Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Re: ‘Bristling with Hostility’

My recent post “What War on Christmas?” brings to mind other discussions that I’ve had regarding religious issues and what I see as severe intellectual dishonesty by those arguing that the Christian religion is unduly disadvantaged in the United States.  One such discussion is an exchange that I had with Phil Dillon on his conservative blog Fires Along the Tallgrass (formerly Another Man’s Meat) back in 2007.

Reprinting a post of his from the previous year, “Bristling with Hostility,” Phil wrote of his dismay that the Chief Judge of the Iowa Circuit Court, Robert Pratt, made a ruling against Prison Fellowship Ministries, a religious group that worked to convert inmates in Iowa prisons to Evangelical Christianity as a means of reforming them from their criminal ways.  Prison Fellowship received public tax moneys to fund their evangelizing.  This government subsidy of sectarian religion was challenged in court by the organization Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (A.U.).  Judge Pratt ruled in A.U.’s favor, saying that Prison Fellowship’s brand of religion was a sectarian one whose evangelizing of inmates ought not to be publicly underwritten.  

Phil blogged about this case in an effort to make Prison Fellowship look persecuted.  For one thing, in describing the case, Phil never once mentioned the inciting issue of Prison Fellowship receiving tax dollars.  Phil made it sound as though what was on trial was Prison Fellowship’s very existence, and that Judge Pratt’s ruling in the case was against the ministry itself, rather than its eligibility to receive tax moneys.  As Phil wrote, mischaracterizing the judge’s ruling: “The net effect of the ruling was to declare Prison Fellowship’s faith[-]based ministry unconstitutional.”  Phil continued:

Judge Pratt’s primary rationale for the ruling was that: 

“The program was ‘pervasively sectarian,’ requiring participants to attend worship services, weekly revivals and religious community meetings. Participating inmates also were ordered to ‘engage in daily religious devotional practice.’ 

Barry Lynn, American’s [sic] United for Separation of Church and State’s executive director, couldn’t contain his joy over the rendered decision: 

“There is no way to interpret this decision as anything but a body blow to so-called faith-based initiatives.” 

The decision, if upheld, will have a major impact, there’s no doubt about it. For example, out [sic] nation’s prison recidivism rate is, according to Prison Fellowship’s president Mark Early, currently running at fifty percent. With 600,000 inmates being released from prison annually, it means that we can count on 300,000 doing something within three years to merit re-incarceration. The recidivism rate among those inmates who have worked their way through Prison Fellowship’s program is, while it’s still functioning, running at eight to eleven percent. The potential of that number is enormous. Think of it. Prison Fellowship’s number, applied to the current release rate, could mean that thousands fewer former prisoners would find their way back into the prison system. It could also mean that thousands and thousands fewer Americans might become victims of crime. 
And this is the kind of decision that Barry Lynn is hailing! Apparently, higher recidivism was a much more favorable outcome in his mind than excoriating a fellow Christian. Its anti-faith bias is much in keeping with the 2000 Santa Fe School Board vs. Doe decision that brought [a] withering dissent from Chief Justice William Rehnquist....

This prompted a series of responses from me.  Below, I have reprinted the entirety of my responses to Phil’s post, occasionally quoting Phil himself.  Because I don’t want to infringe on his copyright, for the complete texts of what Phil has written, please see his original posts.


Phil’s post ... is very disingenuous.  It never once mentions the reason for the trial in the first place: tax funding of a religious organization.  The entire tone of the post gives the impression that a religion itself was on trial.  That is clearly not the case.  The trial was about whether American tax dollars should go to a religious organization that advocates one sectarian view to the exclusion of others.  Judge Pratt wisely answered no.  Phil is spinning this decision into legal and cultural “hostility” toward a religious belief, when it is obviously no such thing.

The issue isn’t which religions are “normative” and which aren’t [as Phil said].  The issue is government funding for sectarian religion — something that the First Amendment prohibits.

Judge Pratt was not characterizing Evangelical Christianity the way he did in order to stigmatize it [which is Phil’s opinion].  He was merely specifying the differences between that version of Christianity and others in order to counter the argument that Prison Fellowship was non-denominational.  Judge Pratt found that Prison Fellowship was indeed denominational and thus ineligible for tax funding.

I am a member of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (A.U.), although I am not writing on behalf of that organization.  As such, I question [Prison Fellowship’s] prison recidivism rates that Phil quotes.  In his book Piety and Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom, A.U. executive director the Rev. Barry Lynn mentions Prison Fellowship:

“In 2003 the group Prison Fellowship, run by ex-Watergate felon Charles Colson, released a study indicating that prison inmates who had gone through his InnerChange program in Texas, which is steeped in fundamentalism, had a lower rate of recidivism, returning to prison less often than members of a control group.

“The media eagerly picked up on the study and reported it as a great success for [President George W. Bush’s] faith-based initiatives. But it wasn’t all that. The study simply did not hold up under scrutiny. Two months after it was released in June of 2003, Mark A.R. Kleiman, University of California-Los Angeles professor of public policy, debunked it. Kleiman noted that Prison Fellowship started out with 177 inmates. Along the way, 102 of them were kicked out of the group or left for various reasons. That left InnerChange with only success stories.

“When Kleiman added all 177 inmates back into the study, he found that InnerChange inmates actually did slightly worse on recidivism than the control group. Observed Kleiman in 
Slate magazine, ‘That result ought to discourage InnerChange’s advocates, but it doesn’t because they have just ignored the failure of the failures and focused on the success of the successes’” (pages 126-27).

Some religious activists have adopted a kind of victim mentality. Religion is alive and well in the United States, but some activists apparently feel that if the government doesn’t specifically endorse their belief system — and only their particular belief system — something is wrong.  So, activists have spun governmental neutrality toward religion into governmental hostility toward religion.  They constantly use the phrase “religion in the public square” when what they really mean is tax money in support of Christian sectarianism.  I’m tired of this intellectual dishonesty.


“IK [sic] understand what the rationale was. I understand the need to ensure that government doesn’t endorse one type of religion over another. My point was that in this case Evangelicals were being singled out, not on the issue of taxes, but based on system of belief.

“In pointing out Justice Rhenquist's opinion in the Santa Fe case I was identifying the same tone of hostility in the case against Prison Fellowship.” —Phil Dillon

And I don’t see the hostility.  To be frank, I think that you are trying to create “hostility” where none exists.  Why don’t you mention the instigating issue of taxes even once during your original post?  After all, it was Prison Fellowship’s eligibility or ineligibility to receive tax dollars — not the ministry itself — that was on trial.  Moreover, the outcome of the trial did not say that Prison Fellowship should be penalized while other religions should be funded.  This is something that your original post doesn’t acknowledge, and to my eyes, not acknowledging such a central subject smacks of willfully ignoring it in order to misrepresent the legal case.

Your original post goes on to say: “The net effect of the ruling was to declare Prison Fellowship’s faith-based ministry unconstitutional.”  This is absolutely untrue.  What was declared unconstitutional was the ministry’s ability to accept tax dollars and continue its sectarian religious practices in the name of public service.  No legal punishment was meted out to the ministry itself.  (And I do not regard the denial of federal funds to a religious institution as punishment.) 

“I’ve done volunteer work in the prison system and every one I’ve been in has chapel programs paid for by the state or federal government. I've seen Muslim gatherings, traditional protestant gatherings, etc.  Do you object to these programs as well?  Are you saying that they should be dismantled and that we have no religious influence in the prison system at all?"  —Phil

No, I am not saying that.  But why can’t those sectarian gatherings be paid for by private funds, not tax dollars?  And I would see nothing wrong with a publicly financed prison accommodating a privately financed religious service. 

Also, I would hope that any prison system would not show preferential treatment to one religion or denomination over another, such as giving an inmate a greater opportunity for parole if he attended one religious gathering but not another.  In his book Piety and Politics, the Rev. Lynn says that the Prison Fellowship program in Texas was riddled with perks for the inmates who took part, perks denied to those inmates who didn’t (p. 128).  The government should not be in the business of funding religious favoritism. 

“Are you assuming that since, as you say, I’m being intellectually dishonest, that my religious belief is also intellectually dishonest and out of the mainstream represented by Americans United?  Would that then mean that I have no public standing?” —Phil

I honestly don’t see your reasoning here.  Anyone has the right to hold any religious belief that they choose — as long as that belief isn’t unreasonably imposed upon others — however “illogical” that belief might be.  However, anytime that anyone makes an argument on issues that involve the secular — such as public tax funding for sectarian religions or the standing of religions in the broader society — the person making the argument has the obligation to represent their case as honestly and completely as they can. 

For example, if you make the argument that America must militarily invade another country because its dictator is going to attack us at any moment using weapons of mass destruction, but you rely solely on dubious intelligence while intentionally disregarding sound evidence that doesn’t support your position, that is not an honest argument. 

You, Phil, do the same thing when you ignore — willfully, it seems to me — the crucial issue of taxes in your original post.  You appear to do this in an attempt to portray Judge Pratt’s decision against Prison Fellowship’s eligibility for tax funding as a decision that somehow penalizes Evangelical Christianity itself, when the decision clearly does no such thing.  So, your characterizations of the decision as “hostile” and “anti-faith” don’t hold up. 

In my opinion, if you want to argue that certain forms of Christianity are disadvantaged in this society, you owe your readers a better argument, one that doesn’t misrepresent Prison Fellowship’s legal case or the judge’s decision.  As it stands, your argument seems intent on portraying Evangelical Christianity as a kind of victim, when, as the Rev. Lynn says, that sect actually enjoyed many privileges under Bush’s “faith-based initiatives.” 

I hope that I haven’t sounded rude or disrespectful in my post. But this issue of intellectual dishonesty can really irritate me.  While there is some of it among liberals, I think that it is especially pervasive in conservative circles, ranging from the need to go to war with Iraq to the firing of eight U.S. attorneys for “performance-related” reasons to many of the arguments made by conservative pundits.  I’d respect their discussions more if they weren’t based on false premises.  But too many of them are.  I’m sick and tired of it.


I believe you and I may be closer in thought than you think.  My primary interest is in getting results…. Where we differ is in how the difference in a life is made." —Phil

The Rev. Lynn articulates the problem that I have with faith-based prison reform better than I could myself:

“We could sum up the conflict between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist views as this: Fundamentalists reject societal causes for people’s ills.  In fact, they often ridicule the very idea.  To fundamentalists, people are poor, addicted to drugs, or homeless because they aren’t in a proper relationship with God.  If they get right with God (by adopting fundamentalist religious beliefs) their problems will be solved.  It’s that simple.

“Thus, any faith-based initiative that leans heavily on fundamentalist Christian providers will end up, by default, including government funding and support of specific religious views.  Fundamentalists do not believe that providing for someone’s physical needs is enough.  There must always be a religious conversion as well or the job remains half done.  The conversion is their end goal.  The providing of a bowl of soup, a bed on a cold night, or a job-counseling program is merely the attractive bait to bring the person to the door.  Once inside, it’s hard-sell evangelism all the way.

“Not surprisingly, I have several problems with this approach.  To begin with, I am appalled by any theology that does not recognize the societal causes of poverty and other ills.  All too often people fall through the social safety net from no fault of their own.  A woman with children who is abandoned by her husband and left destitute has a bigger problem than having chosen to attend the wrong house of worship.  A child who is neglected because his parents are drug addicts is not being punished by God for failing to pray enough.

“Fundamentalists are free to believe such simplistic notions, but I resent having to pay for them” (Piety and Politics, p. 124).

"Beyond the issue of taxes, the tone of Judge Pratt's decision was clear to me.  First, because it showed an alarming misunderstanding of Evangelicals and Pentecostals (myself).  Second, I'm at a loss to think of why he would have made statements that singled out Evangelicals as being anti-sacramental (which is not true), suspicious of other religious institutions, etc, etc."  —Phil

If Judge Pratt showed a misunderstanding, I fail to see how it is an “alarming” one.  I don’t see any judgemental tone in his writing.  You may take issue with his understanding of particular denominational practices, but I don’t see his decision as pronouncing Evangelical Christianity, in your words, “egregiously out of the mainstream of current Christian thought.”  I merely see him dispassionately listing what he determines are the particularities of Evangelical Christian beliefs that separate it from the practices of other denominations.  Judge Pratt simply concluded that by following the particular practices of Evangelical Christianity, Prison Fellowship was a denominational ministry — not a non-denominational one [as Prison Fellowship claimed] — and therefore ineligible for government funding.  Is that so difficult to understand?

I suppose that is our disagreement: You see Judge Pratt’s characterization of Evangelical Christianity as condemnatory, and I don’t.  In fact, I have read and re-read his words, and I am hard-pressed to discern any judgemental language in what you have quoted. 

“Why wasn't it enough for him to say that it was in his opinion sectarian and leave it at that?” —Phil

Because that would have left his decision more easily open to challenge.  Judges need to be thorough.  If Judge Pratt simply asserted that Prison Fellowship was sectarian and left it at that — or offered only a couple of examples — his decision could have more readily been challenged as arbitrary or lacking in specifics.

Maybe you see more similarities between Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism that the judge does, but you have to admit that Evangelical Christians practice their faith differently than most other Christian denominations do. ...

"Judicial opinions are often based on precedents and it seems to me that in this case Judge Pratt was not only ruling on the tax merits, but also paving future ground to disqualify Evangelicals in this country's courts." —Phil

And I just do not see how one follows the other.  I do not see anything in Judge Pratt’s language that portends anything about the legal standing of Evangelicals, other than their standing in regards to tax money.  I don’t see this decision as a precedent concerning religion and other (non-tax) issues. 

"I've been unable to find the 2003 study on Prison Fellowship you cited. Can you get me a link to the source material and Professor Kleiman's analysis? I'd like to read the transcript and then the professor's analysis." —Phil

I’m not sure about the rest, but you can find Professor Kleiman’s Slate article here:


I don’t mean this as a personal attack, but I need to reiterate my concerns about the original post:

First, I think it was very disingenuous to write about Judge Pratt’s Prison Fellowship decision without ever once mentioning the inciting issue of tax money.  It’s like writing a book report about Moby-Dick without ever once mentioning the white whale.  By excluding the motivating issue of tax funding, it was easy to misrepresent the entire Prison Fellowship ministry — the organization itself — as being what was on trial, rather than its eligibility or ineligibility to receive public moneys.

In misrepresenting Prison Fellowship’s court case this way, the original post misleadingly portrayed certain forms of Christianity — if not religion as a whole — as unduly put-upon in this society.  This follows what I see as a certain persecution complex among some religious activists.  They feel, it seems to me, that if the U.S. government (in a massive misreading of the First Amendment) does not recognize their version of Christianity as this country’s official faith — including the ability of that faith to receive tax money — they are being discriminated against.

Where I see governmental neutrality toward religion, they see hostility. I submit that there is no hostility. Religious hostility in America is in the mind’s eye of the religious activist.

*          *          *

In the end, Phil and I couldn’t come to a meeting of the minds: Phil saw Judge Pratt’s ruling as hostile toward Evangelical Christianity itself, while I saw the decision as merely disqualifying one proselytizing sectarian Evangelical Christian organization from public financing.  So, we agreed to drop the issue and move on.  I probably didn’t express myself as temperately as I would have liked — as I acknowledge during my discussion — and I wonder if expressing myself better would have brought Phil and myself closer to a mutual understanding.  Still, the intellectual dishonesty that I see in Phil Dillon claiming “hostility” in this particular legal ruling against a religious organization’s ability to be funded via tax dollars is similar to the intellectual dishonesty of other Christians claiming that there is a “war” on Christmas, when the religious holiday is really only losing a privileged place in society.  But losing a status of favor is not the same thing as persecution.

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