In discussions about America’s criminal justice system, one might hear about the disproportionate impact of incarceration among poor and nonwhite populations, or the high rates of recidivism, or the sheer numbers of incarcerated individuals in American jails and prisons. For evangelical Christians, there’s also often talk about the importance of caring for those in prison, for offering support to families, and for advocating for reform.
In his research, Aaron Griffith, assistant professor of history at Whitworth University (Spokane, WA), explores an under-discussed but important connection between evangelical Christianity and the origins of American mass incarceration. His book, God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America, has subsequently received high praise for its exploration of how evangelical ideas of sin, punishment, and justice have shaped the American criminal justice system—and the implications for current efforts to reform the criminal justice system and care for those in prison.
Griffith is the winner of the 2021 Emerging Public Intellectual Award, hosted by Redeemer University (and sponsored by several organizations, including the CCCU), which was presented at the 2022 CCCU International Forum. Camille Messer, the CCCU’s government relations fellow, talked with Griffith about his research and its implications for Christians and for CCCU institutions specifically. The interview has been adapted for length and clarity; to view the full interview, visit the CCCU’s YouTube page (www.youtube.com/CCCUvideo).
Camille Messer: What inspired you to write the book? What spiked your personal and intellectual interest in the topic?
Aaron Griffith: During my doctoral studies, I was reading all these wonderful books on the history of American religion and especially the influence of American evangelicals in politics and culture. Around that time, I began a course with Douglas Campbell, a New Testament professor at Duke, on prisons and prison ministry. In that course, I was first academically introduced to issues of criminal justice. I started to wonder how these two topics — the study of American evangelicals and the study of criminal justice — intersect with each other. I was curious what evangelicals were up to in the 20th century as prisons were beginning to expand and grow.
Those questions were the beginning of the intellectual project, but there was a personal side to it as well. I have long known people who have been incarcerated, who are Christians, and who have narrated their own experiences of incarceration to me with reference to their faith. During divinity school, I also started volunteering in a prison ministry. It was there in the work of prison ministry — in meeting volunteers, fellow Christians who were doing this work, and in building relationships with incarcerated people — that I saw the need for Christians and for myself to reflect historically about prisons.
As Christians served the incarcerated as Jesus call us to do, we also need to reflect on how Christians have failed in the past. We need to ask: Where have we succeeded? What problems are there that we need to be aware of? What ways are we complicit in some of the prison system’s most grievous problems? [The book is also written to be] a resource to equip people like me who were going into prisons, wanting to do prison ministry, and were trying to think thoughtfully about the work we were doing.
In your research, what ways have evangelicals both positively and negatively shaped the systems of incarceration? What are evangelicals’ explicit and implicit legacies?
That is a story that is much bigger than even my book. My research on evangelicals in the 20th century focuses on three big movements of evangelical influence on crime and punishment. The first is evangelical influence in law and order politics, in anti-crime efforts. The second is evangelical influence in prison ministries, especially in the 1960s and 70s, where evangelicals were going into prisons, offering pastoral care to incarcerated people, evangelizing, and giving out tracts and Bibles. Finally, evangelicals have been at the forefront of many movements for criminal justice reform.
Their legacy throughout all of these is complicated. In my book, I try to show how, at every stage in these movements, evangelicals were trying to be true to their faith as they understood it, while also trying to be true to the needs and problems of their time.
It is hard to paint it [the influence of evangelicals] exactly in terms of positive and negative. However, there have been times when I’ve seen evangelicals buy into the more punitive and more problematic aspects of the justice system, when they have seen punishment as something that in itself that has to happen, that we need to set things right by making sure that these people pay. That retributive sense, that desire to make sure that the “bad guys” get what’s coming to them, has led evangelicals into some pretty problematic places and has limited their ability to see the harms of our prisons and systems of punishment.
At their best, I think evangelicals have been a people who are committed to personal relationships and who see personal connection as an important part of their own faith, even while they might be skeptical of systemic issues. Evangelicals go into prisons, make friendships, and build relationships with incarcerated people. Those relationships have been important catalysts for change, giving evangelicals a sense of the problems that prisoners face on a daily basis, the inefficiencies, and the inhumanities of the prison system and the justice system.
In the 2020 presidential election, the U.S. had a choice between the self-proclaimed “law and order” President Donald Trump and Joe Biden, who was a premier “law and order” politician in the 1980s and 1990s. Do you see any appetite among the general electorate for biblically based reform?
I think this [election] showed how deeply entrenched this is — it is not simply reducible to a “left” or “right,” a Republican or Democrat issue. This is an issue of consensus. That’s a big problem because it means that all of our political instincts are, generally speaking, historically complicit here. But there is a robust tradition of critique — and especially Christian critique — of calling those punitive instincts into question. We need to draw on that; we need to look at Christians in the past who have given us the language and sensibilities to resist these forces and ask where they might be now.
And this is a great gift for Christians today because we can realize, truly, that God’s ways are not our ways. Hopefully we can realize something beyond the answers that are presented to us so often by the media — that we [have to] chose one party or the other. No, we can actually look toward something that’s far deeper and richer to offer an account of human flourishing and dignity. When I talk to conservatives and when I talk to progressives about this, I’m often encouraged at how, whatever their political instincts, most people can look at the prison system itself today and realize there’s a problem. They realize there’s inefficiencies, disparities, inhumane things going on. And I think no matter who they voted for, there’s an interest in addressing that in some way. That’s good; Christians need to jump on that.
Some might argue that we need a “color blind” justice system to achieve Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision in his, “I Have a Dream” speech. Is that the right way to think about issues of justice and incarceration?
In my book, I make a big point that we have to pay attention to race when we look at the ways evangelicals engaged the criminal justice system in the 20th century. White evangelicals especially saw what they were doing as a colorblind effort, saying things like, “It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is. If you do something bad, you should go to jail.” In its framing, it was a colorblind argument with no overt racist intent. But what that did not take into account were the ways that the system itself was built upon racist legacies, whether that was in terms of segregation, whether that’s in terms of police and over-policing of certain neighborhoods, or which neighborhoods are the ones where police actually go.
Historically, criminality has been defined and understood by many Americans, Christians included, with the assumption that Black people in America are more prone to lawbreaking. And this racist concept of the Black predatory criminal was a tool politicians used quite effectively to scare white Christians in the 20th century into supporting punitive policies.
That history has to be acknowledged. To speak more normatively, I think colorblindness — racial neutrality – is fine as long as it is accompanied by the radical change that is needed to overturn the legacies of racism and racial injustice in the United States. They have to go together. If you just have the former, then it is simply just a way to dismiss the historical legacies, the systemic and deeply entrenched problems of racism in this country.
Today, Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a world where people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin is a reference that is made constantly. However, we have to go and read the rest of that speech. There, King talks about justice. He talks about poverty. He talks about the lack of access to the voting booth and, crucially, in that speech he talks about police brutality. If we are going to inherit and act on King’s vision of a colorblind dream, then we also have to face these other issues of injustice as well.
In your book, you discuss a perpetual perception throughout American history of increasing lawlessness being correlated with increasing secularism. Is there a basis for such connection? If so, how do Christians respond?
I actually talk about this in the first chapter by telling the story of about an important trial that occurs in the 1920s of two young men named Leopold and Loeb, who famously murdered a young boy in Chicago after being inspired by the readings of Fredrich Nietzsche. They were totally convinced that there was no God, and they were not held accountable to any moral law. Christians noticed this and worried that without prosecuting and dropping the hammer on criminal behavior, this type of behavior would continue. As a researcher, what was most interesting for me [to consider] is how the justice system then becomes a way for Christians to understand the combating of secularism.
My own sense is that losing a religious impulse — and for Christians, losing our robust theological heritage and language — is concerning. However, I also think that Christians today need to focus less on notions of lawlessness and rule breaking, and more simply on justice and dignity. We need to ask: Are our laws, rules, and policies oriented towards justice and human dignity, or are they oriented to making sure people check boxes and follow the rules? Are the rules themselves actually just and in accordance with how God would have us live?
Thinking specifically about Christian colleges and universities, what role do they have to play in helping bring about justice and reformation to prison systems? Specifically, how do prison education programs help the incarcerated?
I think Christian colleges, and higher educational institutions in general, have a very important role to play in bringing justice and reformation to prison systems. First, we need to talk about these issues not simply in criminology or criminal justice majors, but throughout our studies of politics, philosophy, and theology to help our students realize how deeply embedded prison system and policing are within our own society. There are powerful theological and philosophical resources that Christians have available to think about these issues. The Bible is full of unbelievable stories and characters and ways of thinking about issues of justice and harm, from the Mosaic law to the fact that Paul himself is in prison and writes his letters from prison. Jesus himself was executed; he experienced an unjust system of punishment.
At its best, Christian education attends to these questions with an eye towards why they matter for our present moment. Speaking somewhat bluntly here, evangelicals are more than the political issues that often get handed to us by the media and by our own history and our own traditions. We can go in new directions and open up new possibilities for thinking about issues, like the prison system. More specifically, I think prison education is the perfect route for where all this can go to work. I’ve been blessed to be able to teach in a prison educational context at Washington University in St. Louis, and it was transformative for me. It was one of the most powerful educational contexts I’ve been in. And I’ve been really lucky to get to know people at Christian colleges doing prison education work. Places like North Park University and Seminary in Chicago and their School of Restorative Arts are bringing high-quality Christian education into prisons in Illinois with the goal of both transformation of the lives of students who are incarcerated, but also with an eye towards helping Christians and those invest in the university think critically about what we do when we incarcerate people.
I am so inspired by North Park’s program, Calvin University’s Prison Initiative, Eastern University’s Prison Education Program, and others that are getting started. I want to see every CCCU school doing this work and finding ways to not simply do prison evangelism or prison ministry, but to actually see the prison as a site for partnership and relationship and as a potential body of fellow learners.
As a professor of history at Whitworth, how do you help your students think about the complicated relationship between evangelicals and mass incarceration?
Granted, I am still pretty new to Whitworth, so I am figuring this out. One of the things I try to do, though, is read the Bible with students and draw their attention to the numerous ways that Scripture gives us a language and sensibility to not only think about issues of prisons, but about our obligations to one another, victims, and those who have been wronged by systems of injustice. When we read the Bible with that lens, we can come away transformed. I certainly have been, and I want my students to see that the experiences of incarceration and punishment are not an add-on onto Scripture, but are woven throughout. God cares about broken relationships and broken systems, and he wants us to care about these issues, too.
The second thing I try to do is take students into prisons. This does not have to be a long sojourn hundreds of miles away; there is a county jail in most American towns, and that is a system of criminal justice. Visiting local jails helps students understand that these systems of incarceration, funded by our tax dollars, are doing something, whether we interface with it or not. Whether it is through visits to a prison itself, or through meeting with people who work in the justice system, or activists that are trying to change it, [I want students to know] that these conversations and questions are occurring, and Christians have to be aware of this. If you are interfacing at all in public with people, you’re being shaped by these logics — however positive or negative — of surveillance, of a sense of who is “suspicious” or not, and we need to interrogate that and confront that as Christians.