[Read: Mitch McConnell appears to be killing bipartisan sentencing reform.]
From time to time, the president invites a close group of influential Christian leaders to dine with him in the White House. These gatherings mostly offer a chance for selfies and mutual adoration. But they also give pastors the chance to float ideas past the president. The beginnings of the FIRST STEP Act came about during a conversation at one such dinner, according to Religion News Service. Jentezen Franklin, a Georgia megachurch pastor, told me that Trump’s advisers started talking to him about this issue before he was even elected.
A bill incorporating some of these ideas was introduced in May 2018. But even with resoundingly positive support in the House—it passed by a vote of 360–59—it lost momentum in the Senate, and appeared to be dead. Major Republican losses in the November election made the prospect of passage seem even dimmer in the next Congress.
So prominent evangelical leaders began agitating for the bill to get a second life. Franklin told me he recently held a call with pastors in Kentucky, asking them to reach out to McConnell about the importance of this bill. Ralph Reed, a Christian political operative, tweeted his support for the legislation, winning a “second” from Jack Graham, an influential conservative megachurch pastor in Texas. The president shared an op-ed praising the bill from Paula White, a Florida megachurch pastor, on Facebook. “We can’t forget the debt that offenders owe society,” she wrote, “but, with Christian love in our hearts, we can provide the tools they need to work towards their own redemption.”
At least on the surface, it’s not intuitive that conservative evangelicals would be champions of criminal-justice reform. But the evangelical movement has a long history with prison reform, said Aaron Griffith, a postdoctoral research associate at Washington University in St. Louis. In the late-18th and early-19th centuries, evangelical reformers agitated for more humane criminal punishments and helped construct penitentiaries in places such as New York and Pennsylvania. In the 20th century, prison ministries became a popular method of evangelization.
[Read: How Trump is remaking evangelicalism]
During the peak years of the religious right, the face of this kind of outreach was Chuck Colson, a former Nixon-administration official who went to prison in association with the Watergate scandal. After a dramatic conversion to Christianity, Colson created the Prison Fellowship, an influential ministry for prisoners and their families that advocates for criminal-justice reform.
Colson made “criminal-justice issues safe for evangelical conservatives,” Griffith said. He readily admitted the flaws in the Nixon-era appeals to law and order, which laid a foundation for the mass incarceration of low-level drug offenders. But he made this critique in conservative terms. “He’s talking about prisons and the … carceral state as a problem with big government,” Griffith said. “He’s saying there is no bigger government entity than this complex, bureaucratic mess.”