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Prison Religion

June 27, 2010

I recently finished Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s Prison Religion. This book relays some extremely fascinating information about a lawsuit against an evangelical Christian group who ran a “Bible-based” and “Christ-centered” prison program using taxpayer’s dollars. As you can imagine, the suit alleged that this violated the establishment clause of the first ammendment.

Oddly, the defendants adamantly insisted, with an incredible bit of double-speak, that their Bible-based and Christ-centered program was completely neutral between all religions, and couldn’t understand why Jews and Muslims might have felt excluded. Their argument was complicated (and highly problematic), but part of it suggested that Christian values were universal values, so that teaching Christian values is just teaching values. Since Christian values are universal, there is nothing “particular” to Christianity that they were teaching (or so they seemed to think).

Also, the evangelical Christian group seemed to make an argument along these lines (here I’m teasing out what remained implicit in Sullivan’s analysis): since “religion” is technically a connection between a human and God, which is neither capable of being forced or interfered with—since it was merely a freely-willed private choice made by individuals in relationship to their maker—then there was no way they were forcing religion on the inmates in the program. Of course, given this understanding of “religion,” the first amendment is rendered nonsensical. On this use of the word “religion,” it cannot in principle be interfered with, established, prohibited, etc., in which case the first amendment is prohibiting something that is intrinsically impossible. They seemed not to notice the serious problems with this argument.

Overall, Sullivan seems to want to argue that the model of “religion” on which the first amendment was based was one of religious authority—the first amendment wanted to prohibit the state from forming a state religious authority or from interfering with other authorities. But if “religion” is coming to be understood as a personal, technology of the self sort of thing (think Foucault here), the first amendment is sort of vestigial—it reflects an earlier era and is no longer useful like it might once have been. What can it mean to separate “religion” from the “state” if “religion” is not “church authority” but is instead a technology of the self?

I didn’t enjoy this one as much as her last (The Impossibility of Religious Freedom). I find that Sullivan’s argument is often unfocused and unclear. When I got to the end I had to look at the jacket to see what it was I was supposed to “get” from the book. I see the point of her main argument, but I’m not entirely persuaded that the framework for analysis she uses is the most useful one that could be utilized here.

Also, this one openly suggested at one point that “religion” was a universal feature of human existence. That claim seems completely at odds with her mode of argument in this book and the last, where she generally shies away from making claims about “religion” itself and instead focuses on how it is variably (and rhetorically) defined in legal arguments. Looking at how people make “religion” claims to advance social agendas is not easily mixed with ontological claims about religion itself—and certainly not without a great deal of clarity about second order uses of terms!

In addition, this one seemed a lot more “mainstream” and a lot less critical, which disappointed me a lot. Despite her implicit critique of liberal universalism, she seems to have a liberal universalist agenda driving her quasi-normative claims at some points.

Overall I recommend the book, if only for the fact that the details of the case, which Sullivan thoroughly covers, are immensely interesting.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 27, 2010 4:55 pm

    That’s a common argument in Evangelical Christianity. Religion sucks. A personal relationship with God, on the other hand…

    I can see the importance of such an argument, however, for potentially perhaps resolving the dispute between ‘Religion’ and ‘spirituality’, since what they seem to be arguing is along these lines. Were it not for the Church of Scientology and the breakfast cereal manufacturer owned by the Seventh Day Adventist Church arguing tax exemption before the High Court of Australia, teaching religion in AU universities would be that little bit more complicated.

    Also, Ms Marx, you do the book one big ass disservice in failing to point out its strongest selling point. If you melt down the glue in the binding, pull out the pages and roll them together really tightly, bind it all together with that glue, and sharpen the end point on the rough concrete floor of your cell… that motherfucker from H-Block is gonna get giant fucking big surprise next time he tries to steal my dessert in the mess hall.

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