Captive Audience: How Prison Ministries Prioritize Salvation Over Justice

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This article appears in the Summer 2017 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

In early June at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference—an annual gathering of Christian Right leaders active in state and federal policy advocacy—Craig DeRoche of Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM) emphasized to attendees that redemption, rather than punishment, is the key to reforming the criminal justice system.

“There is no such thing as a throwaway person,” DeRoche had said previously, “and by granting second chances to those who have earned them, we will be contributing to the restoration of families, communities, and our nation.”1

DeRoche’s presence at the conference—alongside Christian leaders like James Dobson and GOP heavyweights including President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Mitch McConnell, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy—demonstrated how central prison reform has become to the conservative political agenda.2 As author Kay Whitlock described in The Public Eye in Spring 2017, conservatives from Newt Gingrich to Grover Norquist have situated mass incarceration as a fiscal and moral problem, and have partnered with both progressives and religious leaders of all stripes in calling to reform the system. Addressing sentencing, juvenile imprisonment, diversion programs for drug offenses, and less restrictive parole regulations, organizations like Right on Crime and PFM have pushed back against tough-on-crime ideology and toward policies that reflect the Christian idea that prisoners can be redeemed. These are significant shifts from the War on Drugs and the specter of “the super-predator,” which dominated criminal justice thinking in the 1980s and ‘90s.3

As bipartisan reform efforts have steadily drifted rightward, the heavy hand of evangelicals in prison reform efforts has created new kinds of problems. In the eight years I spent researching my book, God In Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration, I found a tension between faith-based prison ministries that, on the one hand, have challenged conservatives’ emphasis on punishment, and on the other, have embraced an idea of reform that demands adherence to conservative Christian theology and social ideas, where rehabilitation translates neatly to being born again.

DeRoche’s organization, PFM, is one of the most prominent evangelical groups in the United States, with ministries inside more than 1,300 prisons, jails and detention centers, and Justice Fellowship, its sophisticated public policy arm. Founded in 1976 by Chuck Colson, a former Nixon aide convicted of Watergate-related crimes who emerged from prison born again, today part of PFM’s empire includes 24-hour evangelical programs in some prisons that occupy entire wings, where prisoners work, study, and sleep in an area of the prison dedicated to religious ideals.4

According to their website, Prison Fellowship is the nation’s largest Christian non-profit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families. Photo: Prison Fellowship.

While not all prison ministries offer that sort of total segregation from the general population, for many imprisoned people, religious volunteers and programming offer their only option for an education, mental health counseling, addiction services or even contact with the outside world. As state funding for prisons has plummeted and public support for costly rehabilitation programs has declined, faith-based groups claim they can more effectively transform a person from the inside out than can any secular group, through a religion-informed “heart change.” They also argue that they save states money. As Pat Nolan, a former colleague of Colson’s at PFM (and a former California state assemblyman and ex-prisoner himself), argued in a newsletter, prison ministries “do the work the state just cannot afford to do on its own. And these volunteers will provide something that government employees cannot: love.”5

For evangelicals on the outside, faith-based programs have become a means to enter prisons in massive numbers and proselytize a captive audience desperate for a lifeline. On any given day, there are worship services and religious study groups in almost every prison in the U.S. Most are Christian and most require a profession of Christian belief as a prerequisite for joining. Six states have prisons with in-house Baptist seminary programs, where inmates earn a college degree in Christian ministry and are sent as missionaries to other prisons in the same state. Florida has revamped 11 state prisons into faith- and character-based institutions: entire prisons where rehabilitation is supposed to occur through religious practice. Kairos Prison Ministry International, a global Christian prison ministry, offers three-day “Kairos Inside Weekends” for prisoners to form Christian communities in prison.

The first prisons in the U.S. were built on the premise of redemption through religious belief. Quakers and Methodist reformers who first designed penitentiaries in the early 1800s believed that isolation, prayer, and reflection could turn prisoners away from a life of crime. In the colonial era, crimes were seen as sins against God and the community, and transgressors were punished swiftly and publicly by hanging, stockades, or banishment. Quakers and Methodists fervently believed that prisons, modeled around Quaker reflective practices of silence and isolation, were a more humane alternative that would foster redemption in those who had strayed. (Some of these early prisons also inadvertently created the model for solitary confinement out of Quaker principles of solitude.) But while groups like the American Friends Service Committee and the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (a network of Black churches focused on social justice) have made ending mass incarceration a priority, they and mainline Protestant groups are not represented inside prisons in even close to the same numbers as conservative evangelical ministries, which number in the thousands.6

Today, given the option between a lack of programs and the advantages provided by faith-based groups, large numbers of prisoners apply to faith-based prisons and programs. In the notoriously harsh Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, for example, prisoners vie to be chosen for college programs run by seminaries affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention that allow them, upon graduation, to be sent as “agents of moral rehabilitation” to other state prisons. The prison is careful to use neutral terms to avoid accusations of violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, but the reality is that joining these religious programs is often the only means available for prisoners—most in the program are serving sentences of 20 years to life—to get an education and improve their lot.

For the few non-Christians accepted into the program, the instruction can feel marginalizing. As one Muslim inmate in Texas told me, “I have been here my whole life… What else is there for me to do while I am incarcerated? I cannot work, we do not get paid for working. I cannot go to college, because I do not have the money to pay for it. So, this is the best thing going.”7

In 2000, Congress unanimously passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which assured that the religious freedom of those confined in government institutions such as prisons would be protected. Evangelical groups like Prison Fellowship helped draft RLUIPA, but there are no equivalent programs for Muslims or members of other religions. Non-Christian groups still face obstacles at the state level from recalcitrant or hostile chaplains and prison administrations, who tend to identify as Christians themselves.

Yet, despite these troubling patterns, evangelical prison ministries can seem like one of the only voices available to challenge the resurgent law-and-order focus of the Right. Before Jeff Sessions was confirmed as Attorney General, DeRoche published an article on the Fox News website urging Sessions to resist simply warehousing more people and instead focus on rehabilitation and diversionary programs as a matter of public safety and fiscal responsibility.8

Sessions instead announced, in a memorandum issued in May, a stunning reversal of the Obama administration’s efforts to scale back the War on Drugs.9 Where Obama had called for shortening sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and phasing out the use of private prisons, Sessions, by contrast, instructed prosecutors to pursue drug charges to the most serious degree.

In the wake of this, DeRoche has distinguished between “real criminals” who commit serious crimes and the vast majority of people who he believes should be given a second chance. The moral argument DeRoche makes is directly at odds with the private prison industry, which benefits from prosecutions of low-level drug offenses. One of the largest for-profit prison operators in the country, GEO Group, contributed to the Trump campaign and hired two of Sessions’ aides as lobbyists.10

But while DeRoche represents an important ideological shift in thinking about punishment, his broader aims for criminal justice reform aren’t shared by his peers. Prison ministries are primarily concerned with salvaging individual souls rather than questioning the purpose of prisons, and why so many people inside them are serving long sentences. Ministries and seminaries, which have more access to the prison system than most, could have a profound effect on policy were they to publicly address the ethical, social, and economic consequences of mass incarceration on individuals, families, and communities. But as it stands, the question of prison ministries’ motivation may be best summed up by Norris Henderson, director of Voice of the Ex-Offender and an Open Society Foundations Soros Justice fellow, who spent 27 years in Angola. As Henderson put it, “Are you giving people the help they need or the help you think they need?”


1“U.S. Senate Declares April Second Chance Month,” Prison Fellowship, April 26, 2017,

2“Speakers,” Road to Majority,

3“Priority Issues,” Right on Crime,

4“Overview and Factsheets,” Prison Fellowship,

5Pat Nolan, “Supreme Court Demands End To Prison Overcrowding,” Prison Fellowship, June 9, 2011,

6“About Us,” The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference,

7Rodney, in person interview with author at TDCJ Darrington Unit, Texas, November 8, 2013.

8Craig DeRoche, “A roadmap for public safety and criminal justice success for our new attorney general,” Fox News Opinion, January 10, 2017,

9Jeff Sessions, “Memorandum for All Federal Prosecutors,” May 10, 2017,

10Carl Takei and Katie Egan, “Trump and Sessions: Great for the Private Prison Industry, Terrible for Civil Rights,” ACLU, January 5, 2017,

Beyond Prisons, Mental Health Clinics: When Austerity Opens Cages, Where Do the Services Go?

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Neoliberal policies that result in institutional closures carry a cost, too. Could communities seize the moment to redirect resources toward self-determination and liberation?

**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

In 2012, in a strange moment of jubilation for anti-prison activists, Illinois governor Pat Quinn proposed the closure of two adult prisons, two juvenile detention centers, and six adult transition centers (ATC).1 Though the decision was met with fierce opposition from labor unions representing prison workers, as well as some surrounding community members, and from the “law enforcement” community, by 2014 Illinois had nevertheless closed seven correctional facilities.2

As part of the Quinn administration’s larger policy aim to balance the budget,3 the state also aimed to close facilities housing people with disabilities and to move people into smaller community-based settings—a process often called deinstitutionalization.4 By 2014 this “re-balancing initiative”5 aimed to close four State Operated Developmental centers (SODCs) serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and two psychiatric hospitals.6

These shifts are partly a result of the cluster of economic and political policy changes—including decentralization, privatization, and free-market reforms— that began in the U.S. in the 1960s and strengthened with the election of Ronald Reagan and are often described as neoliberalism. While these facilities were not closed to advance the people’s well-being, the shuttering of these oppressive structures offers a cause for celebration but also a caution. This is especially true if incarceration is defined more widely to include not only prisons but institutions that house people with disabilities, juvenile detention centers, and more.

While these neoliberal policies may inspire some to celebrate the closure of institutions such as prisons and SODCs, this jubilation is tempered. Prison closure means more resources are needed in public community services. These include: mental health clinics; personal assistance services (for people with disabilities); affordable and accessible housing and meaningful public education as alternative ways of dealing with difference and harm; and increasing the life chances and opportunities of many, particularly the poor, disabled, and/or communities of color. Yet such services are shrinking instead of growing during these times of closure.

Vanishing Services

At the same time as these institutions shut across the state, the city of Chicago, under the watch of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, shut down six of twelve public mental health clinics in 2012.7 Cuts to Chicago’s public housing that began during the mid-1990s ramped up.8 In 2013, Chicago’s unelected school board voted to close fifty public schools, affecting approximately forty thousand students primarily in Black and Brown communities on the west side. Since 2001, more than 150 public schools in low-income Black and Brown communities across Chicago closed or restructured—harming neighborhoods and displacing the “problem” of “low academic achievement” back onto communities and young people.

The shuttering of public institutions that regulate the lives of the most marginalized communities is an uneven, but strong, nationwide trend. A 2012 report by The Sentencing Project states: “In 2012, at least six states have closed 20 prison institutions or are contemplating doing so, potentially reducing prison capacity by over 14,100 beds and resulting in an estimated $337 million in savings.”9 Between 2010-2011, 1,069 public schools closed, primarily in urban communities of color across the nation.10 Public housing vaporized, losing a quarter million housing units over the last decade, according to political scientist Edward G. Goetz, author of New Deal Ruins: Race, Economic Justice, and Public Housing Policy.11

Ending Confinementor Just Cutting Funds?

Through one lens, today’s closures suggest to some observers that the prison nation is retreating—loosening its grip on those it has historically targeted for surveillance, confinement, and punishment. Natasha Frost, Associate Dean at Northeastern University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, even went so far as to state in the New York Times in 2013, “This is the beginning of the end of mass incarceration.”12

Yet if imprisonment is understood to include other sites of enclosure like psychiatric hospitals and large state institutions for people with disabilities,13 then the decline in incarceration began in the 1960s. In 1955, the state mental health population was 559,000, nearly as large (if measured on a per capita basis) as the prison population today. By 2000, it had fallen to below 100,000.14 In addition, by 2011, eleven states had closed all state-operated institutions for people with intellectual/developmental disabilities.15

The earlier exodus of people identified with mental and physical disabilities from state institutions was the result of two things: policy that aimed to cut funding to these public facilities, and massive organizing. Deinstitutionalization of those labeled as mentally ill or intellectually disabled during that era was fueled by grassroots mobilization by those most affected by the problems within institutions, as well as shift in professional opinion, major exposés of abuse, and activism (including in the legal arena) by family members of those with disabilities. For instance, in 1979 self-advocates (people with intellectual disabilities who engage in advocacy) in Nebraska held a press conference stating that all institutions should be closed and that people with disabilities have the right to live freely in communities of their own choosing.16 Although rationalized by the argument that people with disabilities need not be segregated from their peers in order to have access to the supports they need, these earlier waves of de-institutionalization coincided with emergent shifts in governance—notably the privatization of public entities—and provided a prototype for future closures of all kinds of state institutions.

Today, states grapple with decarceration and deinstitutionalization, not necessarily because of an ethical recognition of the continuing harm of confinement and segregation, or because of an understanding of the intertwined histories of capitalism, white supremacy, ableism, and punishment in the United States, but because of a desire to curb public spending on social services. These include the very services that people need as alternatives to more oppressive edifices and as preventive measures to winding up in such places. While public neighborhood urban schools, public housing, and mental health clinics are shuttered, private companies and “not for profit” services partially fill the void.

Photo courtesy of project NIA, which advocates for community-based justice models in Chicago.

Photo courtesy of project NIA, which advocates for community-based justice models in Chicago.

Reagan’s Harsh Legacy

Earlier forms of “downsizing”—deinstitutionalization movements in particular—offer an important window into our current political moment. They also offer a warning about the importance of thinking more critically about human capture and confinement and the use of public dollars. Populations in psychiatric hospitals began to plummet in the 1950s; deinstitutionalization in mental health was in full swing by the 1970s, when Reagan became the Governor of California and decided to close down all the state hospitals.17 Hardly a champion of the oppressed, Reagan referred to institutions housing people with mental disabilities in California as “the biggest hotel chain in the state.” Not only did this characterization neatly obscure the squalid conditions inside public facilities, but “fiscal responsibility” masked the (imagined and real) possibilities for profit through privatization. While there were possible positive outcomes—for instance, the benefits of living in the community with supports and not in large state run institutions—few to none of the local necessary community services were supported, either financially or ideologically.

Earlier waves of deinstitutionalization invoked efficiency and the imperative of shrinking big government—both pillars of neoliberalism—and yet many of these developmental centers and psychiatric hospitals were converted into public prisons shortly afterwards. For example, by 2011, Illinois had closed eight mental health hospitals and institutions for people with intellectual disabilities, two of which became correctional facilities and one a women’s prison.18 Far from shrinking big government, these public facilities were repurposed for other forms of human captivity.

As political actors like Reagan began to champion closing the “hotels” of the state and argued for the end to “big government”—and indeed public resources for housing, healthcare, and social services shrank—support for policing and prisons grew. The era of the “carceral big government” exploded as the welfare state morphed into a more punitive set of institutions.

It is important to note that big government did not decline as Reagan’s “hotels” shut their doors. The shrinkage of the safety net from the Reagan era to the nineties, coupled with an expansion of corrections, created a trade-off between social services and incarceration. In Punishing the Poor, sociologist Loïc Wacquant documents that in 1980 public housing received federal funding of 27.4 billion dollars, while the federal budget for corrections was 6.9 billion (not including spending on police or courts). By 1990, funds for public housing had been reduced to 10.6 billion dollars, while the corrections budget rose to 26.1 billion (and then almost doubled again by 1995).19 In essence, by the nineties, resources for jails and prisons exceeded support for public housing programs in the U.S., at a moment when housing assistance was especially needed because of the reduced economic support for poor families.

A Chance to Reinvest

Today, closures of mental health clinics and schools in Chicago are not necessarily leading to the rise of penal “big government,” as rebalancing also includes cuts in prison spending. As with earlier deinstitutionalization movements, this is an opportunity for jubilation but also a time for analysis and radical activism. While the rhetoric of the earlier era was (and for many still is) that “big government” must be dismantled, in reality the government did not shrink—nor did people necessarily become freer. Today, even as prisons are included in these forms of “downsizing,” without public investment in public services—neighborhood schools, housing, and health services—racialized and ableist forms of capture and confinement continue.

In this current moment of state supported institutional closures, learning from earlier organizers’ engagements with the state’s deinstitutionalization initiatives is crucial. As early as the 1970s, disability advocates recognized that the devil was in the details. The closure of an institution did not mean the budget of that institution was then transferred to community services.

Closures didn’t automatically translate into people’s liberation or the end of confinement. Monies that had been utilized for the care of people with disabilities either disappeared from the budget altogether or remained for the upkeep of institutions, even those with a very small number of residents. Former Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services Jerome Miller, who closed down all juvenile detention centers in Massachusetts in the 1970s, observed that when institutions began to close in New York State and Pennsylvania, while thousands of patients were left with little housing or treatment options in the community, the budget for the depopulated hospitals actually increased (at the beginning stages of deinstitutionalization). Miller notes that although most ‘mental patients’ left the institutions in past decades, the staff, resources, and budgets remained tied to the institution and not available for community use.20

As people move between different forms and scales of cages, and as patterns of surveillance and punishment morph, new forms of capture do emerge—yet resistance is also possible.

Alternatives emerge when facilities shut their doors. Closures, as prison justice organizer Angela Davis suggests, provide an opportunity for not only a “radical imagining” of the kind of social landscape desperately needed—but also the moment to build it. As people move between different forms and scales of cages, and as patterns of surveillance and punishment morph, new forms of capture do emerge and yet resistance is also possible. The state often refuses to offer services in place of the ones that were shuttered, leaving the responsibility to the individual (or her family and the market). This is a moment to collectively demand, fund, and build public infrastructure that will move everyone closer towards a world that does not rely on segregation and confinement, or access to private capital, as its mode of dealing with structural inequities.

Erica R. Meiners teaches and organizes in Chicago. A Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Education at Northeastern Illinois University, she is the author of the forthcoming Intimate Labor (University of Minnesota Press), which explores how ideas of children contributed to the build-up of the U.S. prison nation. Liat Ben Moshe is the co-editor of Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada (Palgrave McMillan 2014) and an upcoming issue of Women, Gender, and Families of Color.

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1. The goal was that those housed in ATC would be put on electronic monitoring. See “Fiscal Year 2013 Budget,” Office of Governor Pat Quinn,
2. “Quinn Gets Go-Ahead to Close Illinois Prisons,” CBS Chicago, Dec. 19, 2012,
3. “Quinn Confirms Plan to Close 14 IL Facilities,” WISTV, Feb. 23, 2012,
4. “Fiscal Year 2013 Budget.”
5. “Governor Quinn’s Rebalancing Initiative,” Nov. 2011,
6. “Governor Quinn’s Rebalancing Initiative.”
7. Dana Ballout, “Chicago’s Mental Health Clinic’s Closings: 20 Months Later,” Al Jazeera America, Dec. 26, 2013,
8. Sara Olkon, “Ida B. Wells Complex Set to Close, But Some Residents Aren’t Ready to Leave,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 11, 2008,
9. Nicole D. Porter, On the Chopping Block 2012: State Prison Closings, The Sentencing Project, Dec. 2012,
10. Emma Brown, “D.C. to Close 15 Underenrolled Schools,” Washington Post, Jan. 17, 2013, See also:
11. Edward Goetz, New Deal Ruins: Race, Economic Justice, and Public Housing Policy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013).
12. Erica Goode, “U.S. Prison Populations Decline, Reflecting New Approach to Crime,” New York Times, July 25, 2013,
13. Liat Ben-Moshe, Chris Chapman, and Allison C. Carey, eds., Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada (New York: Palgrave McMillan Press, 2014).
14. Bernard E. Harcourt, “Reducing Mass Incarceration: Lessons from the Deinstitutionalization of Mental Hospitals in the 1960s,” Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 9:1 (2011): 54.
15. David L. Braddock et al., The State of the States in Developmental Disabilities (Washington, DC.: University of Colorado Department of Psychiatry and Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities, 2011).
16. Allison C. Carey, On the Margins of Citizenship: Intellectual Disability and Civil Rights in Twentieth-Century America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009).
17. Paul L. Ahmed, State Mental Hospitals: What Happens When They Close, eds. Paul L. Ahmed and Stanley C. Plog (New York: Plenum Medical Book Company, 1976); James W. Trent Jr., Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
18. David L. Braddock et al., The State of the States in Developmental Disabilities.
19. Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government and Social Insecurity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).
20. Jerome G. Miller, Last One Over the Wall: The Massachusetts Experiment in Closing Reform Schools (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1991).

Sticks and Cages, Carrots & Cash: The Right’s Racist Assaults on Reproductive Freedom

This post is the fourth in a five-part series examining the U.S. Right’s efforts to alter demographic trends by re-popularizing arguments and ideologies rooted in eugenics. (Read parts one, two, and three.) Today, I continue to discuss the U.S. Right’s coercive attempts to limit the fertility of people of color, an egregious affront to reproductive justice. This segment covers private and state mechanisms for preventing poor people of color, particularly Black women, from having children.  

As shown in the most recent post in this series, institutions like hospitals and other health care providers—generally regarded as unequivocally positive presences among White communities—often cast a much more violent shadow over communities of color. Similarly, White communities typically experience police officers as their protectors, while the same forces can pose a constant and lethal threat to law-abiding Black communities. People of color are also disproportionately likely to be ensnared in institutions designed to exert control without any veil of benevolence. Because mainstream narratives situate Black and Brown bodies as dangerous, as somehow oppositional or threatening to White American identity and nationhood, the state project of containing people of color is normalized and accepted as legitimate. Unspeakably inhumane apparatuses are thus widely regarded as necessary. Of the institutions violently managing Black and Brown bodies and populations (in every sense of both terms), mass incarceration likely looms largest.

The criminal justice system deploys a variety of methods to deny incarcerated people their rights to have children, and because mass incarceration is a racist project, African American people bear the brunt of this punishment. (Significantly, incarceration itself fundamentally obstructs the right to parent, making it a critical reproductive justice issue.) One such method is deliberately handing a woman a sentence likely to extend through her procreative years; another is forcing people convicted of certain crimes to “choose” between serving jail time and adopting long-acting contraceptive use; another is shifting parental rights over newborns to foster or adoptive parents; and another still is the practice of shunting people into carceral institutions distant from their communities and their partners. Additionally, incarcerated people’s access to reproductive health care tends to be abysmal. In some prisons and jails, the problem is not just the absence or insufficiency of care, but also procedures that are undertaken without informed consent.

A study by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) found that between 2006 and 2010, nearly 150 people (if not more) held in California state prisons were sterilized under coercion and without legally mandated state approval. Christina Cordero, who received an unauthorized tubal ligation while incarcerated, said the prison OB-GYN persistently recommended that she undergo the procedure, making her “feel like a bad mother if [she] didn’t do it.” Kimberly Jeffrey, a Black woman who was also sterilized while incarcerated, reported being “pressured by a doctor while sedated and strapped to a surgical table for a C-section” (emphasis added). Jeffrey also recalls being told that she could only reclaim custody of her youngest child if she underwent a full hysterectomy. Jeffrey, who works with Justice Now, received no medical consultation about the operation, and her explicit resistance was ignored. Even if she had willingly acceded to the operation, however, Jeffrey could not have given consent: according to University of Pennsylvania Law professor Dorothy Roberts, courts have ruled that the conditions of labor can impair judgment, making it such that informed consent cannot be given during labor. (See Roberts’s Killing the Black Body 1)1997 for a more comprehensive analysis of attacks on Black women’s bodies and fertility.)

James Heinrich, the unremorseful OB-GYN who performed many of the tubal ligations, told CIR that he believed the cost of the surgeries, at nearly $150,000,to be negligible “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children…as they procreated more.” Heinrich’s language is loaded. “Unwanted” implies promiscuity and assumes carelessness, while “procreated” indicates animalism, as opposed to the white feminine ideal of nurturing motherhood. Perhaps most appalling is Heinrich’s implicit bottom line: that certain people, disproportionately poor women of color and particularly poor Black women, ought not to have children because their offspring would be supported at the expense of the state’s more deserving citizens. Like the mythical “anchor babies” of Latina/o immigrants, the children of incarcerated people are presumed to be parasitic strains on the “system” even prior to their conception.

His prejudicial premise aside, Heinrich’s cost-benefit analysis hardly stands up to interrogation. His economic argument belies the fact that the exponential rise in incarceration itself, caused not by a rise in crime but rather by increasingly harsh and inflexible sentencing laws, has incurred enormous cost to the state. While expenditures on assistance under Temporary Assistance to Needy Families totaled about $5.3 billion in Fiscal Year 2013, the President’s FY13 budget request for the Federal Bureau of Prisons was $6.9 billion.

For those complicit in imposing tubal ligations in California prisons, the procedures were predicated not on smart budgeting so much as on problematic notions of who deserves support and who deserves punishment. Like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), and its rabidly anti-immigration constituency, Heinrich and his colleagues cast poor women of color as scam artists or conniving thieves, rather than rational agents of their own reproduction. The anti-immigration Right may no longer be taking active measures to physically manage Latina women’s fertility, but the arguments for sterilizing incarcerated people who can become pregnant (who, in California and elsewhere, are disproportionately poor and of color) are much the same as the arguments put forth by FAIR and other nativist groups highlighted earlier in this series.

Some on the Right, however, have explicitly condemned the malfeasances that occurred in California prisons, based on the notion that sterilization frustrates potential life. These anti-choice groups’ denunciation is well directed, but ill-reasoned. The arguments and strategies employed by individuals and groups like Heinrich and FAIR are reprehensible not because of the hypothetical lives lost to sterilization, but because they deprive living people of their fundamental right to build the families they wish to build. Still, while imagined children are not the victims, nor are they irrelevant. It is critical to understand that the criminalization of Blackness, of Brownness, and of poverty is so entrenched that it precedes birth.

Moreover, while certain right-wing groups have seized the opportunity to criticize the wrongdoings undertaken by state institutions under majority Democratic governance, the same factions have looked on silently, even supportively, as Project Prevention (PP, formerly Children Requiring A Caring Kommunity, or C.R.A.C.K.) pursues a parallel process, ideologically and practically, outside of prisons.

The name C.R.A.C.K. invokes President Reagan’s manufactured panic surrounding the crack epidemic and its racialized and scientifically baseless ghouls, “crack mothers” and “crack babies.” The organization was founded in 1994 by Barbara Harris, whose first mission was to pass state legislation punishing people who give birth to drug-exposed infants. Such punishments, codified and otherwise, abound, and in the 413 cases analyzed in a 2013 study, 59 percent of people subject to state punishment under post-Roe v. Wade legislation criminalizing pregnancy were of color, and 52 percent were African-American. Harris’ particular initiative, however, proved unsuccessful. Founding C.R.A.C.K. was her ostensibly benevolent alternative.

Today, Project Prevention gives $300 in cash to people who are or have been addicted

C.R.A.C.K. flyer targets women of color, offering them cash payouts to go on long-term birth control

C.R.A.C.K. flyer targets women of color, offering them cash payouts to go on long-term birth control

to drugs or alcohol and who submit documentation proving that they have undergone sterilization procedures or are using long-acting contraception, such as Norplant or Depo-Provera. The organization, whose advertising targets low-income communities of color, also disseminates stigmatizing and scientifically inaccurate literature, which describes imagined horrors of drug-addicted motherhood and the irresponsible hyperfertility Harris attributes to women who use drugs.

Just as the California sterilizations took place among the innumerable other restrictions incarceration imposes on incarcerated people’s reproductive lives, Project Prevention represents an extreme manifestation of racist ideologies and practices that are widely accepted and deeply rooted in American society.

Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), argues that the organization’s strategies are actually part and parcel of Harris’ original, more overtly punitive, intention. PP’s mission, she argues, could be “understood as one designed to stigmatize certain people and to make them seem appropriate targets for sterilization and other forms of population control” (23).

Paltrow’s analysis is supported by a 2012 article Jed Bickman published in Salon, which states that of the 4,077 people the newly rebranded Project Prevention had paid to be sterilized or use long-acting contraceptives, 24 percent were African-American. The United States population is only 13.2 percent Black, and illicit drug use among Black Americans is not substantiallyif at allhigher than it is among White Americans.

Groups like NAPW have worked extensively to expose and oppose PP’s discriminatory efforts to undercut reproductive justice. But where is the Right with its ardent defense of life and unequivocal condemnation of contraception? They’re funding Harris. By 2006, C.R.A.C.K. had received donations totaling more than $2 million, the majority of which, Paltrow documents, came from wealthy conservatives. Major benefactors included the Allegheny Foundation, founded by the “funding father of the right,” billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife (who also contributed millions of dollars to FAIR and to other nativist projects initiated by FAIR’s eugenecist founder, John Tanton.); Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the vitriolically anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ talk show host; and right0-wing donor Jim Woodhill, Woodhill also hired British psychologist and unabashed eugenicist Chris Brand to bring Project Prevention overseas. Project Prevention’s sites of operation now include Haiti and Kenya, where its staff works to sterilize women with HIV.

Like Heinrich and the fertility-obsessed nativists, Project Prevention’s representatives are adept at speaking in code. The publicity team at Project Prevention characterizes the organization as seeking to “save our welfare system and the world from the exorbitant cost to the taxpayer for each drug-addicted birth”(Bickman).Ultimately, all of these enemies of reproductive autonomy position themselves as noble crusaders against the “threat” of government resources sustaining Black and brown children and families.

In the final installment of this series, I will more specifically address welfare’s role as part of the Right’s rhetorical and practical strategies for vilifying poor women of color and limiting their reproductive freedoms.

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References   [ + ]

1. 1997

“Banking on Bondage” Beyond U.S. Borders

ceceThis week, we celebrated CeCe McDonald’s long-overdue release from a men’s prison, where she was incarcerated for 19 months following a violent encounter with a group of intoxicated white bar patrons.  The June 2011 confrontation began with a slew of racist and transphobic slurs addressed toward McDonald, a black transgender woman, and her friends. In the fight that ensued, one of the attackers, Dean Schmitz, was killed. McDonald, who was also severely injured in the fight, ultimately plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 41 months in prison.

Since 2011, advocates in Minneapolis and around the world have organized in support of McDonald under the rallying cry of “Free CeCe!” Now, as CeCe is finally free from the confines of incarceration, we must be reminded and re-energized to fight not only to free CeCe, but also to expose and dismantle an enormous, oppressive, and deeply entrenched system of mass incarceration.  It is a system that—as CeCe’s case so painfully illustrates—disproportionately affects people of color, poor people, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ people, and it is a system that labels millions of people as disposable, only to then exploit them for profit.

And so the work must continue.  As Fannie Lou Hamer once declared, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

The United States is home to less than five percent of the world’s population, but accounts for nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population. More than 2.2 million people are currently locked up in the U.S., and an additional 4.6 million people live under some form of correctional supervision (e.g. probation or parole). Moreover, on any given day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) cages approximately 34,000 men, women, and children in jails across the country as it pursues their deportation. All together, that’s almost 7 million people.

Even as crime rates dropped over the last 30 years, the prison population skyrocketed, due in part to “tough on crime” laws stemming from the Richard Nixon-initiated “War on Drugs” and George W. Bush-initiated “War on Terrorism.  Tearing apart families, draining the resources of governments and communities, and failing even in its ostensible aim to increase public safety, mass incarceration has become a 21st century American horror story. As Michelle Alexander explains in her highly acclaimed book, The New Jim Crow, “The United States today uses an extensive and unprecedented form of imprisonment and policing as social control of its most marginalized communities. It is a unique culture of incarceration: no other country locks up their population to the same degree that we do, nor has so perfected imprisonment as a tool of innocuously perpetuating racial division.”

Meanwhile, who benefits? For one, the private prison industry. As documented in the ACLU’s 2011 report, Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration, the for-profit prison industry emerged during the 1980s and has grown exponentially in the subsequent three decades. In a 2013 report, In the Public Interest exposed how private prison corporations use occupancy guarantees in their contracts (ranging from 80 to 100 percent) to ensure that profits—and recidivism rates—remain high.

More recently, the privatization of prisons has begun to expand around the world. The GEO Group, America’s second largest prison corporation, boasts that it is the world’s leading provider of correctional, detention, and community reentry services. It has facilities in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Africa, and earned 14% of its revenue in 2012 from international services. Kutama-Sinthumule Correctional Centre in South Africa is one of the facilities operated by The GEO Group, and despite a shrinking prison population nationwide, Kutama-Sinthumule remains full.

In Colombia, under the Program for the Improvement of the Colombian Prison System (PICPS), USAID and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons has helped fund the remodeling of 16 prisons, five of which are now being run by graduates of the notorious School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2000). Since the PICPS was signed in 2000, Colombia’s prison population has grown by more than 57 percent.

The globalization of U.S.-style culture wars has led to increased attacks against LGBTQ people and women’s reproductive autonomy all around the world.  Now, it seems that our “culture of incarceration” is also expanding far beyond our national borders.

Calvinism, Capitalism, Conversion, and Incarceration

Why are increased sentences and the severe punishment of those convicted of crimes so popular and prevalent in U.S. culture? Since the late 1970s our society has accepted increasingly rigid and vengeful ways of punishing those convicted of crimes. Behind this trend is the momentum of 250 years of a strain of religious philosophies brought to our shores by Pilgrims, Puritans, and other colonial settlers influenced by a Protestant theology called Calvinism. Today, many ideas, concepts, and frames of reference in modern American society are legacies of the history of Protestantism as it divided and morphed through Calvinism, revivalist evangelicalism, and fundamentalism. Even people who see themselves as secular and not religious often unconsciously adopt many of these historic cultural legacies while thinking of their ideas as simply common sense.

What is “common sense” for one group, however, is foolish belief for another. According to author George Lakoff, a linguist who studies the linkage between rhetoric and ideas, there is a tremendous gulf between what conservatives and liberals think of as common sense, especially when it comes to issues of moral values. In his recent book Moral Politics, which has gained attention in both media and public debates, Lakoff argues that conservatives base their moral views of social policy on a “Strict Father” model, while liberals base their views on a “Nurturant Parent” model.1

Other scholars have looked at these issues and found similar patterns. According to Axel R. Schaefer, there are three main ideological tendencies in U.S. social reform:

Liberal/Progressive: based on changing systems and institutions to change individual behavior on a collective basis over time.

Calvinist/Free Market: based on changing individual social behavior through punishment.

Evangelical/Revivalist: based on born again conversion to change individual behavior, but still linked to some Calvinist ideas of punishment.2

Coalition Politics

Republicans have forged a broad coalition of two of the three tendencies that involves moderately conservative Protestants who nonetheless hold some traditional Calvinist ideas; Free Market advocates ranging from multinational executives to economic conservatives to libertarian ideologues; and conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists with a core mission of converting people to their particular brand of Christianity. This is a coalition with many fracture points and disagreements. The Calvinist/Free Market sector is already a coalition based on shared ideas about individual responsibility and successes in Free Market or Laissez Faire capitalism- sometimes called neoliberalism to trace it back to an earlier use of the term “liberal” by philosophers who opposed stringent government regulation of the economy.

Libertarians are against government economic regulations and believe in a Free Market, but libertarians generally also oppose government regulation of social matters such as gay marriage and abortion. These and other social issues, however, are central to the conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists in the Republican coalition. This can get complicated. For example the evangelical idea that it is personal conversion and salvation that will make for a more perfect society, not government programs and policies, sometimes ends up supporting (in a complementary and parallel way) the goal of libertarians and economic conservatives to reduce the size of government.

As the Bush Administration has shifted government social welfare toward “Faith-Based” programs, it has diverted government funding into privatized religious organizations (which raises serious separation of Church and State issues), but the amount of funding applied to “Faith Based” projects is small compared to the large budget cuts in previously governmentfunded government-run social welfare programs. Libertarians approve of the overall budget cuts, but would prefer cutting out the government funding of “Faith Based” projects.

Not all evangelicals and fundamentalists are political conservatives, although most are. The Christian Right is that group of politically conservative Christians – primarily evangelicals and fundamentalists- who have been mobilized into a social movement around social issues and traditional moral values; and who have sought political power through elections and legislation. The Christian Right became a political force in the Republican Party in the 1980s as part of a strategy of right-wing political strategists to enlist evangelical and fundamentalist leaders, especially television evangelists, in building a voter base.

The Christian Right has used populist rhetoric to build a mass base for elitist conservative politics.3 This process leads many people to vote against their economic self-interest, as Thomas Frank observes in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.4 The Christian Right and their allies in the Republican Party have used fear, demonization, and scapegoating as part of a strategy for “Mobilizing Resentment,” the title of a book by PRA founder Jean Hardisty.5 While much of this resentment openly targets women’s rights and gay rights, it is also a reaction against the Civil Rights movement and changing racial demographics in the United States, which has created a backlash that author Roberto Lovato calls “White Fear.”6(See Box on White Fear).

Today, the Christian Right is the single largest organized voting block in the Republican Party. These are predominantly White evangelical voters. Most Black Christian evangelicals overwhelmingly vote Democratic. The voting power of White Christian evangelicals has meant they are now political players on the national scene. For example President George W. Bush’s first term selection as Attorney General of the United States of John Ashcroft, a hero to the Christian Right and himself a member of the ultra-conservative evangelical denomination Assemblies of God, was a political reward to White evangelical voters.

Some of the goals of manyWhite evangelical conservatives are shared by another group of people who call themselves the Neoconservatives. These are former liberals and leftists who rejected the social, cultural, and political liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Neoconservative social and cultural politics echo many Calvinist themes such as the need to defend traditional morality and the patriarchal family; the special role for America in world affairs, and the righteousness of economic capitalism.

Neoconservatives defend this combination as necessary not only to preserve American civil society, but also for the extension of true democracy worldwide. As elitists, they see themselves as a secular “Elect” who must defend society against the ignorant or radical rabble. And they describe this as the natural culmination of Judeo-Christian Western thought, which allows conservative Jews and Catholics to join the team.

This conservative political coalition has shaped Republican Party policies and transformed American society for over two decades. As the New Right gained power, Republicans- and Democrats- began to support repressive and punitive criminal justice policies that were shaped by one of the historic legacies of Calvinism: the idea that people arrested for breaking laws require punishment, shame, and discipline.

While most mainline Protestant denominations and evangelical churches have jettisoned some of the core tenets of Calvinism, ideas about punishment and retribution brought to our shores by early Calvinist settlers are so rooted in the American cultural experience and social traditions that many people ranging from religious to secular view them as simply “common sense.” What Lakoff calls the “Strict Father” model gains its power among conservatives because it dovetails with their ideas of what is a common sense approach to morality, public policy, and crime. To understand where this “common sense” comes from, and why it is tied to the Strict Father model, requires that we trace the influence of Protestant Calvinism.

The Roots of Calvinism

Martin Luther founded Protestantism in a schism with the Catholic Church in 1517, but it was John Calvin who literally put it on the map in the city of Geneva, which is now in Switzerland. In the mid 1500s, Calvin forged a theocracy- a society where only the leaders of a specific religion can be the leaders of the secular government.

Calvinists believed that Adam and Eve disobeyed God and tasted the apple from the tree of knowledge at the urging of an evil demon. As a result of this “original sin,” the betrayal of God’s command, all humans are born in sin. God must punish us for our sins; we must be ashamed of our wrongdoing; and we require the harsh yet loving discipline of our heavenly father to correct our failures.

Calvinists also believe that “God’s divine providence [has] selected, elected, and predestined certain people to restore humanity and reconcile it with its Creator.”7 These “Elect” were originally thought to be the only people going to Heaven. To the Calvinists, material success and wealth was a sign that you were one of the Elect, and thus were favored by God. Who better to shepherd a society populated by God’s wayward children? The poor, the weak, the infirm? God was punishing them for their sins. This theology was spreading at a time when the rise of industrial capitalism tore the fabric of European society, shifting the nature of work and the patterns of family life of large numbers of people. There were large numbers of angry, alienated people who the new elites needed to keep in line to avoid labor unrest and to protect production and profits.

Max Weber, an early sociologist who saw culture as a powerful force that shaped both individuals and society, argued that Calvinism grew in a symbiotic relationship with the rise of industrial capitalism.8 As Sara Diamond explains:

Calvinism arose in Europe centuries ago in part as a reaction to Roman Catholicism’s heavy emphasis on priestly authority and on salvation through acts of penance. One of the classic works of sociology, Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, links the rise of Calvinism to the needs of budding capitalists to judge their own economic success as a sign of their preordained salvation. The rising popularity of Calvinism coincided with the consolidation of the capitalist economic system. Calvinists justified their accumulation of wealth, even at the expense of others, on the grounds that they were somehow destined to prosper. It is no surprise that such notions still find resonance within the Christian Right which champions capitalism and all its attendant inequalities.

What Calvinism accomplished was to fulfill the psychic needs of both upwardly mobile middle class entrepreneurs and alienated workers. Middle class businessmen (and they were men) could ascribe their economic success to their spiritual superiority. These businessmen and others who were predestined to be the Elect of God could turn to alienated workers, and explain to them that their impoverished economic condition was the result of a spiritual failure ordained by God. Their place in the spiritual (and economic) system was predestined. This refocused anger away from material demands in the here and now. Because of their evil and weak nature, those that sinned or committed crimes had to be taught how to change their behavior through punishment, shame, and discipline.

In England, the Calvinist Puritans developed an “apocalyptic tradition [that] envisioned the ultimate sacralization of England as God’s chosen nation.”9The word apocalyptic means the idea that there is an approaching confrontation between good and evil that will transform society; and for Christians this involves the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. This Christian Apocalypse involves the Battle of Armageddon where God triumphs over Satan and then decides which Christian souls are saved and rewarded with everlasting life in the new Garden of Eden under God’s holy rule in a new millennium of peace.

Puritan settlers transferred this notion to the New World colonies, and apocalyptic fervor and millennial expectation was common. If you think that time is running out, salvation- the saving of souls- takes on central importance. After the United States was founded, these ideas were transformed into an aggressive variety of evangelizing to save souls for Christ before the final apocalyptic judgment that would send the unsaved to a fiery sulfurous lake called Hell.

Awakening to Evangelicalism

From the 1730s through the 1770s there was a Protestant revival movement in the colonies dubbed the First Great Awakening. A line of Protestant preachers including Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley shaped the theology of the First Great Awakening. Edwards was a fiery preacher who still held to Calvinist orthodoxy: man was born bad, and God had predestined the Elect for Heaven. Alas, poor Edwards, he was a man mostly misunderstood. Those who heard and read his sermons (printing sermons in pamphlet form was a common practice) thought Edwards was saying people could change their fate by becoming more ardent Christians. Sometimes the theological fine points get lost in the oratory.

As the revival swept the colonies, many reported a highly emotional experience of conversion after hearing sermons at large public meetings. Unlike Edwards, Whitefield and other preachers broke with Calvinist orthodoxy and challenged the idea of predestination. They suggested that sinners who embraced Jesus in the conversion experience could find a place in Heaven.

Predestination of the Elect was too elitist and static a brand of Christianity for a new society that claimed to be a classless society and valued individuality and initiative in the quest to conquer the frontier. The ideas of spiritual growth, and equality before God, started a public discussion about the need for the government to provide for public schools. It also planted the seeds for the anti-slavery movement. At the same time, this view could be adapted to tell alienated workers that by accepting Jesus as their savior, they could learn to live with their earthly stress and subjugated status by looking forward to the future day of salvation.

The new evangelists tended to be zealous, judgmental, and authoritarian. Not everyone was happy with the results of the First Great Awakening, and some rejected the trend and remained on the traditional orthodox Calvinist path. Others rejected both and developed what became Unitarianism as a response. By the early 1800s there were three tendencies in colonial Protestantism:

  1. Orthodoxy in the form of northern Calvinist Congregationalists and southern Anglicans;
  2. Revivalist rationalism and evangelism that drew not only from the Congregationalists and Anglicans (later called Episcopalians), but also swept through the smaller Protestant denominations such as the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians;
  3. Unitarianism, still relatively small but influential in the northeast.10

Social Reformers: Quakers and Unitarians

Many ideas on social reform that are now supported by mainline Protestant denominations were initially promoted by religious dissidents such as the Quakers and later the Unitarians.

Quakers had been concerned with prison conditions since the late 1600s in both England and in colonial Pennsylvania, and they introduced the idea of prison as a means for reform rather than punishment.11 They also promoted the “conception of the criminal as at least partially a victim of conditions created by society” which implied that society had some obligation to reforming the criminal.12 In the early 1800s Quaker activist Elizabeth Gurney Fry launched a major prison reform movement in England, and these ideas were carried to the United States.

The Unitarians rejected the Calvinist idea that man was born in sin and argued that sometimes people did bad things because they were trapped in poverty or lacked the education required to move up in society. In the early 1800s the dissident Unitarians split Calvinist Congregationalism and succeeded in taking over many religious institutions in New England such as churches and schools. Harvard (founded as a religious college in 1636 by the Puritans), came under control of the Unitarians in 1805 as the orthodox Calvinist Congregationalists lost religious and political power. The Unitarians took the idea of transforming society and changing personal behavior popularized by the First Great Awakening and shifted it into a plan for weaving a social safety net under the auspices of the secular government.

The attention to social conditions by the Unitarians and Quakers overlapped with the Second Great Awakening, which ran from the 1790s to the 1840s. Theologically, there was “a vigorous emphasis on ‘sanctification,’ often called ‘perfectionism.’13 Sin was seen as tied to selfishness. Good Christians should strive to behave in a way that benefited the public good. This in turn would transform and purify the society as a whole in anticipation of the coming Apocalypse. America was seen as a Christian Nation that would fulfill Biblical prophecy. Evangelical Protestants, explains Martin:

…were so convinced their efforts could ring in the millennium, a literal thousand years of peace and prosperity that would culminate in the glorious second advent of Christ, that they threw themselves into fervent campaigns to eradicate war, drunkenness, slavery, subjugation of women, poverty, prostitution, Sabbath-breaking, dueling, profanity, card-playing, and other impediments to a perfect society.14

Some of the aspects of this evangelical revival were institutionalized into existing Protestant churches such as the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists; and these denominations grew even as they remained separate from the evangelicals. Meanwhile, the Anglicans, Quakers, and Congregationalists who directly opposed the evangelicals began to fade in importance.15 By the late 1800s, most major Protestant denominations (called “Mainline” denominations) had found some accommodation with the discoveries of science and secular civic arrangements such as separation of Church and State favored by Enlightenment values. 16 There was also “a growing interest by churches in social service, often called the Social Gospel, which] undercut evangelicalism’s traditional emphasis on personal salvation.”17

Fundamentals and Prophecies

All of this created a backlash movement. A group of conservative ministers condemned this shift and urged Protestants to return to what they saw as the fundamentals of orthodox Protestant belief. From 1910 to 1915 these reactionary theologians published articles on what they saw as the fundamentals of Christianity. Thus they became known as the fundamentalists. Among their beliefs was the idea that the Bible was never in error and was to be read literally, not as metaphor. While rejecting Calvinist ideas of predestination and the Elect, fundamentalists sought to restore many orthodox Calvinist tenets – and they embraced the idea that man was born in sin and thus needed punishment, shame, and discipline to correct sinful tendencies.

Some who opposed what they saw as the liberal and progressive ideas of the mainstream and mainline Protestant churches decided to not go as far as the Fundamentalists, and they retained the identification of being evangelicals. Evangelicals and fundamentalists received such bad press during and after the Scopes “Monkey Trial” that many of them withdrew from direct political and social involvement, building a separate subculture that lasted until the Cold War. Although fundamentalists and evangelicals tended to withdraw from the political fray, devoting most of their energy to saving souls, they challenged modern ideas using such modern tools as radio and later television to communicate their message. Both groups were largely suspicious of the social reforms implemented during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Government welfare programs could be pictured as similar to the collectivism of Godless and perhaps Satanic Soviet communism.

Most evangelicals and fundamentalists embrace a form of apocalyptic belief called “premillennial dispensationalism” in which Jesus Christ returns to herald a thousand years of godly rule- a millennium. Evangelical premillennialists scan the Bible for “signs of the times” by which they mean signs of what they think are the approaching End Times prophesied in the Bible’s Book of Revelation. This means the Bible has to be read as a literal script of past, present, and future events; and it increases the urge to convert people to a “born again” form of Christianity and thus save souls before time literally runs out.18 These ideas became central to several groups of Protestants, today represented by denominations such as the Southern Baptists and the Assemblies of God.19 Evangelicals and fundamentalist premillennialists concerned with the End Times could frame the burgeoning U.S. government apparatus, the spread of Soviet and Chinese communism, and the United Nations as all part of the End Times Antichrist system.

Evangelist Billy Graham coaxed some evangelicals back into the voting booth starting in the 1950s, but the voting patterns that emerged were not politicized, in that preference for Republicans or Democrats was primarily determined by demographic factors other than religious affiliation. In the 1950s and 1960s conservatives in evangelical and fundamentalist churches and conservatives in mainline Protestant denominations felt themselves under assault by the growth of secular and humanist ideas in the society, a series of judicial decisions; and the social liberation movements. Religious belief in general seemed to be waning. The Supreme Court and other benches issued rulings on pornography, prayer in schools, Christian academies and tax status, and abortion. The country seethed with demand for justice and equity by the Civil Rights movement which spawned the student rights movement, and then the antiwar movement, the women’s rights movement, the ecology movement, and the gay rights movement. Conservative religious forces were involved in campaigns to clean up the movies and stop smut, as well as the 1974 textbook controversies such as in Kanawha County, West Virginia.

A popular theologian named Francis A. Schaeffer caught the attention of many Protestants in series of books and essays calling on Christians to directly confront sinful and decadent secular culture with its humanist values. Several other authors picked up this attack on “secular humanism” and extended it. The most militant trend was called Christian Reconstructionism, which argued that America should be ruled by Biblical law including the death penalty for homosexuals and recalcitrant children. Christian Reconstructionism is based on an End Times theology called postmillennialism in which Jesus Christ returns after (thus “post”) the reign and rule of godly men for a thousand years- a millennium. Christian Reconstructionism inherently promotes Christian political activism, and although they are a relatively tiny movement, their ideas challenged many evangelicals to rethink their stands on theology and politics.

Dominion over the Earth

Premillennialists (as opposed to post) make up the vast majority of evangelicals and fundamentalists in the United States, and many of them believe that while there will be great “tribulations” on Earth during the End Times, faithful Christians will get “raptured” up into a heavenly protective sanctuary before God punishes the faithless and wicked on earth. What motivation is there for Premillennialists, especially those that believe in the Rapture, to become politically active?

One answer came from Francis Schaeffer, who teamed up with a pediatric doctor, C. Everett Koop, to create a film comparing abortion to slavery and the Nazi Holocaust. They urged Protestants to join the anti-abortion movement, which previously had been overwhelmingly Catholic. Another answer came from author Tim LaHaye who had taken the theories of Schaeffer and overlaid them with a conspiracy theory about secular humanism. LaHaye told Premillennialists that they needed to become politically active because there were pre-tribulation tribulations – in other words, true Christians had an obligation to confront sinful society during a crisis of moral values that came before the Rapture.

The result of all this turmoil in evangelical and fundamentalist communities was the development of a tendency called “dominionism” based on the concept that Christians- no matter what their views on the End Times millennialist schedule- need to take dominion over the earth. Dominionism is an umbrella term that covers politically-active Christians from a variety of theological and institutional traditions.

While this was happening, in May of 1979 a group of conservative political activists met with conservative religious leaders to plan a way to mobilize evangelicals into becoming conservative voters for Republican candidates. Attendees included Jerry Falwell, Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich, Howard Phillips, Ed McAteer, and Robert Billings. This is where Jerry Falwell was tasked with creating the Moral Majority organization, which became a key component of the New Right. The Moral majority focused on opposing abortion and pornography. After evangelicals helped elect Ronald Reagan president, he appointed C. Everett Koop to the position of surgeon general of the United States as a payback.

The New Right not only recruited evangelicals and fundamentalists into their coalition, but also sought to strengthen the bridge between traditional moral values Calvinists and the neoliberal laissez-faire “Free Market” advocates in the Republican Party; which included both anti-tax economic conservatives and anti-government libertarians. This was a coalition initially forged by conservatives in the 1950s.20

Many conservative Christians did not necessarily oppose a role for government, or object to government funding, as long as it focused on individual behavior. Thus faith-based initiatives are seen as a proper place for government funding because they shift tax dollars away from social change toward individual change.

The Child, the Family, the Nation, and God

Since the 1980s and the rise of the Christian Right, public policy regarding the treatment of criminals has echoed the patriarchal and punitive child-rearing practices favored by many Protestant fundamentalists. Most readers will recognize the phrase: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” This idea comes from a particular authoritarian version of fundamentalist belief. According to Philip Greven:

“The authoritarian Christian family is dependent on coercion and pain to obtain obedience to authority within and beyond the family, in the church, the community, and the polity. Modern forms of Christian fundamentalism share the same obsessions with obedience to authority characteristic of earlier modes of evangelical Protestantism, and the same authoritarian streak evident among seventeenth- and eighteenthcentury Anglo-American evangelicals is discernible today, for precisely the same reasons: the coercion of children through painful punishments in order to teach obedience to divine and parental authority.”21

The belief in the awful and eternal punishment of a literal Hell justifies the punishment, shame, and discipline of children by parents who want their offspring to escape a far worse fate. This includes physical or “corporal” forms of punishment. “Many advocates of corporal punishment are convinced that such punishment and pain are necessary to prevent the ultimate destruction and damnation of their children’s souls.”22 This is often accompanied by the idea that a firm male hand rightfully dominates the family and the society.23 The system of authoritarian and patriarchal control used in some families is easily transposed into a framework for conservative public policy, especially in the criminal justice system.

Lakoff explains that on a societal level, according to conservative “Strict Father morality, harsh prison terms for criminals and life imprisonment for repeat offenders are the only moral options.” The arguments by conservatives are “moral arguments, not practical arguments. Statistics about which policies do or do not actually reduce crime rates do not count in a morally-based discourse.” These “traditional moral values” conservatives tend not to use explanations based on the concepts of class and social causes, nor do they recommend policy based on those notions.”24 According to Lakoff:

For liberals the essence of America is nurturance, part of which is helping those who need help. People who are “trapped” by social and economic forces need help to “escape.” The metaphorical Nurturant Parent – the government- has a duty to help change the social and economic system that traps people. By this logic, the problem is in the society, not in the people innocently “trapped.” If social and economic forces are responsible, then other social and economic forces must be brought to bear to break the “trap.”

This whole picture is simply inconsistent with Strict Father morality and the conservative worldview it defines. In that worldview, the class hierarchy is simply a ladder, there to be climbed by anybody with the talent and self-discipline to climb it. Whether or not you climb the ladder of wealth and privilege is only a matter of whether you have the moral strength, character, and inherent talent to do so.25

To conservatives, the liberal arguments about class and impoverishment, and institutionalized social forces such as racism and sexism, are irrelevant. They appear to be “excuses for lack of talent, laziness, or some other form of moral weakness.”26 Much of this worldview traces to the lingering backbeat of Calvinist theology that infuses “common sense” for many conservatives.


The conservative Calvinist/Free Market coalition works the front end of the criminal justice system, ensuring harsh sentencing and incarceration. The evangelical/revivalist groups agree with that aspect of Calvinism, but they also work the back end of the system, salvaging the souls of the incarcerated so that whether or not they leave prison, they will be born again as properly behaved citizens heading to Heaven. There are only a relative handful of evangelicals (conservative and progressive) who challenge the system of increasingly harsh sentencing.

Why do so many evangelical Christian Right activists create prison ministries? Because they believe those convicted of crimes can change through the act of confession and redemption- admitting their weaknesses and the nature of their sinful and evil selves, and redeeming themselves by giving their lives over to Jesus Christ. They might still be in prison, but their souls are saved even as their bodies remain behind bars. In their mission to save souls, many Christians, especially evangelicals and the more doctrinaire fundamentalists, seek to improve prison conditions. It is not fair to dismiss this concern as not genuine simply because of their underlying religious desire to save souls.

At the same time, it is important to keep an eye on the baggage that some members of the Christian Right often bring along in the form of authoritarianism, sexism, patriarchy, and homophobia; and their reluctance to see the institutional and systemic roots of social problems.

Prison ministries run by Christians bring all this baggage to their work, but in the course of interacting with real prisoners they cannot help but become concerned about objective prison conditions. This seldom leads them to a systemic or institutional analysis favored by liberals and progressives, but it can mean that on a tactical basis, even leaders of the Christian Right can be temporary allies in formulating and organizing for specific reforms within the prison system or individual prisons.

End Notes

1 Lakoff, George. [1996] 2002. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Chicago: University of Chicago.
2 Schaefer, Axel R. 1999. “Evangelicalism, Social Reform and the US Welfare State, 1970-1996,” pp. 249-273, in David K. Adams and Cornelius A. van Minnem, eds., Religious and Secular Reform in America: Ideas, Beliefs, and Social Change. New York: New York University Press. I have used slightly different language to describe the sectors identified by Schaefer.
3 Berlet, Chip and Matthew N. Lyons. 2000. Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. New York: Guilford.
4 Frank, Thomas. 2004. What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. New York: Metropolitan Books.
5 Hardisty, Jean V. 1999. Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers. Boston: Beacon Press.
6 Lovato, Roberto. 2004. “White Fear in Wartime–Samuel Huntington Brings His ‘Clash of Civilizations’ Home,” Commentary, Pacific News Service, May 17, archived online at
7 Zakai, Avihu. 1992. Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 5.
8 Weber, Max. [1905] 2000. The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings. New York: Penguin Books/Putnam.
9 Zakai, op. cit., p. 7.
10 Unitarianism emerged as a theological tendency before the name itself was formalized.
11 Jorns, Auguste. 1931. The Quakers as Pioneers in Social Work.Trans. Thomas Kite Brown. New York: MacMillan, pp. 162-171. See also, Whitney, Janet. 1936. Elizabeth Fry: Quaker Heroine. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co.
12 Jorns, op. cit., p. 170.
13 Martin, William. 1996. With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. New York: Broadway Books, p. 4.
14 Ibid.
15 Hutson, James. 1998. “Faith of Our Forefathers: Religion and the Founding of the American Republic,” Information Bulletin, The Library of Congress, vol. 57, no. 5, May. Online at loc/lcib/9805/religion.html (November 30, 2004).
16 Ammerman, Nancy T. 1991. “North American Protestant Fundamentalism,” in Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms Observed, The Fundamentalism Project 1, pp. 1-65. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
17 Martin, op. cit., p. 6.
18 Ibid., pp. 7-8.
19 Oldfield, Duane Murray. 1996. The Right and the Righteous: The Christian Right Confronts the Republican Party. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, p. 14.
20 Himmelstein, Jerome L. 1990. To the Right: The Transformation of American Conservatism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
21 Greven, Philip. 1991. Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse. New York: Knopf, p. 198.
22 Ibid., p. 62.
23 Greven, op. cit., p. 199.
24 Lakoff, op. cit., p. 201.
25 Ibid., p. 203.
26 Ibid.