Jamie Dew, dean of the college at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, teaches a theology class to inmates at Nash Correctional Institution in Nashville, N.C. RNS photo by Sam Morris
Inside a squat cinderblock building on the grounds of Nash Correctional Institution, 24 inmates are hunched over white plastic tables listening to Professor James Dew explain how God is omnipotent and omniscient.
More than half of the men listening are serving life sentences for murder, armed robbery and other offenses. The rest have at least 12 years left to serve.
But Dew is not preaching to his audience as he paces the room posing questions about whether God can sin (No) or know people’s emotions (there’s disagreement, but most Christians say yes). He is teaching theology to prospective ministers.
The prisoners jotting notes, calling up documents on closed-circuit laptops or asking Dew questions of their own are earning four-year bachelor’s degrees in pastoral ministry from the College at Southeastern, the undergraduate school of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in nearby Wake Forest.
Dew’s class is part of a new niche in prison education: training inmates to become “field ministers” who serve as counselors for other inmates, lead prayers, assist prison chaplains and generally serve as a calming influence in prison yards.
Many of Dew’s students get up at 5 a.m. for devotionals, though it is not required. They attend lectures from 8:15 to 11:15, Monday through Thursday. There’s study hall in the afternoon and group study in the evenings. Each inmate gets a laptop with access to a limited online resource library.
Decades of research show that inmates who get an education have a far lower incidence of repeating criminal behavior, but of the 1.5 million people in U.S. prisons, only a tiny percentage can afford a college degree while behind bars.
Evangelical seminaries, led by Southern Baptist-affiliated schools, are increasingly stepping into the gap, raising money to offer inmates free, on-site college degrees in exchange for their labor once they graduate. Inmates in 15 states can now apply for such programs, and 10 more seminaries have programs in the planning stages, according to the Global Prison Seminaries Foundation, which helps set them up.
The degree awarded is different from state to state. In North Carolina, it’s a Bachelor of Arts in pastoral ministry; in Texas, a Bachelor of Science in biblical studies; and in South Carolina, an Associate of Arts degree.
Inmates at Nash Correctional Institution in Nashville, N.C., are able to pursue a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry. RNS photo by Sam Morris
Game Plan for Life, a foundation started by Hall of Fame NFL coach and NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs, funds North Carolina’s effort, which costs nearly $300,000 a year. The Heart of Texas Foundation funds a similar program in Texas, which this year had a budget of $260,000.
More money goes to build up the educational infrastructure at prisons before classes can begin. Here at the Nash Correctional Institution, Southeastern Seminary received two grants to fund a library, and Game Plan for Life is now planning a $500,000 classroom building on prison grounds.
“We bring the academics, the state brings the legal clearance and helps us navigate the red tape, Game Plan for Life brings the financial component,” said Dew, the dean of Southeastern College and one of the half-dozen professors who spends a morning each week teaching at the prison. “It’s a three-way partnership.”
Since the program started two years ago, hundreds of North Carolina’s 36,635 prison inmates have applied to take the course of study and 53 have been admitted. Applicants must be felons serving minimum 15-year sentences with a high school diploma or GED and a clean disciplinary record for at least a year.
“Before we came here a lot of us were living in despair — no hope,” said James Benoy, who has been taking classes for the past 18 months. “It’s transformed us. We have a purpose, a direction and a mission in life.”
Most of the participants here were reared as Baptists or in various Pentecostal denominations. But by law, the programs must admit inmates of all faiths. At Nash Correctional, there are a few Catholics, a Muslim and one Rastafarian.
Still, the doctrine taught here is consistent with what Southern Baptists believe — that the Bible is divine revelation and inerrant.
That raises questions for some scholars about whether the programs privilege one set of religious beliefs over others. In general, prisons must provide equally for all inmates, regardless of their faith, or lack of it.
An inmate at Nash Correctional Institution works on material for a theology class in Nashville, N.C. RNS photo by Sam Morris
There are other concerns, too. “From my perspective, the larger issue is to what extent American prison systems are outsourcing rehabilitation to religious volunteers,” said Michael Hallett, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of North Florida who has written extensively about seminary prison programs.
Hallett questions just how voluntary these charitably funded programs are, since in most cases there are no secular alternatives.
“If the only game in town is a religious education program that’s going to result in you being in an easier prison while you’re doing life in prison, how authentic is the profession of faith?” he asks.
While inmates at most prisons can take correspondence courses from universities, as well as train to become plumbers, electricians or computer technicians, the cost of a bachelor’s degree makes it unattainable for most. (One exception is New York State’s Bard Prison Initiative.)
In 1994, Congress eliminated Pell grants for people serving in prison. (The Obama administration began a pilot program to resume prisoner access to Pell grants, but it faces an uncertain future.)
When the Pell grants were ended, the warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary feared his famously fractious prison, known as Angola, would erupt in violence. He reached out to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to explore the possibility of offering some kind of education to his charges.
By 1995, the New Orleans seminary began offering a few classes at the prison, which is America’s largest, housing some 6,300 inmates.
Since then, 312 Angola inmates have earned B.A. degrees in Christian ministry, and 80 of them are still working as field ministers in prisons across the state. The New Orleans seminary now runs identical prison programs in Florida, Georgia and Mississippi.
In 2011, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, began offering a Bachelor of Science in biblical studies at Darrington Unit, a maximum security prison 30 miles south of Houston.
Calvin College, Appalachian Bible College, Trinity International University, North Park University and Columbia International University — all evangelical schools — have since started their own prison seminary programs.
For many seminary leaders, teaching prisoners is simply what their Christian faith demands.
“We tell people that as an institution it’s our mission to train people to go into the darkest places in the world and to be the light of Christ,” said Dew. “Most of our faculty see it for what it is — an opportunity to fulfill our mission.”
For prison administrators, the programs are attractive for another reason: They cost the state little or nothing. The prisons are normally responsible only for conducting initial screenings, interviewing applicants and providing transportation to the unit where the learning takes place. For that they get a host of tangible benefits: fewer disciplinary infractions and free labor in grief counseling and conflict resolution from program graduates.
“It changes the culture of the prison from within,” said Burl Cain, a former warden at Angola who now heads the Global Prison Seminaries Foundation. “They calm it down. You get rid of gangs. It really makes a difference.”
On their way out of their Biblical Hebrew class on a recent Thursday, the inmates at Nash Correctional lined up to shake the instructor’s hand, a weekly routine the students initiated.
“It’s making me a better person,” said 41-year-old Marquis McKenzie, who was sentenced to life for first-degree murder. “I think differently now. I read well, speak well, write well and think well.”
Professors said the students’ abilities vary, but they noted the inmates were all hardworking and tenacious.
Indeed, many inmates said they feel they’ve been offered a real opportunity to make something of their lives. And they said they look forward to imparting some of the wisdom they’ve acquired to younger inmates just coming in.
“Being in prison can be so dehumanizing,” said Bryce Williams, 36, who is serving an 18-year sentence for second-degree murder. “You don’t have any autonomy. That’s stripped away. So you start to think: ‘How can I effect change?’ This program has opened up doors. It affords you an opportunity to be human.”
The Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the N.C. state chapter of the NAACP and architect of the protests known as “Moral Monday,” speaks during a Bible study at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. in this June 24, 2015, file photo. Barber, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., and founder of Repairers of the Breach, a leadership development organization, was named one of this year’s MacArthur fellows by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation on Oct. 4, 2018. In 2017, Barber began a series of “Moral Monday” rallies outside the North Carolina state Capitol to protest laws that suppress voter turnout. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
The Rev. William J. Barber II, architect of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina and leader of the resurgent Poor People’s Campaign, has won a MacArthur “genius” award.
Barber, 55, pastor of Goldsboro, N.C.’s Greenleaf Christian Church and former president of the state’s NAACP chapter, has long been viewed as a rising star in progressive activist circles.
At the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, he brought the audience to its feet with a speech that charged Republicans with misusing faith for political purposes and espoused social justice concerns as essential to American democracy.
Earlier this year Barber resurrected the Poor People’s Campaign, first organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. before his death to lift up issues of poverty, racism and voter suppression through a series of rallies and demonstrations. The 40-day campaign culminated with a demonstration on the National Mall in Washington in June.
Barber was unavailable for comment on Thursday (Oct. 4) according to a spokesperson, because he was arrested in Chicago while participating in a “Fight for $15” rally convened by fast food and other workers demanding higher wages and the right to unionize.
“Merging moral and activist traditions, Barber is providing a faith-based framework for action that strengthens civic engagement and inspires the country to imagine a more humane society,” the MacArthur Foundation said of Barber. As one of 25 recipients of the so-called genius award, Barber will receive a grant of $625,000 paid over five years.
The Rev. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, speaks at the event on the National Mall on June 23, 2018. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
Barber is one of 25 MacArthur Fellows announced Thursday (Oct. 4) by the Chicago-based foundation. They include a composer, several artists, a poet, a mathematician, a psychologist, a computer programmer and a community organizer.
It is not the first time the MacArthur Foundation has awarded its prestigious fellowships to a clergy person. The Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, a Roman Catholic priest and now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, won the award in 1984.
In a YouTube video prepared for the official announcement, Barber said: “My drive comes from a number of places. My father early on taught me that the only purpose of life is to make a difference in the lives of others and to stand up for what is right and just and full of love and full of compassion.”
In 2013, Barber began a series of demonstrations called “Moral Mondays” intended to challenge local Republican measures to cut unemployment benefits, health care funding and environmental regulations. Police estimated weekly attendance of more 2,500 on the lawn of the state legislative building. More than 900 demonstrators were arrested when they tried to enter the state Capitol.
The rallies, which became weekly events, were credited with helping defeat then Republican governor, Pat McCrory, and elect Democrat Roy Cooper.
With his bearlike stature and thundery oratory, Barber lent the movement the feel of a church revival. Demonstrations began with prayer, and Barber’s speeches were inflected with biblical references to Pharaoh, Goliath, good and evil.
MacArthur’s webpage said it awards fellowships to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”
A new poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic shows that when it comes to politics, white evangelical Christians stand apart from every other religious group.
The poll found that 61 percent of evangelicals say the United States is headed in the right direction. By comparison, 64 percent of the overall public — including majorities of other Christian groups as well as religiously unaffiliated Americans — believes the country is seriously off track.
“White evangelical Protestants are sitting in their own unique space in the religious landscape on a whole range of issues,” said Robert Jones, the CEO of PRRI.
The survey, conducted in June from among 1,000 people, asked questions about voting and political engagement. But it also broke down respondents’ answers based on religious affiliation: white evangelical, white mainline Protestant, nonwhite Protestant, Catholic and religiously unaffiliated.
It’s no surprise white evangelicals are happy with the country’s overall direction. An overwhelming 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for President Trump and they have generally stuck by him during his first 18 months as president.
Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to fill the seat of retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was widely hailed by evangelicals. And just last week, Robert Jeffress, one of Trump’s informal evangelical advisers and the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, called for an end to Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election.
The PRRI poll showed 77 percent of white evangelicals view Trump favorably or mostly favorably, the highest percentage since the 2016 election. By comparison, 17 percent of non-white Protestants, a group made up of African-Americans and Hispanics, viewed Trump favorably or mostly favorably.
As a group, white evangelicals were also the least likely to view America’s changing racial demographic makeup positively. Fifty-two percent of white evangelicals said they felt negatively about the prospect that nonwhites would become the majority of the population by 2043. That fits with white evangelicals’ approach to immigration, their distrust of Muslims and support for a border wall with Mexico. By comparison, all other religious groups in the survey viewed the changing demographics in mostly positive terms.
Do you think things in this country are generally going in the right direction or do you feel things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track? Graphic courtesy PRRI
“I argued that white evangelical voters have really shifted from being values voters to being what I call ‘nostalgia voters,’” said Jones. “They’re voting to protect a past view of America that they feel is slipping away. That’s driving evangelical politics much more than the old culture-war dynamics.”
Brantley Gasaway, a professor of American religious studies at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., said white evangelicals’ fears about the nation’s growing racial diversity might be linked to their perception of religious diversity.
“They perceive that America becoming less white means America will become less Christian,” he said. “I don’t think that’s true. Many Latino immigrants are coming from predominantly Christian nations. But they perceive changes in racial demographics as being a threat to the predominance of Christians in the United States.”
As a group, white evangelicals are declining. A decade ago they made up 23 percent of the U.S. population; today it’s more like 15 percent, Jones said. But they have an outsize influence at the ballot box because they tend to vote in high numbers.
The one area where religious groups appeared united is in their support for legislation that would make it easier to vote — measures such as same-day voter registration and restoring voting rights for people convicted of felonies.
A majority of all religious groups, with the exception of nonwhite Protestants, saw media bias as a “major problem.” White evangelicals led the pack, with 79 percent saying media bias was a major problem. By contrast, 50 percent of religiously unaffiliated also said it was a major problem.
And while most religious groups said they would prefer that presidential elections be decided by the national popular vote as opposed to the Electoral College, white evangelicals once again stood out: 52 percent said presidential elections should be decided by the Electoral College. (Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote.)
Rob McCoy, a pastor and city councilman in Thousand Oaks, Calif., is active in a group called the American Renewal Project, which encourages clergy to run for office. He said white evangelicals will defend their values.
“They don’t waver from it,” he said. “It may not be popular, but it still is what they hold to. They are who they are.”
The margin of error for the national survey was plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.