Today’s Detroit News ran a brief letter to the editor in response to my Jan. 23 op-ed, “Don’t prevent religion from helping to reform prisoners.” (Joe Knippenberg engaged a previous response on his blog here).
David Dery of Central Lake writes, “Jordan Ballor’s article encouraging religious groups in prisons is fine, as far as he goes…. The problem comes when the state attaches some benefit to attending these programs without providing a non-religious alternative.”
In response I’ll simply make a few observations and raise a few questions. I agree that the state “attaching some benefit” to a program like IFI is potentially problematic, although the nature of the benefit would probably need to be more clearly defined (are we talking material benefits? social?). What if this benefit is not attached by the state but inheres to the nature of the program itself (i.e. spiritual)?
I also think there is not only a question of a religious vs. non-religious/secular alternative to be considered, but Christian vs. other religions (Islam, paganism, Buddhism, et al.) That is, if the government allows a Christian program into prisons, must it also provide a non-Christian religious alternative? What if there are no groups who are doing religious reform work in prisons from these groups?
Here’s a tentative alternative proposition: if the state allows a Christian group to do reform work in the prison, it must allow (not necessarily provide itself) other groups, whether religious or secular, to do reform work under the same conditions and standards as the Christian group. But the state need not necessarily seek out or artificially create Buddhist, pagan, Islamic, or secularist groups to do the reform work.
The fact that Christian groups are perhaps the most active in this area says something about the nature of the Christian faith and its expression.