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EDITORIAL: Van Buren the Baptist

They won’t comment, so we’ll try June 8, 2023 at 2:47 a.m.
Wooden cross on a simple steeple set against a sunny summer blue sky. church tile cross building / Getty Images

It's tricky walking, this church-and-state thing. Most Americans are wary about government getting too far into religion, lest it be somebody else's religion that government prefers. Then again, name a member of Congress that doesn't adhere to a religion, at least publicly--or a president who claimed to be agnostic.

This tricky walking is back in the news, and the path runs through Arkansas. Apparently the sheriff's office in Crawford County hosted an event for a local church in which 38 men and women behind bars were baptized earlier this spring.

The aptly named Freedom From Religion Foundation objects.

A foundation co-president says such baptisms are "one of the most egregious violations" of church-government separation, according to the newspaper account, because the inmates consist of a captive audience. And some might feel they have to agree to the baptisms to get in good with the jailers.

The high sheriff of Crawford County, for his part, won't say much on advice of attorney. (This being America, expect a lawsuit any day.) But he did allow that no inmate was forced into a baptism. It was all voluntary, and apparently the work of a local church behind bars, if we read things right.

The tricky thing, or one of the tricky things, is that both sides have a point. But we'd bet most people, even most judges, would lean toward ... allowing the baptisms. Freedom From Religion might not agree, but folks still have religious rights behind bars. And if they freely want to be washed of their sins, as The Book says, then not even a high sheriff can stop them. Any more than the authorities could stop Paul and Silas from singing while in chains.

The people in the Freedom From Religion outfit really ought to pick their fights better. In their warning to Crawford County authorities, they questioned how hygienic it is to baptize 38 people in the same pool. Sweet baby Jesus, that's pettifogging stuff. Better to stick with your best points, guys.

The same week--the same week!--the baptisms were allowed in that western Arkansas jail, the American First Policy Institute came out with another one of its papers, arguing that faith-based prison programs helped prisoners from repeating their mistakes once out of prison. The unfortunately named Recidivism Rate dropped when inmates went through religious programs:

"An article from the Federal Probation Journal, consisting of a literature review on faith-based programming, discusses several studies that conclude an inverse relationship between religiosity and delinquency. The article maintains that faith-based programs affect risk factors for criminal behavior--including anti-social peers, anti-social attitudes, and community participation--and concludes that faith-based programs encourage pro-social behavior and contribute to an individual's moral development." Which may be a lot of words saying that Church Works.

And, should the lawyers working for the high sheriff need an extra paragraph in their coming briefs, the AFPI has data showing that one repeat offender can cost taxpayers on average more than $151,000. So faith-based programs might be a financial savings to government. Don't take it on faith. We refer the attorneys to AFPI's website.

We remember a hot summer day nearly 20 years ago when an Arkansas governor named Huckabee made a trip to the Tucker Unit to hear about something called the InnerChange program. We listened to the governor/Baptist preacher talk to the inmates who had volunteered for the program, and took notes, thinking that the courts should prove understanding. For who better than judges to appreciate prisons that save inmates rather than further corrupt them?

And Gov. Mike Huckabee noted the program was privately funded (like the church in Van Buren) and no state funds were used, other than to feed and house the inmates, which would have happened anyway.

Governor Huckabee had to wade through the criticism. Even if such programs work wonders, if not miracles, there will be criticism. And if a judge rules that such programs can't hurt, expect that judge to come under fire, too. Maybe even brimstone. Lawsuits we will always have with us.

But the governor back then wasn't afraid of the criticism. And until the courts rule against baptisms behind bars (which would be about like ruling against prayers behind bars), the sheriff of Crawford County should allow them.

The Lord heareth the poor, and despiseth not his prisoners, or at least so we are told by an ancient text. Which is why we've never been on the team that would just throw prisoners on islands and give them seeds. That is, dispose of them--remind us no more because they are no good to society, so why should society do them any?

Answer: Because we are human. And we have our souls to think about.

For the record, counselors, let's not forget the definition of a penitentiary. It's a place for penitence. And maybe salvation.

Print Headline: Van Buren the Baptist


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