By: Ian DeJong | October 27, 2021
Every year since 2015, Redeemer’s Centre for Christian Scholarship hands out an award called the Emerging Public Intellectual Award. The award is offered to a Christian scholar who is in the early stage of their academic career and demonstrates profound thinking in important areas of study. This year, the recipient is Aaron Griffith, who was awarded for his 2020 book God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America. Griffith is an assistant professor of modern American history at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. His key interests include religious and political history in the United States as well as Christianity in the global south. God’s Law and Order, however, has a particular focus on American evangelicalism and its impact on the criminal justice system in the 20th century.
In his book, Griffith argues that the evangelical movement was influential in the imprisonment of low-income individuals and racial minorities. But, more importantly, he addresses an intriguing paradox within American evangelicalism: Why is it that evangelical Christians are deeply concerned with the salvation of individuals and, at the same time, usher in a harsh and corrective form of politics? Why is evangelical Christianity marked by restorative justice for the individual, but not restorative justice for criminals? Griffith uses mass incarceration as a case study, and his answer is that American evangelicals have always neglected the development of social ethics and systematic thinking. In other words, evangelicals of the twentieth century never critically assessed their justice system.
In each chapter, Griffith outlines a particular stage in the twentieth century, where in each one, American evangelicals pursued criminal justice with a different objective and focus. First, at the beginning of the twentieth century, crime was increasingly perceived as a religious issue, since defying any law was defying God’s law. Second, from the ’40s until the ’50s, mainstream American evangelicals tried to convert criminals, specifically juvenile delinquents, through ministry in opposition to punitive approaches. Evangelicals were able to influence the broader culture since their message was carried out through magazines and films. Third, in the existentially defined Cold War era, evangelicals became more inclined to implement corrective methods of justice. During the time of the civil rights movement, they particularly focused on how the breakdown of families and secular influences were the root cause of violent black riots. Fourth, American evangelicals urged politicians to carry out a law-and-order justice system for gang members and drug users, paving the way for mass incarceration. Fifth, beginning in the 1980s, there was significant growth in both prisons and prison ministry, which Griffith deemed a compassionate, conservative movement. These stages may be distinguished from each other, but there is an underlying theme of racial prejudice in each historical phase.
There are a few key elements that help Griffith to be effective in proving his thesis. First, Griffith’s description of each era is elaborate and detailed. He appropriately references the various texts, sermons, and speeches delivered by religious figures in each era and outlines the rationale behind their politics and the exchange of ideas on the topic of criminal justice. Having those references is crucial for backing up his thesis. As well, it is clear that Griffith has a deep passion for justice, as he includes the sermons and ideas formulated by black Christians in twentieth-century history in response to their white evangelical challengers. This demonstrates Griffith’s desire to uphold people of colour and value their voices by reviving their overlooked history. Finally, Griffith approaches the subject of evangelical Christianity with fair criticism. On the one hand, Griffith does suggest that evangelicals were unjustified to make harsh punishments against criminals, but on the other hand, he also emphasizes that there were evangelicals along the way who were genuinely seeking justice for those who did not have Christ in their life. This is particularly clear in the second phase of evangelical history, where evangelicals emphasize spiritual conversion in their approach to criminal justice. Part of Griffith’s fair criticism involves recognizing that ignorance towards people of colour is not solely a conservative problem but a progressive problem as well.
From a Canadian perspective, we can also acknowledge the impact of evangelicalism on Canada’s justice system. Historical accounts of Canada’s oppression towards Indigenous communities are often overlooked. Recently, we are becoming increasingly aware of these stories, but more needs to be done in identifying systemic oppression as a Canadian problem as well and in uncovering how much of the injustice can be attributed to evangelicalism.
In January of 2021, Redeemer hosted a virtual conference titled “Reading While Black and Reformed,” where Dr. Jessica Joustra, Dr. Esau McCaulley, and Dr. Vince Bacote discussed McCaulley’s book in more depth. Redeemer students and staff were exposed to a new way of thinking about Biblical interpretation from the African-American perspective. McCaulley alluded to how Jesus assumed the existence of systemic oppression in Israel at the time, given his statement that the Roman judicial system would not be able to defend the widow. Thus, in our contemporary age, it is not merely a progressive stance to infer that this world suffers from a condition of systemic racism. It is insight like this and the informative, edifying pages of Reading While Black that prompted the Redeemer Centre for Christian Scholarship to award McCaulley with the 2020 Emerging Public Intellectual Award.
God’s Law and Order is another valuable contribution to the Christian community’s grand dialogue of racial justice, as evangelicalism is indeed an underlying force in Western politics even up to today. Most appropriately and well-deserved, Aaron Griffith won this year’s Emerging Public Intellectual Award. This is fitting because McCaulley’s book demonstrates how racial justice is overlooked in the Christian theological tradition. Likewise, Griffith’s book demonstrates how the absence of this racial justice has negatively affected the formation of Christian missions and American politics. Therefore, God’s Law and Order serves as a great extension to Reading While Black.
Griffith’s critique of evangelicals is consistent with the Reformed worldview at Redeemer University. One key theologian who we admire greatly at Redeemer is Abraham Kuyper, who puts forward what is called the architectonic critique. This form of analysis seeks to understand institutions by inspecting their fundamental roots. It is to ask: why is this particular system corrupt? Have they made an idol out of a particular ideal? A good analogy to complement this approach is the “one bad apple can spoil the barrel” metaphor, which says that criminal justice reform is not merely a matter of throwing out all the bad apples. Rather, the Kuyperian critique examines why the barrel is making those apples turn rotten in the first place. In the case of evangelicalism, too many evangelicals have made an idol out of law-and-order politics.
As acknowledged in his book, Griffith states that evangelicals have left a massive gap in their social ethics—solutions for the common good of the people. Using Kuyperian critique as one example, it is fair to say that Redeemer is able to fill this gap since we have much to offer in the realm of social ethics. It is Griffith’s hope that university students and active Christians in the public square will observe this history, discern the idols in our political society, and bolster their endeavour to bring justice to the marginalized.