This week, more than 2,200 evangelical pastors pledged their support for the FIRST STEP Act. If passed, that bill will represent the most sweeping reform to our criminal justice system in a generation. Their support should come as no surprise to anyone. Christians have a centuries-old mandate to care for prisoners, to visit them, and to care for their families. It’s as Christian as Christmas and Easter.
What might surprise some, however, is that this issue has united Americans in good faith from across the political spectrum – from Van Jones to Sen. Mike Lee, from Sens. Dick Durbin to Chuck Grassley, from the most progressive Christians I know to the most conservative.
We have a chance in the coming days to demonstrate that in America it is still possible to set aside all those things that divide us, to put aside the political rancor, and instead gather around a table to think of the least of these and decide how to help them now.
What I love the most about the FIRST STEP Act is the diverse group of leaders who helped shape the bill have connections to the criminal justice system, and have therefore advocated for pragmatic, workable solutions that really make a difference in people’s lives. For example, within the act is a mandate to keep federal prisoners closer to their families. Currently, prisoners are often incarcerated far away from home and then they are moved frequently, often far across the country where they have no support system at all.
Another provision increases the amount of time prisoners can talk on the phone to their families. Yet another creates vocational training programs for prisoners and makes it easier for the federal government to partner with private organizations which might statistically outperform government programs. There are many more common sense provisions within this bill that are just as practical, and all are effective at reducing recidivism.
No one would question that we are living in a divided time in America’s history. At times it seems as if our nation is split right down the middle. But, I myself have spent nearly 30 years advocating for civil rights, and I am amazed by the coalition the Trump administration, and Jared Kushner in particular, has gathered around this issue. As a result, America’s next generation of courageous leaders is emerging, charting a new way forward, together. I now have more hope for America by witnessing first hand Democrats and Republicans — political nemeses — stand together for the good of the prisoner who could be given a brighter future if only given a second chance.
Because Republicans and Democrats were at the table from the beginning, because both the police and the prisoners sat together, the bill addresses the concerns of everyone: It is fiscally responsible, it is not weak on crime, but it’s also compassionate.
In a nation whose defining characteristic has been the freedom to fail and then to succeed, a principle inspired by our Judeo-Christian foundations, this bill affirms that every citizen will have access to the American Dream, even if it didn’t go so well the first time around.
I join with thousands of colleagues in the Christian church, who hail from every corner of America — representing at least a third of our nation, and perhaps more — and call upon the Senate to pass this bill as quickly as possible. As the president said yesterday, he will be waiting with his pen.
While I am under no illusions that this legislation will instantly bring our nation back together, perhaps it is aptly named for a time such as this, a positive first step in our national discourse and something we can all be proud of. That alone will be a beautiful day for America.
Paula White-Cain is the senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Orlando, Florida, and an adviser to Safe Streets and Second Chances, an initiative to reduce the high rate of recidivism in America.