Aaron Griffith, God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America, Harvard University Press, Boston, 2020. 335 pp. $35.00. ISBN: 9780674238787.
At the crux of God’s Law and Order, author Aaron Griffith narrates “a massive change in the evangelical approach to the crime issue” (95). Billy Graham looms large in Griffith’s account. While Graham’s early engagement with prisons emphasized individual conversion as the Christian response to crime, the 1960s facilitated a growing enthusiasm for the state’s role in enforcing the law through policing and incarceration. In step with the emerging political stardom of J. Edgar Hoover, Barry Goldwater, and Richard Nixon, Graham and other evangelicals—including the National Association of Evangelicals—played a central role in the origins and expansion of “law and order” politics in the
Griffith is familiar with evangelicalism. Like me, he was an undergraduate at Wheaton (Illinois) College, an evangelical institution where, also like me, in 2005 he attended a student chapel session that was host to Burl Cain, who was then the warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. I remember being drawn to Cain’s folksy storytelling and horrified at his Christian justification for serving as state’s executioner for those condemned to death (to paraphrase: if the state’s going to kill someone, it should be a Christian who does it). I was not then a Mennonite, but I credit Cain for stoking in me an increasing suspicion of Christian-sanctioned state violence that eventually drove me into the open arms of Anabaptism.
Cain frames Griffith’s account of The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America. He represents a contradiction in evangelical concerns about crime and punishment—concern for the victims of law-and-order politics, coupled with overwhelming support for the very system that renders people its victims. In stark terms, “[Cain] was the facilitator of the spread of the gospel even as he presided over the execution process, including the lethal injection of his brethren” (261). Cain aptly shares a name with the biblical Cain, who was also the willing agent of his own brethren’s death. Griffith’s style is understated, and he leaves the obvious question unasked: Can Cain’s “gospel” really be called good news?
The unasked question haunts the pages of this book.
Griffith leaves no doubt about evangelicalism’s troubling role in shaping the United States’s punitive carceral system, even while he works hard to show the complexities of the story. On the one hand, there are people like Consuella York, an African American Baptist laywoman who ministered at Cook County Jail in the 1950s. York represents for Griffith a persistent evangelical impulse toward compassionate prison ministry. Tom Skinner, on the other hand, demonstrates the possibility of an evangelical systemic critique. Skinner, a Black evangelist from Harlem, leveled a prophetic challenge against the racism intrinsic to white evangelical attitudes toward law and order: “The police in the black community become nothing more than the occupational force present . . . for the purpose of maintaining the interests of white society” (146). Skinner preached to a young, mostly white evangelical audience in 1970 in my current hometown of Urbana, Illinois. He publicly challenged Billy Graham for his harmful views on matters of race and the law.
But for Griffith, it is perhaps Chuck Colson who best represents evangelicalism’s capacity to bring together compassionate prison ministry (concern for the individual) and prison reform advocacy (systemic critique) under one tent. Colson, who was incarcerated for his role in the affairs of the Nixon administration, experienced firsthand the dehumanizing effects of a US prison. After his release, he founded Prison Fellowship ministry and organized political power for prison and criminal justice reform, a combination often lacking in evangelical circles.
While Griffith offers these examples to show diversity within evangelicalism’s engagement with the criminal justice system, they also serve as exceptions to the evangelical rule. Indeed, their respective fates illustrate how little room white evangelicalism allows for dissent. According to Griffith’s own narrative, York is a marginal figure to begin with, Skinner was roundly dismissed for challenging white evangelical racism, and Colson eventually made accommodations to align with the power forming around Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Colson’s criminal justice reform agenda—including support for Anabaptist modes of restorative justice—got swallowed up by evangelicals’ comfort “with America’s capacity to mobilize violence” (247) and evangelicals’ waging of cultural wars over things like gender, race, abortion, and the military.
Griffith’s desire to show the complexity of the story sometimes conflicts with a more robust critique of the dominant impulses within white evangelicalism, leaving key questions unasked and unanswered: Why do white evangelicals today overwhelmingly support political movements that promote (carceral) punishment as society’s best response to crime? Why do they presume that our society’s definitions of crime are static and natural, rather than decisions to exercise particular modes of state control? Griffith insists that outcomes like these were “not a foregone conclusion” (95), yet that assessment belies his own data, which shows how critiques and alternative approaches were summarily ignored, rejected, or co-opted by the movement. Reading God’s Law and Order left me asking whether evangelicalism is simply incompatible with a non-punitive (or even modestly less punitive), racially just approach to crime.
Those who follow this trajectory will find significant theological work to do. In the first chapter, for instance, Griffith mentions the history of lynching and its connection to “sacred concepts like sin and atonement” (20) but does not return to it in detail. The question remains: How might evangelicalism’s commitment to penal substitution (not to mention its corresponding conversionist soteriology) undergird a theology of punishment? It’s hard to reconcile Colson’s advocacy for restorative justice with a doctrine of divine redemption that demands the punitive execution of a brown-skinned convicted criminal named Jesus.
A similar question could be asked about white evangelicalism’s relationship to state power. Evangelicals past and present have invoked Romans 13 (“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities . . .”) to justify harsh law enforcement, capital punishment, punitive sentencing, and the now-widespread use of incarceration in response to immigration, among other things. This appeal persistently avoids the reality of criminalization: crime is a fluid concept always being defined and redefined by the “governing authorities.” Given
Griffith’s observations that white evangelicalism predictably sides with definitions of crime that protect white interests and disproportionately harm People of Color, we might conclude with Skinner that white evangelicalism is more concerned with “social control” than “preaching the gospel” (146).
In the end, Griffith paints a challenging portrait of the relationship between white evangelicalism and the state’s mechanisms for punitive justice. With him, I would hope for an evangelical “conversion” on criminal justice, but I’m left with the impression that white evangelicalism has little room for dissenting views on racism or state power, and I’m also left wondering why. Griffith’s work may be best read alongside authors like Anthea Butler or Kelly Brown Douglas,1 whose accounts of white evangelical thought, white supremacy, and justice can help make sense of the present moment.
Michael B. Crosby pastors at First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.
See Anthea Butler, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020); and Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (New York: Orbis, 2015).