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…)