Long-stalled legislation on sentencing reform may squeeze through Congress in the last few weeks of this session. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced on Tuesday that the Senate will take up the FIRST STEP Act, which would create some flexibility around sentencing and release for certain inmates held in federal prisons. President Donald Trump has been a major backer of the bill—“Go for it Mitch!” he tweeted on Friday. Successful legislation would be a major bipartisan victory for the White House.
Along the way, one group in particular has been pushing for passage of these reforms: Trump’s circle of evangelical advisers, who helped inspire the bill. White, conservative Christian leaders are now in a position to help deliver a bipartisan compromise that could soften thousands of people’s sentences, largely those for drug-related offenses. Their African American and liberal counterparts, meanwhile, have felt conflicted about collaborating with the administration, even on a topic they care about deeply.
This wonkish sentencing-reform legislation has become a case study in the tensions among Christians in the Trump era. While religious leaders on both sides of the political spectrum care about this issue, they fundamentally disagree on whether to boycott or cooperate with this administration, and whether incremental victories on racialized issues will actually further the mission of the Church in the long term.
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.
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.”
Conservative religious leaders like Colson saw prisoners as a natural audience for outreach ministries “because prisons are theoretically supposed to be spaces of personal transformation,” Griffith said. An opportunity to help people remake their life fits neatly into the idiom of evangelicalism, which is focused on personal salvation. This logic has been clear in evangelical leaders’ recent calls for Congress to act on the FIRST STEP Act: Reed called it “a first step to a redemptive justice system.”
Other Christian clergy have been wary of Trump’s push for reform, however. They are skeptical that working with the president on anything, even an issue they care about, will be helpful to the people they serve. In August, Trump hosted a meeting of “inner-city pastors”—mostly black leaders from charismatic or Pentecostal-leaning churches—to talk about criminal-justice issues. “I went because I believe I was sent,” said John Gray, a South Carolina pastor, on CNN. “Alignment, or even speaking, does not mean agreement. Dialogue does not mean agreement. Sitting at the table does not mean agreement.”
Many prominent black clergy disagreed. The meeting prompted an immediate backlash, including a letter of condemnation signed by a range of denominational leaders. “It was unsettling and upsetting to witness the meeting with you, our moral leaders, and one of the most amoral persons to ever occupy the White House in the name of discussing prison reform,” they wrote.
One of the signatories of that letter, Traci Blackmon, an executive minister for the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the pastor of a UCC church near Ferguson, Missouri, said she is still skeptical about what the Trump administration and congressional Republicans are trying to accomplish with this bill. “This is coming without any analysis, any confession, any acknowledgment of how we got where we are right now,” she said. “The reason that we have such large numbers of … caged people is not rooted in crime. It’s rooted in hate.”
This seems to be the greatest source of progressive clergy’s skepticism about the proposed reforms: They don’t believe the president is committed to fighting the deeper structural problems that have led the United States to have the highest incarceration rate in the world, including racist policing and rhetoric that demonizes black men.
“I would say that you have to be extremely cautious [of] the way that an administration that is actively driven by white nationalism is using [this] issue,” said Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a North Carolina evangelical pastor who works with the Reverend William Barber on the Poor People’s Campaign. “I don’t think it can be a kind of photo op that people show up for, and celebrate, in a way that doesn’t address the much broader issues that aren’t included in an act like that.”
The bill is limited in what it aims to accomplish. It only applies to the federal prison system, which accounts for less than 10 percent of incarcerated people in the United States. Among that population, only a fraction would be affected by this legislation: It offers relief to people convicted of harsh crack-related sentences prior to 2010, curbs certain mandatory minimum sentences, and offers expanded early-release opportunities for good behavior. The bill also formalizes a Bureau of Prisons policy that all but bans the use of restraints on pregnant women.
The legislation has united some religious figures who have been critical of the president. Russell Moore, the head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, has advocated the bill’s passage for months, and the progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis has written of his support. Despite his objections to the president, even Wilson-Hartgrove said he would be glad to see the bill passed.
But Blackmon said she does not support even this incremental legislation. Ultimately, she said, it matters that the mostly white, conservative Christian figures who have pushed for it are not embedded in the communities most affected by America’s criminal-justice system. Even the handful of black leaders involved are not credible, she said: “Don’t buy in to the illusion that because someone with black skin is in the room, the needs of the black community are in the room.”
If the FIRST STEP Act makes it through the Senate—which is definitely not guaranteed amid a packed end-of-year docket—it will ratify the influence of Trump’s evangelical leaders. Their victory would also ratify the bet they have made: It’s worth it to take meetings with the president and support his policies, they argue. Their power and influence can produce real change.
In a different political era, this effort might have also signaled the rise of a new kind of evangelical political coalition, one that’s not exclusively focused on culture-war issues and that expends political capital in contentious policy areas such as criminal-justice reform. “So many times, evangelicals are known for what they’re against. They’re against abortion; they’re against gay marriage,” Franklin said. “We also are just as much for justice.”
But under Trump, even bipartisan consensus is fraught with division, and this is especially true within American Christianity. Where some clergy see an opportunity to work with the president to produce good, others feel morally bound to stay away.