Category: religion and law

Texas offers Bible classes while vocational training is slashed

By Alan Bean

According to stories published this weekend in the Texas press, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will soon be offering a four-year course in biblical studies to forty inmates.

The training isn’t intended to prepare inmates for pastoral ministry in the outside world–most of the students are serving long sentences and will be locked up for many years.  Prison officials know that gangs and God are the most popular survival mechanisms for inmates.  Gangs create grief; a focus on God encourages compliance and reduces violent behavior.  By enhancing the God-option, state officials hope to create more disciplined and less violent prisons.

If you have been reading my recent posts on Burl Cain, the evangelical warden of Louisiana’s Angola prison, you will be wondering if the fledgling Texas program is a Louisiana import.  Yes, it is.  State Senators Dan Patrick (R-Houston) and John Whitmire (D-Houston) were recently introduced to the Angola program and came away impressed.

Part of me thinks likes this idea.  Having preached, sang and prayed with prisoners in the past, I know how important faith can become for people who have been stripped of everything but God.

But there are problems.  Lots of problems.

As Scott Henson points out in Grits for Breakfast, vocational programs for Texas inmates were slashed during the recent legislative session.  In effect, prison officials have diverted resources from a program geared to assist with post-release employment for a program promising to instill obedience and reduce violence.

Why can’t we have both?

Henson is also concerned that TDCJ is giving preferential treatment to the fundamentalist wing of the religious community.  It isn’t just that the new program amounts to state sanction of a single religion; it awards all the marbles to sectarian Baptists who, in recent years, have ruthlessly disenfranchised moderate churches and pastors.

Between 1980 and the mid-nineties, Southern Baptists across the South mounted a brutal purge against the denomination’s “moderate” element (there were few real “liberals” in the SBC).  I was working on a doctorate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky between 1989 and 1994. When I arrived, the faculty was little changed from the folks who taught my wife, Nancy, and me back in the 1970s.  Two years later, all four professors in the church history department had been forced out and the same dismal pattern was being replicated throughout the seminary. Then many of the conservative replacements suffered the same fate (most commonly because they believed women were worthy of ordination).

The General Baptist Convention of Texas, a conservative organization if ever there was one, was deeply troubled with these developments, especially as they played out in Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Seminary.  The ouster of the irenic Russell Dilday as seminary president created an ideological cleavage among Texas Baptists that will take at least a generation to heal.

As a result, Southwestern Seminary is no longer affiliated with the General Baptist Convention of Texas, having thrown in its lot with the fundamentalist (and highly politicized) Southern Baptists of Texas.

By throwing in its lot with radical fundamentalists without creating opportunities for other faith groups, the TDCJ is favoring folks aligned with the pro-Republican religious right. (more…)

Evangelicals have a Perry/Bachmann Problem

A spate of recent columns in the mainstream media have dismissed concerns about Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann’s religion as rhetorical overkill.  Do Rick and Michelle really want to transform these United States into a theocracy controlled by sectarian religionists?  Don’t be silly.

But those who have done actual research on this subject wonder why leading presidential candidates are nurturing intimate relationships with sectarian theocrats if they personally reject the logic of dominionism. Many evangelical Christians are troubled by what they are hearing from the likes of Bachmann and Perry, largely because they don’t want “dominionists” speaking for evangelical Christians.  

Greg Metzger has examined both sides of the debate from a conservative perspective and believes there’s real fire behind all the dominionist smoke.  AGB

Evangelicalism’s Perry/Bachmann Problem

By Greg Metzger

I have been dealing this week with a major frustration: Extremely poor reporting and commentary in major secular media on Governor Perry and Michelle Bachmann has led to a flurry of superficial rejoinders by Christian thinkers who I respect and whose opinions matter. Key examples of the former are Ryan Lizza’s lengthy piece in The New Yorker on Bachmann,Sarah Posner’s post at Slate, and Bill Keller’s article in the New York Times Magazine; key examples of the latter are Lisa Miller and Michael Gerson inThe Washington PostCharlotte Allen in The Los Angeles Times andDouglas Groothius and Scot McKnight at Patheos. Even Ross Douthat, while going further in his acknowledgement of the seriousness of the questions, still misses the core issues. (more…)

Faith as an Engine of Criminal Justice Reform

By Harinder Singh

With all attention currently on the debt ceiling in the US, the faith community is calling on leadership to save money through addressing the wasteful costs of incarcerating 2.3 million Americans.

On June 16, 2011, I joined a cadre of 23 interfaith religious leaders from throughout the US in support of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act in visiting our congressional representatives and the White House.  I met with representatives from Texas and California in their offices on Capitol Hill as part of a fly-in organized by the Faith in Action Working Group of the Justice Roundtable. I participated in this critical action because correcting injustices in our prison systems needs to be a state and national priority, fueled especially by all who claim to be driven by religious convictions. An avenue for this type of reform lies in the proposed creation of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2011 (S. 306) (NCJCA), which was introduced with bipartisan support in 2011 by Senator Jim Webb. Members of the Commission would be appointed by the legislative and executive branch and would be charged with undertaking comprehensive critical examination of America’s criminal justice system.

The portion of the bill I would like to focus on today– Section 5(b) — reads as follows: “The Commission shall make findings… and recommendations for changes in oversight, policies, practices, and laws designed to prevent, deter, and reduce crime and violence, reduce recidivism, improve cost-effectiveness, and ensure the interests of justice at every step of the criminal justice system.”

This Commission represents a real chance to address a statistic that won’t go away: The US accounts for 5% of the world’s population, yet locks up 25% of the world’s prisoners. Existing practices too often incarcerate people whose rehabilitation would be best served by access to recovery programs—not imprisonment, and rob resources from addressing high-risk, violent offenders who pose the real threat to our communities.  (more…)

Jared Lee Laughner and the mystery of iniquity

By Alan Bean

Jared Lee Loughner, the man responsible for the Tucson shooting spree that left six dead and twelve, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, badly wounded, has been declared incompetent to stand trial.  Authorities now have four months to restore Loughner to competency.  How are they supposed to do that?

In a Slate article, Jeremy Singer-Vine gives us the answer: anti-psychotic drugs.  (more…)

The slow death of the 14th amendment

Richard Beeman

On May 4, amateur historian David Barton appeared on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.  Barton’s central argument was that, constitutionally, the first amendment applies to the federal government but not to the states.  Therefore, if individual states and municipalities see fit to make the Bible the sole standard for criminal and civil law, to reinstate chattel slavery or to make Christianity an official and protected religion, the federal government can do nothing about it.

Barton didn’t suggest that non-federal governments should do these things, merely that they can if they want to.

On May 14th, Jon Stewart invited Richard Beeman, an actual constitutional scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, to respond to Barton’s theory. (more…)

Rethinking Hell

By Alan Bean

Hell has always been a hot topic in America.  Rob Bell’s Love Wins created such a pre-publication stir that the book debuted at number 2 on the New York Times best-seller list and remains on Amazon’s top 10. 

Bell’s take on heaven and hell rests on the recent scholarship of folks like NT Wright (on the evangelical side) and Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (writing from a more liberal perspective).  (Brian McLaren offers a slightly more cerebral, and original, popularization of this new scholarship.)  The big idea is that salvation isn’t about going to heaven (or hell) when you die; eternal life (for better or worse) begins now. 

In a recent chat with Welton Gaddy, Rob Bell offered this typically folksy summary of his perspective.

I start with the first century world of Jesus. Jesus spoke very clearly and forthrightly about this world: that the scriptural story and the Jewish story that he was living in was about the reclaiming of this world, the restoration and the renewal of this world. So, Jesus comes, He teaches his disciples to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The action for Jesus was here on earth, about renewing this earth, about standing in solidarity with those who are suffering in this world. And he spoke of a kingdom of God, which is here and now: upon you, among you, around you, within you.

So in the book, I talk about this urgent, immediate invitation of Jesus to trust him, that God is good, that God is generous, that God is loving, that God is forgiving… And to enter into a new kind of quality of life with God right here, right now. So let’s bring some heaven to earth, let’s work to get rid of the hells on earth right now, let’s become the kind of people who love our neighbor… And that, for Him, it was immediate and urgent about this world. What happens when you die? He talks a little bit about that, but He’s mostly talking about this world. I think, for a lot of people, the Christian faith doesn’t have, for them, much to say about this world; that it seems to be all about what happens when you die. And so, the book, in some ways, flips it around and says: “I think this is actually what Jesus was doing.” (My emphasis, along with a few quick edits) (more…)

Right-winger + hard time = compassion

prisonBy Alan Bean

Why are so many right-wingers suddenly arguing the case for criminal justice reform?  In this fascinating piece in Salon, Justin Elliot of Salon directs this question to Doug Berman, author of the influential Sentencing Law and Policy blog

Here are the highlights:

1. Prison is far more brutal than most people believe it to be

2. Most of the conservatives currently leading the smart on crime crusade have been locked up: Duke Cunningham, Charles Colson, Pat Nolan, Conrad Black

3. The religious concept of redemption generally plays a large role in these conversions.

4. Historically, mass incarceration required the enthusiastic cooperation of the political left

5. When you do hard time you realize that harsh penalties are typically applied to crimes disproportionately committed by minorities

6. Busting budgets and historically low crime rates make this a good time for reform, but . . .

7. The political forces that drove mass incarceration are always lurking. (more…)

Is prison a down payment on hell?

By Alan Bean

Megachurch pastor, Rob Bell has a new book coming out that claims hell is freezing over.  “Eternal life doesn’t start when we die;” Rev. Bell asserts, “it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.”

Not surprisingly, Pastor Bell is being trashed by the evangelical establishment . . . and the book hasn’t even come out.

Have you ever noticed the strong correlation between a stout belief in hell and support for mass incarceration? I doubt anyone has done any polling on this, but there is a powerful narrative connection between hell and prison.  If God plans to toss the miscreant into the lake of fire at judgment day, why should we be concerned about rehabilitation here below?  God gives up on people; why shouldn’t we? (more…)

Isaiah 58:1-12: a word to the righteous

"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

 A new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration must flow from narratives of faith.  Isaiah 58 is a natural starting place. 

The setting for this prophecy is the hard years following the return from Babylonian captivity, approximately 500 BCE.   The people who made the trek back to Jerusalem quickly became disillusioned.  The walls of holy city were still broken down.  Solomon’s glorious temple lay in ruins.  Work began on a new temple, a modest structure a fraction the size of the building it replaced, but progress was slow.

The people had expected more.  Much more.  They couldn’t understand why God was letting them down.  Their commitment to Torah had strengthened considerably during the hard years of exile.  Worship attendance, sabbath keeping and tithing were all way up. 

Still the people struggled.  They couldn’t understand why such bad things were happening to such good people. 

Isaiah’s response speaks for itself. (more…)

Judge’s 10 Commandments display ruled unconstitutional

By Alan Bean

R. J. Rushdoony

This Politics Daily article by legal analyst Andrew Cohen reflects the combination of panic and zeal conservative Christians are evincing in these strange times.  Ohio trial judge James Deweese didn’t just display the Decalogue in his courtroom, he displayed a series of posters arguing that the law rests on a religious (read ‘Christian’) foundation.  The implication is that, shorn of its biblical support system, the law would crumble to dust.  Consider this gem:

There is a conflict of legal and moral philosophies raging in the United States. That conflict is between moral relativism and moral absolutism. We are moving towards moral relativism. All law is legislated morality. The only question is whose morality. Because morality is based on faith, there is no such thing as religious neutrality in law or morality. (more…)