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Saturday, December 9, 2006

Non-Consensual Christianity

posted by on December 9 at 18:22 PM

Today’s New York Times has a really interesting story about a legal debate that’s been building in Iowa for the last year or so: a medium security prison in Newton, IA has a special facility for certain inmates… it’s got private bathrooms, doors with real doorknobs, many more computers and a better visiting area than the rest of the prison. All inmates have to do to live in this special, segregated wing is to be enrolled in a rehabilitation program called “Inner Change”. And what’s Inner Change? An Evangelical course where inmates must accept Jesus as the Savior, participate in revivals, prayer-groups and Bible reading sessions. In June, a federal judge ruled that this program was unconstitutional and would have to be discontinued.

The ruling was based on the grounds that public dollars were funding a religious group, but I think the more important argument to make is that faith-based programs like this (of which there are dozens around the country) violate the freedom of religion of Newton inmates. I volunteered in Newton prison last year as a history teacher. Half my class was Muslim — they wouldn’t have been allowed to enjoy the privileges of the program. The other half of my class just thought the program was for crackpots — they didn’t want to have to follow crazy church rules all day, even if it meant not having access to private bathrooms and nice visiting rooms. In an environment where people are not considered entirely in control of their own actions or choices (all sex in a prison, for example, is classified as nonconsesual), how is it not violating everyone’s freedom of religion by giving them major incentive to be only Christian?

Anyway, this whole ridiculous program stems from the Bush administration’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative, which emphasizes using churches and other religious organizations to fill community service needs that are usually met by the government. So instead of there being a branch of the Iowa justice system that’s responsible for managing a rehabilitation program at Newton, funds are shuffled off onto a private faith-based organization to run the thing. Inner Change was the only rehabilitation program at Newton that has actual funding… Alcoholics Anonymous, English language classes, etc. are all run by volunteers.

What really bugs me is that religious converters get away with it because, after all, it’s for a good cause. The prisoners in the program are becoming more stable people, right? Shouldn’t the most important thing be that they’re efficiently and successfully help people?

In another case early last year, a federal judge struck down a federal grant in 2003 to MentorKids USA, a ministry based in Phoenix, to provide mentors for the children of prisoners. In a case filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., the judge noted that the exclusively Christian mentors had to regularly assess whether the young people in their care seemed “to be progressing in relationship with God.” In a program newsletter offered as evidence, its director said, “Our goal is to see every young adult choose Christ.”… “The court’s decision meant that there were 50 kids we could have served that we were not able to serve.”

That’s such irksome logic because it makes people who criticize Christian-conversion groups look like heartless rationalists — it’s more important whether or not a program violates the Constitution than whether it helps people live better lives. And that’s what happens: when these programs are found in violation of the First Amendment, they shut their doors and the kids, prisoners, kids of prisoners or whoever they’re helping get left in the cold. If they really cared about improving peoples’ lives rather than just pushing their own agenda, they would find some way to keep working legally by adapting their message or requirements. Judges shouldn’t have to choose between enforcing the First Amendment and making sure those in need get equal help and services. That’s the problem with the financial and political push for faith-based programs replacing (or being instated in place of) secular programs: they approach solving society’s probelms with a specific and intrinsically exclusionary agenda.

I’m just afraid that when the Newton prison program gets shut down, that facility will go unused. I can totally see the private toilets and nice visiting rooms being vacant for a long time — maybe the prison will even scrap the idea of an honor-wing altogether and say, “Sorry, boys, it’s the court’s fault.”

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Yes, the problem has to be framed as religious organizations refusing to help needy people because they don't like our laws. It's the religious groups who are uncharitable due to their inflexibility, not the taxpayer who was kind enough to foot the bill.

It's much easier for a church group shut up about Jesus while working on the taxpayer's dime than it is for the voters to repeal the First Amendment to accomodate rigid Christian volunteers.

Posted by elenchos | December 9, 2006 7:02 PM

Wow. I had no idea something this extreme was going on. Shocking.

Posted by A in NC | December 9, 2006 7:03 PM

I like the special privliges for trying to improve oneself. I hate that it's because of Christianity (and I am - nominally at least, and for want of a better term - a Christian, because I really like the teachings of Jesus, real or not, divine or not.)

Why can't they get the special privliges if they are maintaining a certain GPA towards a GED or college degree? My Iowa high school had a similar policy towards honor students and use of the student lounge.

Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay | December 9, 2006 9:58 PM

Nice post, Sarah.
Just to clarify, once these programs are struck down by a judge, are the religious organizations really given the right to overhaul the programs and keep them going? You suggest that that's what they should do, but I wonder if these rulings shut the programs down completely. It would be a real shame if those facilities at Newton went unused.

Posted by Rottin' in Denmark | December 10, 2006 2:38 AM

This is a very good post,
I agree that there is a fundamental flaw in assuming that someone who has accepted Jesus into their hearts has actually improved as a person. It seems to me that these programs are rewarding prisoners not for being prepared to re-enter society but rather for the ability to speak in tongues (the mark of a stable citizen!) But I guess the goal of American prisons isn’t to rehabilitate anyway.

Posted by Talal | December 10, 2006 4:50 AM

Maybe the State should just fully fund secular rehabilitation programs and not leave it up to religious nut jobs. If religious groups want to go into prisons thats fine, as long as it open to all groups and no coercion is used.

Posted by Giffy | December 10, 2006 7:07 AM

Alex:(as he sets down to read a Bible in the libray)
It had not been edifying indeed. Not being in this hell hole and human zoo for two years now, being kicked and tolchoked by brutal warders and meeting leering criminals and perverts ready to dribble all over a lucious young malchick like your storyteller. It was my rabbit to help the prison Charlie with the Sunday service. He was a bolshy great bastard, but he was very fond of myself. Me being very young and now interested in the big book.
I read all about the scourging and the crowning with thorns and I could viddy myself helping in and even taking charge of the tolchoking and the nailing in. Being dressed in the height of Roman fashion.
I didn't so much like the latter part of the book which is like all preachy talking than fighting and the old in-out.
I like the parts where these old yahooties tolchok each other and then drink their Hebrew vino and getting on to the bed with their wife's handmaidens. That kept me going.

Kubriks 'Clockwork Orange'

Posted by sputnik | December 10, 2006 7:40 AM

If these religious groups were really concerned for the prison population, then after the court strikes them down, they would seek a source of funding to continue their operations. They would become a volunteer effort coupled with some sort of funded element if necessary. They didn't need a federal grant to start prison ministries. They just wanted to grab some money and entrap people into following their idea of the word of God. How very unchristian of them.

Posted by B.D. | December 10, 2006 7:42 AM

I can't imagine the court ruling in any other way than to strike down state funding of these types of programs.

Less clear: there are a number of Christian programs that are NOT funded by the state. They are funded by various Christian organizations and/or run by volunteers. No state funding involved. Prisoners are highly incentivized to participate. Not only do they get added privileges, sometimes they get reduced sentences. Pledge yourself to Jezuz = get out of jail sooner.

So, if the state isn't paying for it, if there is no cost to taxpayers, does that make it okay?

I would still argue that it violates the Constitution, even if the state doesn't pay for it. By offering better living conditions and reduced sentences, the state is, in effect, sponsoring religion, regardless of whether the program is funded by tax dollars or not.

Posted by SDA in SEA | December 10, 2006 8:40 AM

Fine my boy. Absolutely fine.
You see ladies and gentlemen, our subject is impelled toward the good by paradoxically being impelled toward evil. The intention to act violently is accompanied by strong feeling of physical distress. To counter these the subject has to switch to a diametrically opposed attitude. Any questions?

Choice. The boy has no choice has he? Self interest. The fear of physical pain drove him to that grotesque act of self abasement. It's insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be wrongdoer. He ceases also of being a creature capable of moral choice.

Padre, these are subtleties. Were not concerned with motives. With the higher ethics. We are concerned only with cutting down crime, and relieving the ghastly congestion in our prisons. He will be your true Christian, ready to turn the other cheek. Ready to be crucified, rather than crucify. Sick to the very heart of the thought of even killing a fly.
Reclamation. Joy before the angels of God. The point is that it works.

And the very next day, your friend and humble narrator was a free man

Posted by sputnik | December 10, 2006 9:19 AM

So, these organizations are basically teaching prisoners how to be better liars. Become a good enough liar to convince us that you've accepted Jesus and we'll give you better living conditions and recommendations for parole.

Posted by keshmeshi | December 10, 2006 11:31 AM


Posted by sputnik | December 10, 2006 1:16 PM

I agree, programs like these blemish the Republican party in an obnoxious way.

Posted by Proud Gay Republican | December 10, 2006 4:48 PM

There isn't enough clearasil in the world to clear up the "blemishes" of the Republican party.

Posted by | December 12, 2006 12:58 AM

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