In the 1640s, New England had a peculiar problem: “Something close to a bestiality panic,” historian John Murrin wrote. Teenagers were whipped, and at least four men — one each from the Plymouth, New Haven, Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut colonies — were publicly hanged after being found guilty. The peculiar problem plaguing the New England colonies wasn’t bestiality. The problem was the thick book preachers, and many elected officials, as well as many evangelicals, demanded stoic adherence to as the moral code for the masses: the Bible.
“Adherent to an unrepentantly harsh Old Testament legal system, officials in New England set low evidentiary standards for cases involving capital crimes,” Daniel Crown writes. “To justify the ugliness of this reality, and to protect their belief in the infallibility of scripture, magistrates aspired toward consistency in their application of Biblical justice.”
The strict, and often unforgiving, nature of our uniquely American criminal justice systems — federal, state, local, back alley, front lawn, etc. — were established before our nation was even a nation. This was evident as supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol while invoking the name of the Lord, and it continues to be there for anyone to see — well, those who actually want to see it — now that the Biden administration is in charge of Washington.
America’s Twisted Religion and Law Together
America has a complicated to twisted habit of mixing religion and the law. Those Puritanical missteps — the constitutionally forbidden merging of church and state — still linger throughout these United States today, though they’re now repackaged for a contemporary audience.
“But for Donald Trump and Jesus Christ, I would not be with you today,” Roger Stone — former Richard Nixon dirty trickster before evolving with the times and becoming an electronic fixer for Trump — told The American Conservative after he claimed he found Jesus while in federal prison.
Stone’s eventual presidential pardon seemed to change his tune, because on the eve of the Capitol riot he spoke in Washington — alongside conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of Infowars and disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn (who told the crowd Americans were prepared to “bleed” for their freedom) — stoking and energizing the misguided masses who then stormed the Capitol the following day.
In July 2019, the infamous political performer, Stone, was indicted by Robert Mueller on one count of obstruction, five counts of false statements and one count of witness tampering. Something Stone emphasized in the months after his pardon is how his time in the prison system actually changed his position on faith. According to Stone, his friend Franklin Graham encouraged him to “… put my faith in God, and confess my sins, acknowledge Jesus Christ in my life. And I have done that.”
Is that a true expression of religious conviction? Or merely a side effect of a very strange prison sentence? Time will be an indicator one way or the other, but the events are reflective of the historical and political relationship the American white evangelical church and prisons have had over the last 250 years.
Conservatism and evangelicalism have become just about synonymous to everyday Americans in the past 50 or so years. The evangelical moral code is the core of Republican social policy, in part because evangelicals played an essential part in electing candidates, like former Presidents George W. Bush (who attended church every Sunday) and Donald Trump (who’d rather golf than go to church).
White evangelicals were one of the few consistent demographics in Trump’s re-election, with their views on abortion and immigration playing a significant role on the Republican Party platform.
It’s hard to imagine an election where topics of sexuality and religious liberty are not on the table. But when it comes to religious conservatives’ influence on the ‘law and order’ conversation regarding prisons, much of what we know or expect from prisons originates from the minds and acts of Christian leaders.
Quaker Prison Reform in Pennsylvania
In America’s first few decades as a collection of disconnected colonies, capital punishment was the law of the land. Whenever an individual committed a crime, that person would endure torture and entrapment; a practice many found unacceptable.
In 1682, William Penn, the founder and original governor of Pennsylvania, decided to create an alternative to capital punishment. He believed if a man received an indictment for anything less than murder, they should be imprisoned and forced to work, as compensation to whoever they harmed. At the time, this was the more ‘humane’ practice. It was driven by Penn’s Quaker convictions.
Under Penn’s leadership, Pennsylvania was an outlier compared to the other colonies, with only one man put to death (Derek Jonson, a Swedish ferryman) in the first 40 years of its existence. However, the colony failed to enforce it systematically, and it would not become an actual statewide practice until 1773.
Penn’s work as a Quaker helped set a precedent for the criminal law in the United States in the coming years. But he had help. In many states, Quaker reformers pushed for abolishing capital punishment and encouraged reliance on prisons to reform men. At the core of this was the work of John Howard, a British philanthropist and Quaker, who believed prisons were a tool for spiritual repentance and moral development since they forced men into long periods of silence and contemplation. Howard even argued prisons were more likely to “save souls” than capital punishment.
This method, however, was not as effective as some desired. Jennifer Graber, author of Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America, told The News Station the United States suffered from a “repeating cycle of reform/retribution in American penal history.”
As Graber sees it, “The earliest prisons were imagined by their proponents as places of reform. But changes happened already in the 1810s, when corporal punishment was allowed in prisons (in New York specifically). By the 1830s, public opinion had turned, and there was widespread bodily punishment in prisons and minimal public outcry.”
This notion did not stop Quakers from pursuing some form of religious reform for provisions, as they would be on the front lines of such conversations for years to come.
American Prisons as Legal Slavery
In the years after the Civil War, millions of former slaves were released from their bonds and allowed to become citizens. However, its impossible to say they were completely free.
Many Americans viewed Black communities as prone to crime. Judges also had less sympathy for Black men and often condemned them to long periods in prison for menial “crimes.” Elizabeth Wheaton, a notable race- and prison-reform advocate in the early 20th century, described an incident where an old Black man was found guilty of stealing a box of cigarettes. After feeling terrible about his choice, the man asked for forgiveness in front of a court of law, only to receive a 25-year jail term in exchange.
These men would also labor in convict leasing services, often working as part of their imprisonment in the form of second “slavery.”
While many church leaders were complicit in the events of white lynching and convict leasing, others tried to advocate against it. One of the more notable texts on convict leasing was Crime of Crimes or The Convict System Unmasked. It was published by a Pentecostal publishing company and relied on religious arguments and criminology data to reveal the unethical notions behind the day’s convict leasing system.
The idea of ministering to prisoners became a common practice in the late 19th century, with Methodist ministers like John Wesley and James Finley spending lots of time among prisoners. Finley, a famous writer in the Methodist church community, repeatedly prompted the “spirit of evangelical religion” to prisoners while also advocating for them to be treated with dignity.
Al Capone and Billy Graham: The 1920s and Church Law
Beginning in the 1920s, a stronger sense of law came to pass in the United States. The 20-year gap between world wars would prove to be tainted with the appearance of high crime. Men like Al Capone became Robin Hood-like characters in the eyes of the public. At the same time, prohibition drove many men and women to become criminals in the name of alcohol. Many churchgoers were convinced of the evil of this crime spree but no one was quite sure what the proper theological response might be. How should the church think about a man like Capone?
One response was total condemnation.
“In the years following World War I, criminals were increasingly portrayed as cancerous outsiders to American society, not the natural result of its economic or racial dislocations,” Aaron Griffith, a history professor at Sattler College and author of God’s Law and Order, wrote.
This cancer demanded a national response, offering the U.S. government incentive to create anti-crime institutions such as the FBI.
But how does the government fix a crime spree? Churches were divided on this. While conservatives argued for stricter laws and a more significant police presence, mainline churches emphasized the use of social science and local reform to rehabilitate criminals within jailhouses. Chaplains were also brought in, often offering spiritual solace and care for those imprisoned. However, a chaplain’s ability to proselytize or share the gospel was limited due to First Amendment concerns about government funding of religious expression, mainly due to being on the prison payroll.
But other evangelists triumphed despite this. Billy Graham spent much of his early career preaching about the threat of crime in local towns and the criminal’s need for redemption. But in Graham’s version of the story, these criminals were not ethnic gangs organized by Al Capone. Instead, the juvenile delinquents were misled in their ways and needed spiritual guidance.
During a month-long preaching event in St. Louis, Mo., Graham — who was extremely popular at the time — stated he hoped his presence would reduce crime by 25% to 50%, although there’s little to no evidence localities ever saw such steep declines in their crime rates.
This mindset bloomed through Graham’s promotional material, such as the 1955 film Wiretapper, based on the real-life story of Jim Vaus, an electrician. He found himself pulled into the life of a gangster as he leaked recordings to criminals for years and was, in general, an employee of the L.A. mob. Those events soon lead to a degradation of Vaus’ life, including a strain on his relationship with his spouse. It isn’t until he finds Christ that he is presented as no longer a vagrant but a fellow citizen.
Graham’s work would capture evangelicals’ imaginations by offering a way to explain why the crime rate was so high. It wasn’t that there were severe economic stressors or environmental elements driving men to crime. Instead, it was considered a heart issue. Graham emphasized this difference in his exchanges regarding prisoners. However, his discussions stressed the prisoners’ humanity and wanted to seek their good regardless of how much evil they did.
As Graham’s ministries continued to reach out to youth across America, many pastors and preachers picked up their own Bibles and brought them into prisons. These ministers began to see the gangs and vagrants of the world as a mission field to bring the gospel to, not a threat to western civilization.
While these men’s intentions were driven by compassion, their overt focus on evangelism often led the preachers to ignore the plight of prisoners, particularly ones living in the most dangerous conditions. While progressive activist communities, like the ACLU and its devotees, would always fight for improving prison conditions, Christians seemed ambivalent.
Jail chaplains would often speak to the needs of the prisoners and their physical plights in public settings like churches, only to find little empathy among those listening.
Preaching to an Obstinate Audience
As the 1960s approached, the United States and evangelicals stood at a significant point of tension. Issues of desegregation and crime were often discussed by pastors, with the more oppositional commentators framing the civil rights riots as an inevitable consequence of the “inferior” nature of African-American culture. Other pastors were striving to make amends between white and Black churches.
Many of the churches at that time held two specific beliefs about Black communities: Black men had an inherent affinity for crime, and Black communities were more likely to suffer from high crime rates and riots. Whenever Black church leaders attempted to offer a corrective to this mythology, white leaders were prone to push the concern aside or channel it in a way that harmed the Black community instead.
No better leader exemplified this than Tom Skinner. As a young man he joined a gang in Harlem, only to convert to Christianity later on and abandon his criminal life to evangelize. Skinner made a significant impression among evangelicals by emphasizing religious conversion while also recognizing the most pressing needs of Black communities. He even had his own radio program, which gave him a significant national presence comparable to Graham’s rallies, at times.
In 1970, Skinner made a significant impression on the United States when he was brought to speak at an Urbana, Ill., student conference promoting international evangelism. His topic was, “The U.S. Racial Crisis and World Evangelism.”
He began in a rather jovial manner, but, as the talk continued, Skinner began speaking in bleak detail about the state of racial affairs. He went so far as to attack his evangelical compatriots.
“Skinner basically says that white Christians are benefiting from the notion of law and order, and it’s harming African Americans disproportionately.” Griffith told The News Station. “Skinner told thousands of college-aged listeners, ‘I grew up not trusting policemen. They never came to my rescue when I needed them.’”
That message was well-received at Urbana, with several attendees praising Skinner for his willingness to speak in stark terms about this reality.
Others were less supportive. From that moment on, “Skinner became anathema to white evangelicals,” Griffith noted. “They began to see Skinner as too focused on race issues and crime issues.”
This theme eventually became consistent in matters of law and race, especially if prison life was talked about in a critical manner.
Prison Reform and the Good News
Prison reform didn’t have a face for many Americans until former President Richard Nixon’s special counsel, Chuck Colson, was sent to the slammer. He defined himself in the public eye as Nixon’s right hand, often acting as an intermediary between agencies. As Watergate developed, eventually enveloping the Nixon administration, Colson pleaded guilty to covering up significant events. He was then sent to jail.
That’s when Colson decided to, in the words of evangelicals, accept Christ into his life. He was imprisoned for seven months during which he was exposed to the harsh realities of life in an American jail cell. He felt genuine sympathy for those incarcerated, and he used his perch — as an imprisoned former powerful political operative — to unite both liberal organizations, like the ACLU, and conservative organizers, like William F. Buckley, in support of prison reform efforts.
Colson’s policy advocacy included cleaning up conditions in multiple prisons and diminishing the overcrowding of local jails. Griffith told The News Station “Colson helped make prison reform and criminal justice reform an issue that was safe for conservatives to support,” thus making it easier for many members of Congress, especially “tough on crime” conservatives, to get behind reform efforts themselves. At least initially.
As Colson aged, Griffith notes, he consistently ran into the conservative sense of “law and order” among those willing to listen to him and found it hard to push back against it. The former Nixon fixer upheld policies of “stop and frisk policing,” rarely spoke out on racial injustice issues and advocated for the death penalty in the latter half of his career.
While “law and order” language grew in popularity among evangelicals in the wake of the unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd, it does not necessarily reflect evangelicals views. A 2017 Pew Research study found seven in 10 white evangelical Protestants (71%), white mainline Protestants (71%) and white Catholics (77%) believed police were doing a great job. Only 45% of Black evangelicals held similar views.
That doesn’t mean they’re equally as fond of prisons. A 2019 Barna Group survey found most evangelicals (52%) were concerned about living conditions inside prisons. But that concern seemed to lessen when asked about crime rates. In the same study, evangelicals said they were concerned about their local towns, while 81% stated they believed crime was on the rise. This pattern falls in line with the localized interests of most Christians.
There are ongoing efforts attempting to counter this. In 2018, Colson’s organization continued making strides in convincing evangelicals about the concerning state of conditions in American prisons. Still, his group has an uphill battle, even with his biggest fans.
“Evangelicals are going to almost always fall on the side of the concerns about crime, concerns about unrest,” Griffith notes with hesitance. “And that’s going to overwhelm the need for true change.”