This past Monday (August 29th, 2011) 39 prisoners at the Darrington Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will begin a program to earn a four year degree in biblical studies. Some of these men have a decade or more left in their sentence, others are going to be in prison for life. Once trained (and ordained?) by the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, they may be assigned to other prisons as inmate ministers.
I'll admit that I have my reservations. I really wish the article I found wasn't full of syrupy language from politicians such as, "The hand of God has been in this project," but we can't always get everything we want in life. I've also seen all six seasons of the HBO series "OZ." On that show having prisoner religious leaders NEVER ended well. Besides the obligatory theological battles; there were turf wars, revenge plots, assassinations, and the guy from 90210 was buried alive in a friggin' brick wall!
Despite having those prejudices, I (surprisingly) have no strong objection to this TDoCJ program. It all comes down to one sentence in the Associated Press/Houston Chronicle article: "The Texas project, an extension of the Fort Worth-based seminary, uses no state money and is financed with private donations." (Emphasis mine)
None of my tax money is being used to fund this program. Maybe there are some minimal costs that I'm technically paying for, but I'm willing to pay for paper and pencils for these guys (I'll get to that later). This is exactly how the separation of church and state should work. You want religion in prison? Fine. YOU pay for it. They call this a "nondenominational program," but it is obviously christian and probably very baptist. I would want to make sure that any equivalent muslim, jewish, pagan, norse, or secular program would get the same treatment, but the important thing is that the state of Texas is not financially endorsing this program. It's also a separate issue to make sure these prisoners do not receive any special treatment simply because they're training to be ministers (cushy minimal security cells, early release, or commuted sentences). To be clear: the narrow point I’m trying to make here is that the state is not pushing religion with its wallet. We could use more of that kind of thinking here in Texas (cough-rick-cough-perry-cough-cough).
This is a battle I would choose NOT to fight. I’m going to borrow Hemant Mehta's “Atheist Threat Level” concept and give this a “Level One:
This program can have a practical, and non-religious, benefit. This is a "bachelor's degree in Biblical studies." Even if I personally disagree with the subject matter, these inmates will be getting an education. They will have to study, work on their communication skills, and develop self-discipline. In a prison environment those social and reasoning traits could come in handy in a very constructive (and secular) way. Even if it's just becoming an example of a fellow prisoner who has learned how to resolve conflicts without a fight, that's progress.
Now, arguably, I will go off the clear path for a while. From Dan Barker to Julia Sweeny I've heard so many stories of people who have actually lost their faith when they studied their religion in a more academic way. It's amazing how many people come out of seminary as secret atheists. I've heard many anecdotal tales that simply reading the bible (or koran) cover to cover is enough to turn people into non-believers. I'm sure this Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary program is awash with cherry-picked niceties, platitudes, and apologetics ...but maybe, just maybe, these men will get the benefits of an education and also find some reason along the way.
Either way, I don't have to pay for it