Two weeks ago, I went to an awards dinner together with several students. We work on an education project in an Arizona prison. The hotel dining room was filled with hundreds of people, nearly all of whom were religious volunteers engaged in prison ministries. The occasion provided brief entry into another world, one where a uniformed color guard troops the flag, and there is a benediction before dinner. Militaristic nationalism, missionary piety, and disposable plastic plates dripping with beef brisket, gravy and biscuits bind these events together.
“What ministry are you with?” an elderly couple at the table asked as I joined them. “I’m not a minister,” I replied. They were pleasantly surprised and identified themselves as graduates of the university where I teach. That we teach literature and creative writing courses in prisons was a pleasing novelty to them. The husband had been leading bible study groups in prisons for over thirty years. The students and I were the first academic teachers he had encountered in all that time. In his concluding remarks, the prison chaplain commented on changes he had seen over twenty-five years: “Now we even have education volunteers.” Throughout the chaplain’s career, post-secondary education had been reduced to near-vanishing and it was a novelty to see secular academic classes.
This is a world to which the recently deceased Charles Colson contributed greatly, one where true knowledge comes from the bible, the Book of Mormon, and a few other holy texts. The awards dinner featured a solid contingent of Colson’s Prison Fellowship volunteers. Organized religious missions have been coming to prisons since the late eighteenth century, when the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Prisons sent mostly Quaker volunteers to Walnut Street Jail. Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century US prisons were sites of religious predation, primarily led by Christian evangelicals. Limited efforts at educational modernization through secular post-secondary academic programs came to a halt with the 1994 ban on Pell grants for prisoners, legislation that had profoundly counter-productive effects.
Colson’s growing success at prison evangelization programs coincided with the gutting of higher education opportunities in prisons. But despite enjoying a law career based on the advantages of an Ivy League undergraduate education, Colson disliked higher education as a diversion from spiritual pursuits. He had no use for contemporary intellectual debates, dismissing them as “the big lie of post-modernism” that distracted from rock-solid faith in Jesus as savior. In God and Government, Colson attacked the Enlightenment as a source of a mistaken understanding of human nature that led to a disastrous pursuit of social utopianism. He denounced universities as centers of moral relativism unfit to educate students who needed guidance toward moral authority.
Colson’s vision of prison ministries corresponded with what he believed lacking from secular education – a Christ-centered path to improvement of self and society. Although he adopted the language of marginalization and oppression in describing prison inmates, Colson believed that address to the social origins of crime lay in spirituality rather than education that addressed the material world. Nowhere in his extensive writings does Colson engage with Pell grants and the disappearance of higher education from prisons.
The politics that Colson advocated remained as deeply reactionary after his prison sentence as before. Rather, his experience combined with a new Christian evangelism added a coloration of social care that had been absent. His very popular and much-reprinted autobiography, Born Again, is filled with recounted political dialogue in White House offices and details of conversion and Christian fellowship found among Washington insiders. He views himself as an instrument in the Lord’s hands, unconscious before his downfall and conscious afterwards. “What happened in court today,” he said to the press after sentencing, “was the court’s will and the Lord’s will—I have committed my life to Jesus Christ and I can work for Him in prison as well as out.” The state, its institutions, and legal decisions in Colson’s view coincided with and remained subordinate to his own interpretation of Christian redemption.
Born Again contains no condemnation of the lack of fellowship in Nixon’s racist Southern strategy, and has only praise for his president’s decision to bomb North Vietnam and prosecute the US genocide in south-east Asia. Ironically, it was the illegality of Colson’s obstruction of justice concerning a conspiracy against Daniel Ellsberg for his Pentagon Papers revelations about Vietnam that led to a seven-month prison sentence. In Colson’s version of his life story, his mistake lay in the hubris of ignoring God while in the White House. The rest of his life was repentance and corrective spiritual action, which he construed to include anti-Darwinism, opposition to gay and lesbian rights, and an array of reactionary causes.
Another reading of Colson’s life is that he remained a faithful servant of the state, one who successfully advocated spiritual submission for prisoners rather than an education that would enable them to critique society more acutely and pursue intellectual self-reliance. The Prison Fellowship Ministries collaborate with prison administrations to operate a private-public partnership for obscurantism by missionizing a captive population. Such work with a domestic underclass recapitulates historic Euro-american imperialism’s combination of state and religious power to produce passive laboring subjects.
The carceral state values narratives that confess sin, embrace salvational repentance, and advocate compliance with an ordained social order. Such narratives gain official sanction because, as Tanya Erzen argues, “Personal narratives of individual transformation are central to testimonial politics, and they work in conjunction with a neoliberal vision in which social services are privatized rather than funded by the federal government…Testimonial politics support the faith-based policies of economic privatization that place the onus for solving social problems on the individual and on the power of God to transform lives.” Colson modeled the compliant subject, entirely unlike the resistant prison narratives of Jimmy Santiago Baca. For Colson, a prisoner needed to learn social conformity alongside Christian submission. Prison was a place to ask questions only of oneself, not about society. Colson did not challenge the massive growth of US prisons since he served time in the 1970s or the role of the drug wars in fueling that growth.
The entanglement of state and religion that Colson pursued resulted in a 2007 Eighth Circuit decision, Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries, which sustained a lower court decision striking down a state-funded Fellowship-run InnerChange Freedom Initiative re-entry program in Iowa prisons that employed Bible counselors and evangelical Christian programming. Although the Iowa program no longer exists, it still functions in Minnesota and Texas. Colson’s efforts to foster Christian evangelism on taxpayer money, a clear breach of the Establishment Clause, are withering. Where he has succeeded is in bringing volunteers into prisons to do the same work free of charge, where they preach personal faith instead of educate.
There are social costs in ignoring the profoundly life-altering potential of higher education. Colson’s post-Watergate career was dedicated to a blinkered Bible-centered vision of salvation and individual transformation in prisons, a vision that attached no importance to a broad humanities and sciences education. It is a legacy that needs undoing.