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July 5, 2019

Engaging Mississippi Evangelicals – Why Bother?

In a recent opinion piece, I challenged people of faith in Mississippi, evangelical Christians in particular, to reflect upon the disconnect between Biblical teachings regarding how prisoners should be treated and the failure of the vast majority of local faith communities to utter a single word to those in power regarding the inhumane conditions in Mississippi prisons. Why, one might ask, would a civil rights lawyer in Mississippi engage a group of people many see as conservative defenders of the status quo rather than as potential allies in the fight for criminal justice reform? Why bother?

The mere mention of Mississippi conjures up thoughts and images of racial injustice and violence. From Emmitt Till to the war over integration here at the University of Mississippi to “Mississippi Burning” to decades of voting rights litigation to last month’s opinion of the United States Supreme Court describing the all-too-familiar practice of a Mississippi prosecutor illegally excluding people of color from juries, Mississippi’s identity is inextricably intertwined with its defiant defense of racist practices and systems.

However, those of us who have lived here for any length of time understand that race is not the only major influence on the ethos of this complicated place. Indeed, there are two “big Rs” that serve as the primary filters through which all issues are viewed and by which all policies are shaped – Race and Religion.

For years, Mississippi has been identified by Gallup polling as the most religious state in America. 59 percent of Mississippians identify themselves as “very religious,” and another 29 percent claim to be “moderately religious.” All adherents of non-Christian religious faiths in Mississippi combined make up less than two percent of the population. Math demands the conclusion that many Mississippians guilty of the sins for which we have become so infamous also have professed a deep and abiding love for Jesus.

Mississippi politicians, from statewide officials down to local justice court judges (all but a few Mississippi judges are elected), understand the religiosity of the electorate and are quick to inject statements about their own faith into campaign appeals. The current governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, speaks about how his “world view” has been shaped by Christianity. The front-runner in this year’s governor’s race, Lt. Governor Tate Reeves, recently released an ad in which he promises to protect Mississippians from “out-of-state liberals” who are attacking Mississippi values and want to rip “In God We Trust” from our license plates. Introducing himself to voters in his first campaign ad, Attorney General candidate Andy Taggart, a friend of mine, proclaims that, “I believe God is in control, win or lose.”

Civil rights lawyers understand full well that while litigation always will be the primary tool in our fight for justice, we need help in the form of favorable legislation, new rules of court, and judicial decisions at the trial level based on law rather than “the way we’ve always done things.” These critical components of reform are heavily influenced by retail politics – the priorities of voters, the demands they make on their elected officials, and whether there is any political price to pay for promoting and protecting an unjust system. Recognizing this need to develop broad-based community support, the MacArthur Justice Center named my talented and passionate colleague Sheila Bedi Director of Community Lawyering and Strategy and charged her with responsibility for assisting all of us in our efforts to empower those affected by our broken criminal justice system and join them in pressuring those in power to do the right thing.

So, why would a civil rights lawyer in Mississippi engage and challenge evangelical Christians? First, they have power here – lots of it – and could impose intense pressure on elected officials, especially those who are fellow “believers,” should they choose to do so. Second, the religion they embrace requires them to care for those in prison, the poor, the “stranger in our land,” and the vulnerable. Third, their constant claim on the moral high ground demands a response from people who speak their language and are willing to challenge them to make good on those claims and join the good fight.

I was brought up Southern Baptist, attended Vacation Bible School throughout my childhood, and my parents, kind and generous people, remain faithful members of a Southern Baptist Church in small-town Mississippi. But I have seen people I love forever-scarred by the worst that evangelical Christianity has to offer, and I left that brand of religion behind long ago (with no mixed emotions whatsoever). I have not, however, abandoned my Christian faith (I am a self-described Baptist Universalist), and I must bear witness to the beliefs and convictions that brought me to civil rights work in the first place. While I disagree with my evangelical Christian friends on many important issues and have litigated against them over matters concerning LGBTQ and reproductive rights, I enthusiastically invite them to join us in the difficult work of changing the way Mississippi treats those who have been accused and imprisoned. We desperately need allies in this fight – even, maybe especially, unlikely ones.