And then finally, Aaron, obviously the social unrest and rioting of this past spring and summer across America, presumably that has influenced evangelicals on the whole to batten down the hatches on their traditional support for law and order. Is there polling to back that up, or what are your impressions?

Griffith: Yeah, so, the polling that I’ve seen that has shown how in the past there’s polling out there that shows, by the PRRI I believe, that shows how over the past four or five years where Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants have become more skeptical of the criminal justice system, not dramatically so, but have the instances of videos of police brutality and of just growing awareness of inequities in the justice system has caused those groups to become a little more skeptical. Polling I think still shows a high degree of support among evangeliccals for not just law and order politics, but a resistance to seeing any systemic inequities within policing, for instance. That being said, I think that the events of this past year, specifically whether it’s the killing of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, I think a lot of evangelicals, even those who are most vocally law and order, are realizing that something is wrong. Someone like Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, these are supporters of President Trump, evangelical supporters, even they came out and said like, “this was an unjust incident,” something like “this is bad, and police departments need to address this.” So, I think that something is changing. However, in both Franklin Graham and Jeffress’ statements, as well as the statement of other evangelicals who voiced concerned about incidents like the killing of George Floyd, I think there’s just, there’s still a high degree of confidence that policing can be reformed where it needs to be reformed, and that the system largely is sound, and that things are pretty much where they need to be, and just a few bad apples needs to be picked. And this is where polling does show this is a big point of difference between white evangelicals and black, probably from that awareness of systemic inequities and confidence in the justice system as the big point of divergence there. And I think that that divergence will probably remain as long as evangelicals still speak in those kinds of ways.

Tooley: I said we would say a word about where you’re teaching, because it was new to me and perhaps is new likely to most of our listeners. Sattler College in Boston, which is a relatively new Christian college with a dash of Baptist belief, or perhaps more than just that. If you could say a word about that?

Griffith: Yeah, so I teach history, American history and the history of Christianity, at Sattler. And Sattler is pretty new as colleges go. We are, I think, in our third year, and we’re very small. We’re growing, though. It’s a very exciting place to be. And we are, as our name suggests, Michael Sattler was a 16th century Anabaptist martyr. Our ethos of the school is focused on peacemaking. It’s focused on non-resistance and traditional Anabaptist hallmarks. Although we ourselves are not officially Anabaptist, we’re not connected with any official Anabaptist church or denomination or tradition, a lot of our students do come from Anabaptist communities, like the Mennonite community. It’s a really interesting place to be, because we are trying to have a Christian liberal arts education and really focus on, sort of on humanities education in a way that’s been lost at a lot of colleges. I teach several of our humanities courses that all students take, whatever they’re majoring in, where we read classic texts of theology, philosophy, and literature. But we’re trying to do that kind of work with Jesus’s peaceful revolution in mind, with keeping in mind his call to love our enemies, and that’s a really interesting place to be to think about how we can bring those two worlds together. So, I’m very excited to be here and it’s been a lot of fun. I can’t say enough about my students. And being in downtown Boston is a lot of fun, too.

Tooley: Aaron Griffith, author of God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America, thank you for a very informative conversation.

Griffith: Thanks for having me, Mark. I appreciate it.

  1. Comment by Search4Truth on November 30, 2020 at 2:49 pm

    I find it interesting that your discussion passed right over the role of religion in society as a deterrent to crime and thus a need for punishment. Seems to me that when Alexis de Tocqueville did his work on Democracy in America, his concluding premise was that it was the strong American religious character and ethic that made this experiment in democracy viable. Since at least the fifties our culture has done everything it can to eliminate all forms of the Judeo/Christian ethic from public life and even attempted to make a laughingstock of the “Name that is above all Names” in the public square. And then you ask why we have a problem with crime and justice?

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.