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.
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.
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.”
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 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.