Burl Cain and the Trans-Mississippi God

By Alan Bean

Liliana Segura’s article on Louisiana’s Angola prison provides a guided tour of the punitive consensus that, with states like Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas leading the way, now controls America.  Consider this:

“Lifers in Louisiana were once eligible for parole in as little as five years. In 1926 the state legislature installed the “10-6 rule”: prisoners sentenced to life were eligible for release after 10 years and six months. This held true until the 1970s, which saw a precipitous decline in parole recommendations and the rise of “tough on crime” reforms that would soon dominate nationwide.

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling in Furman v. Georgia, which briefly suspended the death penalty, Louisiana abolished parole for a range of violent crimes. “Within less than a decade Louisiana went from turning all lifers loose in ten-and-a-half years or less to keeping virtually all of them in prison for their natural lives,” writes historian Burk Foster. As former head of the Louisiana Department of Corrections C. Paul Phelps once warned, “the State of Louisiana is posturing itself to run probably the largest male old-folks home in the country.”

 Like most journalists who write about Angola, Segura is fascinated, perplexed, and a little creeped-out by warden Burl Cain, a man with a gift for baptizing the brutal.  On the one hand, Angola inmates were much less likely to die a violent death before Mr. Cain assumed the reins.  But America’s most famous warden presides over one of the least forgiving corrections regimes in the world.  His easy willingness to identify American meanness with the immutable will of God is disturbing. 

Since most of his charges will never see the free world this side of the grave, Cain does everything in his power to ensure their passage from an earthly hell to a glorious heaven.

Can a state institution legally embrace such a Christian vision?  Is it constitutional?

Cain worries about such questions about as little as Texas Governor Rick Perry worries about his association with Christian Theocrats who want to run the Bible on biblical principles.  Cain and Perry are protected by a powerful evangelical consensus.  Since a solid majority of their peers like what they’re doing, constitutional questions are politically irrelevant.  If these boys want to mix state business and religion ain’t nobody gonna stop them.  Not in Louisiana and Texas.

Burl Cain’s religious system is predicated on Henry Blackaby’s influential book, “Experiencing God.”  The Southern Baptist pop theologian has boiled the Bible down to a series of simple spiritual principles.  No doubt many lives have been changed for the better because of the Experiencing God series and the classes sponsored by New Orleans Theological Seminary (a Southern Baptist School). I am all for religious groups operating within prison walls; but when the religion is sponsored by the state (and Burl Cain is a public official paid by the state of Louisiana) an unfortunate impression is created.  Those who refuse to live by God’s principles, as defined by Blackaby, are on a fast track to hell.   Segura thinks this quotation sums up Blackaby (and Cain’s) philosophy: “Servants of God do what He directs. They obey. The servant doesn’t have the option of deciding whether or not to obey. Choosing not to do what God commands is rebellion, and such disobedience has consequences.”

In Burl Cain’s mind, that’s a philosophy to live by.  When he presides at executions, he can feel the soul of the condemned man sliding into hell or soaring up to glory.  Everything depends on whether the inmate in question got religion before he died.  Just as Blackaby makes no distinction between his principles and the mind of God, Cain easily conflates the punitive culture he personifies with the dictates of the Almighty.

Cain once told Christianity Today that the program helps inmates “accept they’re in prison and that it’s God’s will that maybe they don’t get out—and that while you’re here you do your best for him.”

And this is where I have a problem.  When the religion taught in prison is sponsored by a state official like Burl Cain, the machinery of mass incarceration is sprinkled with holy water.  Just because the state of Louisiana embraces a punitive corrections philosophy doesn’t mean God Almighty is down with it.  Cain has been an outspoken advocate for prison education (especially religious education), but he has shown a disdain verging on loathing prisoners like the Angola Three who have ideas of their own.

Segura pays particular attention to Angola’s rodeo that reportedly nets over $2 million every year.  Rumor has it that the proceeds are being diverted to Cain’s religious program.  If so, the warden would get few complaints from the folks who flock to the big event.  The rodeo, Segura says, is reminiscent of the old Roman games in which condemned men put their lives at risk for the amusement of the crowd.  But there is more to the rodeo than horses, spills and thrills; a weird mix of religion and American history is also on display.

The crowd is still getting settled when suddenly a long, sonorous trumpet note cuts through the noise. Three white horses gallop gracefully into the arena, carrying riders dressed as angels, in flowing robes, gold sashes, and feathered wings. As a cheer rises from the stands, a fourth rider bursts forth, carrying a flag that announces: “Jesus Is Coming.”

“Behold, for I am coming soon!” a voice booms as a fifth rider charges across the arena, his robes flapping dramatically behind him. “I am the Alpha and the Omega. The first and the last. The beginning and the end.” The verses are from the Book of Revelation, that final battle between good and evil. Triumphant music plays as six more horses run out, adorned with crosses from head to toe, their breast straps reading “Army of the Lord.”

The riders gallop in formation. The crowd goes wild. The rodeo has officially begun.

Up next are the Angola Rough Riders. Dressed in the convict stripes worn by all competitors, they carry a series of flags. An older black inmate carries the Confederate flag. Another holds the flag of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, the Confederate army that represented Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana in the Civil War. “Those are the flags that have flown over Louisiana,” explains a PR official when I ask i the symbolism isn’t a bit…fraught. “It’s historical.”

The phrase “Trans-Mississippi” is only used in reference to the Confederate armies operating in the theater west of the Mississippi River during the Civil War; but the term could also be used to describe the culture that has shifted American society in a punitive direction.  The spirit of white Mississippi culture circa 1960 has been exported to the rest of the Union. God didn’t dream up mass incarceration, and it is blasphemy to lend religious sanction to this miserable reality.   Burl Cain paints a spiritual patina over a God-awful reality, but Louisiana law is light years removed from the compassionate heart of God.

Please give Liliana Segura’s article your careful attention.