The First Step Act overwhelmingly passed the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this week with not only bipartisan support from lawmakers, but also the support of a number of prominent evangelical Christians and institutions. And while the bill’s fate in the Senate is uncertain, the support it’s gotten from both sides of the aisle is already being counted as a major success on an issue that evangelicals have long tried to put their stamp on.
(RNS) — At a dinner last year with prominent evangelical Christians in the Blue Room of the White House, Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, invited their table mates to discuss the issues most important to them.
The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and one of President Trump’s informal evangelical advisers, remembered Kushner asking him, “What’s in your heart? What are your priorities?”
At the top of the pastor’s list was “bringing the nation together.”
“We could really do this, and we can do it way beyond the rhetoric. For example, let’s look at prison reform,” Rodriguez said.
Johnnie Moore, founder of The Kairos Co., a strategy firm, who recently was appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, described it as an “incredibly enthusiastic conversation.”
“Sparks were flying all around the table, and then Jared had this idea,” Moore said. “He said — it was a brilliant idea, and this was the impetus, the beginning of things — ‘What if we got every church or synagogue to take responsibility for one prisoner re-entering society? You think that could work?’”
That dinner planted the seed of what would grow to become the proposed First Step Act, aimed at reducing the number of people who return to prison after serving time.
That bill overwhelmingly passed the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this week with not only bipartisan support from lawmakers, but also the support of a number of prominent evangelical Christians and institutions. And while the bill’s fate in the Senate is uncertain, the support it’s gotten from both sides of the aisle is already being counted as a major success on an issue that evangelicals have long tried to put their stamp on.
“There’s never been greater interest in America in criminal justice reform,” Craig DeRoche, senior vice president for advocacy and public policy at the evangelical organization Prison Fellowship, told Religion News Service in March after the White House announced its priorities for prison reform.
“We have a lot of hope. This administration is genuinely interested in second chances.”
Prison reform has been a signal issue for evangelicals since Charles Colson, a former aide to President Nixon, found his evangelical Christian faith while serving seven months in Maxwell Prison in Alabama for Watergate-related crimes.
It was Colson, as White House special counsel, who had first framed Nixon’s “political template of being tough on crime and long sentences,” DeRoche said. Colson’s prison experiences produced a change of heart. “Within three years he was saying that model was in conflict with our values as Christians and as Americans and that it would lead to failure.”
Prison Fellowship, which Colson founded in 1976, is now the country’s largest, but hardly the only, Christian prison ministry.