Dazzling Knowledge

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Religious Right creates unexpected new coalitions

The New York times has a fascinating article about how the religious right has influenced crime and prison policies in ways that defy old-fashioned views of the conservative/liberal divide. It's long, and I excerpt at length:

Not too long ago, you could tell whether an election was under way by watching prime-time television and counting the number of ominous recitatives about prisoners and ex-prisoners in the commercials. This fall, however, the seven million Americans who are in the custody of the state — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — did not loom large on nightly TV; in fact, as has been the case for nearly a decade, they barely received any notice at all. Prisoners are no longer the charged political symbols and campaign-season scapegoats they once were.

Prison reform is not a highly advertised position of the Republican Party either, but a growing number of social conservatives are trying to make it a centerpiece of the Christian-conservative agenda. The most striking aspect of the Second Chance Act may be the cross-section of Republicans, from every wing of the party, who support it. Senator Arlen Specter, the top-ranked contender for the award of Least Favorite Republican among movement conservatives, is a lead sponsor, as is Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, who may be Christian conservatives’ top choice for the 2008 presidential nomination. Among the House sponsors of the bill are Mike Pence, an Indiana congressman who is a leader of the conservative caucus in the House and a darling of Washington’s conservative press corps, and Dan Lungren, a California representative and former California attorney general who helped write California’s three-strikes law (which he still supports). “For liberals in criminal justice, he’s like the devil, almost,” says a key liberal lobbyist for the bill, Gene Guerrero of George Soros’s Open Society Policy Center.

If safer streets had something to do with the change in public attitudes, so did another development: the changing place of crime in the national debate over moral values. Over the past decade, as the political scientists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck have suggested, the culture war of the 1970s and 1980s that revolved around race has been replaced by one that revolves around religion. A side effect has been a radically different crime debate. If the Second Chance Act fails to pass, it will not be because the two parties cannot agree on the importance of rehabilitation programs in prisons. But it may be because they disagree on the role religious organizations should play in rehabilitation.

Like many Republicans and Christian activists, Earley’s prison-house conversion dates from an encounter with Chuck Colson, the Watergate crook turned Christian evangelist. When Earley lost the Virginia governor’s race in 2001 to Mark Warner, Colson asked Earley to take over Prison Fellowship, the ministry that Colson founded in the mid-1970s. Earley declined on the assumption that devoting himself to prisoners was tantamount to throwing his life “down a dark hole.” Over the next few months, Earley read his Bible and was struck by the number of criminals who play starring roles: Moses, for example, murdered a man and became a fugitive. Paul presided over the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Earley came to a realization: “If Moses or Paul had lived in Virginia or any state in the United States today, they would be serving, had they been caught, a multiple-decade prison sentence.” He took the job.

When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he did not dismantle the Clinton-era re-entry programs; rather, he adapted them to fit his faith-based agenda. Despite his strong support for capital punishment, President Bush may be the most pro-prisoner president in American history — at least if you disregard the war on terror (an admittedly enormous caveat). Certainly in terms of rhetoric, Bush has done more to advance the interests of prisoners than either Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. The Second Chance Act takes its name from the 2004 State of the Union address in which Bush asked Congress to pass a $300 million program to help prisoners as they re-enter society: “In the past, we’ve worked together to bring mentors to children of prisoners, and provide treatment for the addicted, and help for the homeless. Tonight I ask you to consider another group of Americans in need of help. This year, some 600,000 inmates will be released from prison back into society. We know from long experience that if they can’t find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit crime and return to prison. So tonight, I propose a four-year, $300 million prisoner re-entry initiative to expand job-training and placement services, to provide transitional housing, and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups. America is the land of second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.”

There are few, if any, senators more closely identified with the Christian conservative movement than Sam Brownback. Like a growing number of conservatives, Brownback is a political proponent of the so-called new-evangelical causes, which range from AIDS in Africa and slavery in Sudan to poverty and the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a bill that helped build the coalition of Democrats and Republicans in the re-entry movement. Even when he disagrees with his fellow religious conservatives, he gives faith-based reasons for doing so. A convert to Catholicism, he has said his religion informs his support for a less punitive approach to immigration reform. In February, he held a hearing intended to foster debate on whether the death penalty can be reconciled with Pope John Paul II’s call to create “a culture of life.”


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