Did Evangelicals Shape America's Mass Incarceration?

“Evangelical law and order” beliefs are “complicated,” according to Aaron Griffith in God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America. On the one hand, Evangelicals “often unquestioningly support police” and respond to “recurring law-and-order sloganeering from politicians.” This “reinforce[s] evangelicalism’s associations with whiteness and furthers its divide from movements that posit the value of black lives in the face of oppression.” On the other hand, “Evangelicals visit prisoners, write letters, work to find offenders jobs upon reentry, minister to the children of inmates, and mobilize for criminal justice reform. Evangelicals, as a non-evangelical prison chaplain put it to me once, are the ones who show up.”

Neither of these incongruous commitments predominates over the other in Evangelicalism. Nonetheless, because of Evangelicalism’s individualistic pietism, its prison ministries focus almost entirely on individual-level engagement and do not challenge the ostensible Evangelical responsibility for the rise and maintenance of the broader American system of mass imprisonment—its “carceral state”—according to Griffith. Scholarship on the U.S. criminal justice system has identified “a variety of contributing cultural and political factors in the rise of mass incarceration” in the United States. Griffith’s distinctive analytical claim for the book is that he “shows how religion must be understood as a key feature in the longer history of mass incarceration.”

Perhaps. But Griffith’s study is mainly a descriptive historical study focused on a single variable—American Evangelicalism. Further, his proxy measure for “American Evangelicalism” is the rhetoric of a handful of Evangelical elites. This, unfortunately, is too empirically attenuated with what Griffith wants to measure to identify the unique contribution of Evangelicalism to the changing contours of criminal justice policy in the U.S.

That is not to say that Griffith’s study is without merit. It provides a detailed description and analysis of the rhetoric regarding criminal justice of a small, if pivotal, set of Evangelical elites’ over the decades. But that is a much more modest outcome than he claims for his study.

Beyond the “Backlash Thesis”

Griffith focuses on two time periods that saw increasing demand for heightened policing and imprisonment. These periods were the 1920s through the 1930s, and then the 1960s through the 1980s. The questions Griffith ask are: why did the U.S. see increasing demand for policing and punishment during those periods, and what role did Evangelicals play in asserting and responding to those demands?

Griffith begins his analysis with a consideration of religion and crime in the 1920s and 1930s. Griffith argues that highly publicized criminal cases and criminal trials—the murder trial of University of Chicago students Leopold and Loeb, the rise of organized crime during the Prohibition era, and more—induced Evangelicals to assert heightened concerns with secularization and its consequences. The concern asserted that decreasing levels of faith and church participation were causing an increase in criminal behavior.

Griffith argues, however, that Evangelicals not only forwarded religious conversion as a solution—the ostensible rolling back of secularization—but that Evangelicals at the same time also embraced “the belief that the disciplinary power of the state was ultimately responsible for addressing this problem.” They demanded increased policing and punishment as policy responses to increasing criminality. The Evangelical responses during this period contributed importantly to the foundation of the rise of America’s “carceral state” in later decades, according to Griffith.

Griffith treats this demand for increased assertion of state power against criminality as something that follows naturally from Evangelical beliefs. Yet he does not provide evidence for the argumentative link that would account for why, if Evangelicals believed that secularization (or decreasing religious belief) was the problem, then Evangelicals would look to something other than increasing religious belief as the solution to secularization and its deleterious consequences.

Griffith argues that these twin commitments of Evangelicalism—ministering to prisoners and offering Christ’s forgiveness on the one hand, and harsh “law and order” politics on the other—are in principle at war with each other within Evangelicalism.

Complicating Griffith’s argument is that he recognizes that Evangelicals were only one of several factors setting the ground for the carceral state during this period. While Griffith focuses attention on the ostensibly distinctive contribution of Evangelicals in this push for more policing and punishment, he also argues that the liberals and Progressives of this era also crucially contributed to building “prison America.” While the liberal contribution to America’s “carceral” state was largely unintentional according to Griffin, the carceral state nonetheless arose as a result of the liberal “creation of a criminal justice system that emphasized professionalization and codification, and named safety and security as essential American rights in the postwar [World War I] period.”

Griffith subsequently moves to the post-WWII era with detailed accounts of the ministries and crime-related rhetoric of Billy Graham, David Wilkerson (founder of Teen Challenge, and author of The Cross and the Switchblade), Tom Skinner, Ray Hoekstra, and, of course, Charles Colson and Jerry Falwell, among others. While Evangelicals paid attention mainly to the problem of juvenile delinquency and juvenile crime in the 1950s, a divided focus on punishment versus conversion returned with a vengeance in the rise of law-and-order politics in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Griffith argues that these twin commitments of Evangelicalism—ministering to prisoners and offering Christ’s forgiveness on the one hand, and harsh “law and order” politics on the other—are in principle at war with each other within Evangelicalism. That said, Griffith argues that the individualistic emphasis of Evangelicalism on personal conversion and personal piety has limited support among Evangelicals for fundamentally revamping America’s carceral state. According the Griffith, if Evangelicals, particularly those involved in prison ministry, do not “restrict the radical political implications of proximity, prayer, and friendship with fellow believers on the inside,” then Evangelicals will ultimately “participate in the full dismantling of America’s systems of mass incarceration.”

Significant Gaps in Griffith’s Argument

Griffith’s study, however, suffers from methodological as well as analytical problems. Griffith draws the evidence in his book mainly from the sermons, speeches, and publications of a relatively small set of Evangelical leaders. Yet he wants to tell a causal story; he claims to show that Evangelicalism has been “a key feature” in the “longer history of mass incarceration” in the United States. Yet even a qualitative study cannot merely assert the causal effect of independent variables on the dependent variable.  

Griffith provides little more than a Great Man History of Evangelicals and the American criminal justice system. Important as Billy Graham was to American Evangelicalism, policy didn’t change merely because he preached about it. Consider the many linkages required for even a simple model of policy change: An Evangelical leader focuses on an issue. The focus then influences layfolk in the pews. These layfolk—people who are merely a subset of a larger set of non-Evangelical voters—then vote for candidates not only on the basis of this issue, but on the basis of additional policy issues as well. Elected politicians then may, or may not, enact or amend laws, or promulgate regulations. The policy is then implemented by police, prosecutors, and administrators. On top of all this, voters typically are inattentive to all but a few of the most visible policy changes.

There is a lengthy, attenuated process between belief and policy outcomes. Simply because a study is qualitative rather than quantitative does not mean one can dodge the issue of causality, and the difficulty of accounting for the unique, marginal influence of the variable of interest, which, for Griffith, is the role of “Evangelicalism” in contributing to changes in American criminal justice policies.

There is, further, the concern of whether in associating elite Evangelical behavior with policy changes (that is, an increased focus on law-and-order) that Griffith has identified a spurious variable rather than a real independent variable. For example, in both the 1920s and in the 1960 and 1970s violent crime was increasing. Calls for increased policing and punishment went out not only from Evangelicals but from Americans across the board.

Increasing levels of criminal violence during these periods provides an alternative hypothesis to Griffith’s argument that behavior among Evangelical elites contributed to greater policing and more punitive responses to criminal activity. Perhaps it was increased criminal violence that caused both the heightened rhetorical focus on crime among Evangelical elites and caused the growth of support for the carceral state among voters and policymakers. This hypothesis requires no causal link between Evangelical rhetoric and policy outcomes. Indeed, the change in Evangelical rhetoric is also merely an effect of the increase in crime.

There is the related issue of untangling what influence is traceable to actions of Evangelicals as a result of distinctive Evangelical beliefs versus actions Evangelicals take on the basis of common citizenship. For example, increases in criminal activity in the 1920s and 1960s were a policy concern across the religious spectrum as well as across the political spectrum. That Evangelicals were concerned with crime during this period suggests neither that their concern was unique nor that their influence on criminal justice policy  was specifically derived from their Evangelical commitments. At the very least, the distinctive, marginal contribution of Evangelicalism needs to be evidenced in some way beyond mere assertion.

Even regarding social policy responses to crime (greater education, income support, etc.) versus harsh law-and-order responses to crime—a key factor in Griffith’s repeated assertion of a sublimated racial implication of Evangelical positions on crime and punishment—Griffith imposes a bright-line dualism where none belongs. For example, one can believe that increasing criminal violence is ultimately caused by social factors such as current racism or effects of past racism, changes in family structure, differences in economic conditions, etc., yet one can believe simultaneously in the necessity of increased policing and incarceration as necessary steps that must be taken today in response to significant upticks in criminal activity.

Griffith unjustifiably dismisses the actions of African-American religious leaders, for example, in suggesting that those religious leaders who called for increased policing and punishment of criminals in the 1920s were seeking only to curry favor with white religious leaders. There is an alternative hypothesis that respects the authenticity of these leaders’ positions: The recognition of the disproportionate victimization from criminal violence in African-American communities induced community leaders to advocate immediate protective responses even if they also believed that broader social forces were the ultimate cause of currently manifested criminal behavior. Leaders and people in any community may not feel they have the luxury of waiting a generation until changed social conditions finally result in a decrease in criminal violence.

Griffith’s book focuses on the crime and justice rhetoric of a small set of evangelical leaders. The study works as a detailed consideration of their sermons, speeches, and other communications. Griffith’s greater claims for the book—that he accounts for American Evangelicalism as a uniquely “key feature” in the rise and maintenance of the American system of mass incarceration—requires much broader and much better evidence than he provides.