How a Baptist preacher learned about mass incarceration.

These days, everybody seems to agree that mass incarceration–the policy of fighting crime by locking up as many people as possible for as long as possible–was a really bad idea.   Charles and David Koch, Ted Cruz, and a steadily lengthening queue of criminologists and police chiefs have come out in favor of decreasing the American prison population.

It hasn’t always been this way.  In fact, when Friends of Justice formed fifteen years ago, most opinion leaders in America saw incarceration as the solution, not the problem.  Our work in places like Tulia, Texas and Jena, Louisiana helped change that perception.

But it will take more than a shift in the zeitgeist to significantly lower the prison population.  The following address concluded the “Ties That Blind: Race and the Criminal Justice System” conference at the United Theological Seminary in Minneapolis on October 16, 2015.   The little town of Tulia, Texas, I suggest, shows why mass incarceration looked like such a good idea at the time and why it will take a spiritual reformation to find a better solution.

By Alan Bean

Tulia bustThe Tulia drug bust of 1999 was my introduction to mass incarceration.

In the early morning hours of July 23, 1999, officers from across the Texas panhandle converged on the south side of this community of 5,000.  Before they were finished, 47 people were stuffed into the tiny holding cells in the Swisher County Jail.  All but six of them were black, and those who weren’t had close ties with the black community.

Tom Coleman, a gypsy cop whose father was a legendary Texas Ranger, was responsible for buying 132 little baggies of white powder from these 47 defendants.  Nothing connected the little baggies to the defendants save Coleman’s uncorroborated word.  He had no second witness testimony, no audio or video evidence, no fingerprints and no guns, drugs or large amounts of cash were found in the course of the drug sweep.

You either believed Coleman was telling the truth or you didn’t.

I didn’t. (more…)

“Nut Country”: How Dallas silenced Jesus and became the most Christian city in America

By Alan Bean

nut countryWhen evangelist Chuck Templeton visited Dallas in the late 1950s he was deeply disturbed by the city’s extraordinary religious culture.  As he stood chatting with the pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church, a grinning congregant approached with an envelope in his hand.  “That’s for $100,000,” the man announced proudly.  “I just finished an oil deal worth a cool million and that’s my tithe.”

Moments later, the pastor drove Templeton to the most exclusive tailor in Dallas to have him fitted for three expensive suits.  When Templeton realized what was happening, he protested vigorously, eventually talking the pastor down to a pair of cowboy boots.  Templeton had learned through observation and painful experience that lavish gifts come with a price.

There was something unusual about the symbiotic relationship between religion and big business in the Dallas of the 1950s and 60s and nothing much has changed.  In Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy, Edward H. Miller argues that Big-D was a Beta version for the Southern Strategy, a trial run that worked the bugs out of racial politics.

My big question (as the title of this post suggests) is how a fundamentally unchristian political strategy could owe so much to the Christian community.  I would argue that the megachurch culture of Dallas has its roots in the strange dynamics Miller describes in Nut Country.

The title derives from an idle remark John F. Kennedy made to his wife as the couple dressed for their fatal trip to to Dallas: “We’re heading into nut country today.”

A poster circulating in Dallas shortly before JFK was assassinated
A poster circulating in Dallas shortly before JFK was assassinated

Dallas earned a reputation as “hate city” following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but Miller detects a method behind the madness.  In Dallas, apocalyptic religion, libertarian economics and small government politics were fused into an intoxicating brew that gradually infused and reshaped American politics. (more…)

We don’t hate Kim Davis; we love equal justice

By Alan Bean


My contention that we should cut Kim Davis some slack has raised several hackles.  I wasn’t suggesting that Kim is particularly impressionable, robotic or stupid; I was merely suggesting that she is a normal person who reflects the culture that surrounds her like the air she breathes.

kim davis bookingStill, people want to hate on Kim Davis, the Rowan County Clerk.  Facebook culture personalizes everything.  Most of us don’t think much about immigration policy until Donald Trump says “they have to go.”  Some of us react in horror, others leap off the sofa with a triumphant “yes”, fists pumping.

But the ensuing argument isn’t about immigration policy; its about whether the Trumpster is the man on a white horse we’ve been waiting for since the Gipper toddled into the sunset, or a self-aggrandizing buffoon with a mystifying comb-over.

Here’s my point: while we mock poor Kim for her traumatic romantic history, her atypical wardrobe, her antiquated hairstyle, her homophobia, her bad theology and her faulty grasp of constitutional law, we fail to realize that, in Rowan County, Kim’s ideas are commonplace.  She is sticking to her guns with atypical tenacity, but the guns she is sticking to are standard issue. (more…)

Give Kim Davis a break; she’s just a pawn in the Dominionist revolution

kim davisBy Alan Bean

Hey liberals, lay off of Kim Davis!

It’s not her fault.

Every authority figure in her moral universe is telling her the same thing: God hates gay marriage and God’s will trumps human law.

Kim believes it because everybody she respects is saying it.

There is something noble about the stand she’s taking.  Kim isn’t the moral equivalent of Rosa Parks or Dietrich Bonhoeffer; but she thinks she is because Mat Staver, the lead attorney with Liberty Counsel, tells her so.

mattstaverjpgMat Staver isn’t a household name, unless your household lives on the fringes of the culture war.  Just prior to the Supreme Courts’ Obergefell decision that made marriage equality a guaranteed right under the US Constitution, Mat Staver was anticipating the worst . . . or, from his perspective, the best.

This would be the thing that revolutions are made of. This could split the country right in two. This could cause another civil war. I’m not talking about just people protesting in the streets, this could be that level because what would ultimately happen is a direct collision would immediately happen with pastors, with churches, with Christians, with Christian ministries, with other businesses, it would be an avalanche that would go across the country.

In Mat Staver’s imagination, the Kim Davis case is the snowball that will spark the avalanche he is praying for.  Mat would love nothing more than to split America in two, essentially reprising the Civil War.

Staver hails from a section of the country where most folks believe the world is 6,000 years old, that evolution is a myth, that the Bible is free from error or contradiction, that men should exercise their God-given authority over women, that gay marriage is the ultimate sin against God, and that states should be free to make and enforce laws in harmony with this Southern consensus.

That’s why Mat Staver is up to his elbows in the fight for teaching “intelligent design” in the nation’s public schools.  He will exploit any issue on the fault-line separating “pagan” and “Christian” values because his goal is to make the world safe for the conservative Southern consensus.

Kim Davis is often described as an “Apostolic Christian”.  Several branches of the Christian family that favor the term “apostolic”, but the reference is most likely to a form of Apostolic Pentecostalism that traces its origins to the New Testament apostles, believes the King James Version of the Bible is the final authority on every subject, and encourages modest clothing while discouraging women from wearing makeup or cutting their hair.  (This explains why Kim Davis doesn’t look like most of the women in your office and, while I’m on the subject, her domestic travails are irrelevant to this discussion.)

Kim’s religion explains her opposition to gay marriage, but does it account for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples on pain of incarceration?  Apostolic Christians have traditionally respected the authority of public officials and Davis would have faced no recrimination from her congregation if she had followed the law, especially if the marriage license business had been delegated to subordinates.

Kim is taking her stand because the authority figures in her world are guided by a revolutionary political-religious-legal philosophy.  While we’re focusing on Kim we are ignoring the folks behind the scenes who are driving the action.

Mike Huckabee is in on the game.  He calls Kim Davis a civil rights hero who understands the US Constitution better than most liberal politicians.

Marco Rubio says we should find a way to protect the right of public officials to hold true to their religious views.  What way might that be?

In fact, of the seventeen Republican presidential candidates, only two (Carly Fiorina and Lindsey Graham) believe that Kim Davis should do her job or resign.

Jeb Bush doesn’t like where his base is headed, but he can’t say so.  Instead, Jeb is praying for a via media to emerge:

“It seems to me there ought to be common ground, there ought to be big enough space for her to act on her conscience and for, now that the law is the law of the land, for a gay couple to be married in whatever jurisdiction that is.”

But there is no middle ground here.  The Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution states that when state and federal laws conflict, federal law prevails.  As James Madison argued, if the nation had tried to build a society without a supremacy clause of some kind, “it would have seen the authority of the whole society everywhere subordinate to the authority of the parts; it would have seen a monster, in which the head was under the direction of the members”.

Mat Staver disagrees.  So do most of the Republican candidates in the presidential race.  Although most people haven’t heard of “Dominionism” or “Christian Reconstruction”, or “The New Apostolic Reformation”, the basic assumption at the heart of this complicated movement is beginning to take hold in conservative America.

Dominionism, narrowly defined, has a limited following on the Right, but the basic tenets of this revolutionary worldview are leavening conservative America: the notion that there is a clearly definable “biblical worldview”, the conception of America as a nation founded by and for Christians; the demonization of the public school system; the assumption that free market capitalism is a biblical concept, a rejection of the theory of biological evolution; and a visceral antipathy to homosexuality and the gay rights movement.

(If you want to learn more about Christian Dominionism, read my primer on the subject, and check out Sarah Posner’s piece on how this philosophy is being taught at Liberty University Law School (Mat Staver’s home base).

Poor Kim Davis doesn’t understand much of this slice of recent history, but her attorney is on the cutting edge of the Dominionist movement and he understands it very, very well.  Mat Staver tells Kim that she is a Christian martyr; and Kim believes it.  She is a pawn in an enormous chess game that few Americans, conservative or liberal, appear to understand.

Ted Cruz, like his dear old dad, is a committed dominionist.  That’s why he is auditioning to be regarded as Kim Davis’s biggest fan.

“Today, judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny,” he said. “Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith. . . . I stand with Kim Davis. Unequivocally.”

Ted is fully aware that none of this makes sense if we are playing by the secular interpretation of constitutional law that currently drives the American legal system.  But Ted is marching to a different drummer; talking and thinking as if the dominionist revolution was already over and the Supreme Court can be trumped by biblical teaching (as interpreted by people like Mat Staver).  If people like Cruz repeat their talking points loud enough and long enough, people like Kim Davis will begin to believe it.

Kim the County Clerk is surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses repeating the same talking points.

In the America described in political science classes and the America that prevails in the courtroom, Kim Davis doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on.  But Mat Staver doesn’t belong to that America.  Mat’s heart has been captured by an America that lives on the far side of the revolution.

But we’re not paying attention to Mat Staver, his friends at Liberty Counsel, and the dominionist movement that shapes their thinking.  We’re arguing about the merits and demerits of a simple county clerk who is being manipulated for ideological purposes.

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”