In the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, thousands of people across the country have taken to the streets to protest police brutality. Video of Floyd’s final moments as a police officer used his knee to pin his neck and his three colleagues looked on prompted a strong reaction from around this country.
While perhaps more white evangelicals have spoken out against the police officers’ actions than after previous acts of police brutality made national news, some of the ways that they are framing their statements about law enforcement suggests they actually aren’t getting it, says Aaron L. Griffith, assistant professor of history at Sattler College in Boston.
“I worry that many white evangelicals are talking about the problem of police brutality in terms of the exceptions, in terms of the bad apples. And then proposing things like more training or pushing more into the colorblind frame or even mobilizing language like ‘racial reconciliation,’ to say that black Americans have an opportunity to forgive and befriend the officers in their midst,” said Griffith, who is also the author of the forthcoming God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America.
“That is very concerning to me because we've seen this before. We've seen this in moves toward community policing, which envisions the police as more closely connected, and perhaps even friendly, to the neighborhoods they serve,” he said. “But community policing projects are really much more about just changing perceptions of law enforcement, not the practices of how they operate. And really, making police more directly connected to communities, embedding them more closely in communities, often just exposes residents to more interactions and more risks.”
Griffith joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss the origins of the police, how a desire to reach teenagers affected attitudes toward law enforcement, and if white evangelicals views are changing or not.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #215
One thing that I [Ted] am always struck by, or needing to remind myself of, and maybe other people aren't aware of this, but policing is fairly recent. Can you tell us a little bit about how long have police been around, and has it always looked like it does now?
Aaron Griffith: In American history, there has long been some kind of official presence designed to keep order. But what that's looked like has shifted over time, sometimes in very dramatic ways.
So in the colonial period, policing was highly decentralized and quite informal. Usually, it was as a volunteer role or a group of men might be organized ad hoc to deal with an issue. As American cities start to grow in the 19th century, many citizens, especially those with business interests, saw more policing as necessary. And larger industries, in particular, began to hire their own security forces to protect their goods or their stores or their factories.
Many business leaders also start to contract with private policing agencies to crack down on what they see as subversive labor movements. The Pinkertons are one such organization that famous. They were private detectives who would break up strikes, sow dissension among unions, and track down anyone who a business leader might see as a threat.
We should also remember though that in the 19th century South, the police there are also tasked with protecting business interests, but this meant policing enslaved people. Slave patrols would seek out runaways and work to squelch potential rebellions. And some of these patrols were huge. In Charleston, around the 1830s, they had about a hundred officers in their slave patrol, which scholars have noted was larger than any northern city police force at the time.
After emancipation, this kind of policing changes, but still is very much focused on securing economic interests and making sure that black people are subservient and are being used to build up industry. You'll sometimes hear the phrase “convict leasing,” which meant black people being arrested and forcibly put to work on farms and mines and industry. Industrialists are really dependent upon the relationships with law enforcement to make convict leasing work—to not only acquire convicts but to keep them from running away.
In the 19th century, especially in northern cities, we start to see local political machines start to mobilize their own police forces. But it's at the very end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century that we see a shift to professionalization and modernization. In some ways, in the United States, this is an embrace of the British policing model.
London's police force had begun to professionalize, wear uniforms, focus on crime prevention—not simply responding to crimes, but actively trying to police streets to keep crimes from happening—and U.S. cities start to follow London's lead, organizing police departments that are not linked to individual neighborhoods or business interests but that had professional standards and training. The police start wearing uniforms, they have badges, they have weapons, they increasingly require their officers to have education, and they start to use modern technology. They drive cars, they use fingerprinting, they have radios.
The late 19th, early 20th century is when most departments start issuing firearms. Before that patrols or individual policemen might've carried guns, but it's in that early 20th century moment that the departments themselves start to start to issue guns.
This is all around the 1920s and 30s, especially as there's a massive national effort to really ramp up a war on crime. And not just on the city-level, we see this on the federal level as well, beginning with organizations like the Federal Bureau of Investigation or FBI.
And that professionalism is still where we are today.
Also at the beginning of the 20th century, there's the rise of the evangelical world and the fundamentalist modernist controversy. While the fundamentalist and more modernist sides disagree on a lot of things, it seemed they shared the same concern about secularization and crime being linked. Can you tell us more about that?
Aaron Griffith: One thing that surprised me as I was doing the research for this book was that often I would find a sermon or an article written by someone who was a liberal and very progressive on any number of economic or social issues, or maybe even a pacifist, and I would find an article they had written on defending the police. And it would really catch me off guard and I would try to figure out why they were worried about this.
I saw that many people we might associate with the social gospel in the late 19th, early 20th century were very excited about the positive social possibilities of policing. Charles Sheldon (of WWJD fame) would call police missionaries regularly in his writing for the Christian Herald. He would talk a lot about social obligations to help the poor to invest in progressive measures to deal with poverty, but he would also talk about how the police were a part of this work. The police were just as essential to a neighborhood's wellbeing as social workers or ministers might be.
A lot of more conservative folks, or people that would call themselves fundamentalists, would focus in on the police as necessary with more punitive rhetoric. Saying, the death penalty is valid, or we need to treat suspects roughly.
But both white liberals and conservatives Christians agreed that policing, generally speaking, was necessary. And that crime was a secular evil, that crime was something that America was going to descend into if it turned away from God. And this would play itself out in very different ways, depending on the context, but they largely agreed on that. And sometimes it was hard to tell, even when I was doing the research, who's on what team on that.
Where were black churches during this period?
Aaron Griffith: So this is, again, complicated, but I think on the lynching issue, a lot of white Protestants, especially liberal Protestants, were very upset about the continued presence of lynching in American society. And in the late 19th, early 20th century, some of them would note that it was predominantly African Americans who were being lynched. They were aware that it was racial violence.
But what was striking was how often white Protestants would talk about the need to get rid of lynching in terms of law and order. Saying things like, “This is something that's an evil, but it's an evil because it messes with our criminal procedure.” “It messes with us becoming a modern society that has laws, that has procedures.” “We follow our justice system. This is just mob rule. This is mob justice.”
And this put black pastors and black religious leaders in a bind because they wanted to condemn lynching as well, but they were much more tuned into this as an issue of violence against black people. And so sometimes you would find that they would ally on a particular lynching issue, but then the rhetoric would go in very different directions. Sometimes you might even find that white pastors or white religious leaders would be criticized by black pastors for not including lynching in the consideration of an anti-crime proposal. But the reasons that black pastors would make that argument would be much more focused on the needs of their own communities.
I think this is really an important point to make. Whenever we're talking about race, policing, criminal justice, and religion, we need to remember that no one wants crime in their neighborhoods. No one wants to feel unsafe. But the ways that a crime can be interpreted and the responses that various communities have—especially communities that have historically been under-resourced or marginalized—often get put in really tricky spots and they're put in difficult places and forced to make concessions.
Let’s look at the period between the 1920s to the WWII era. What was the story?
Aaron Griffith: There was a division in terms of their understanding of where crime comes from. Typically more conservative pastors and religious leaders would see crime as a matter of individual choice, that you have chosen to do something bad. Liberals, tracking along with broader, progressive sensibilities, would narrate crime more as a product of the environment, that someone commits a crime because they have the environmental factors in their neighborhood or their family or their school or the media.
Eventually, the split becomes much more pronounced, later in the 20th century, especially in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, as liberals and conservatives argue about what to do about crime. But the point I'm trying to make is that they both saw crime as a singular issue and believed that state power had to do something to address it.
For the most part, the conversation during that era was focused on adult crimes, but then Billy Graham radically shifts it to youth culture through the Youth for Christ movement and talking about “juvenile delinquency” in almost every single evangelistic sermon. Can you talk us through how that changes the conversation?
Aaron Griffith: So Billy Graham certainly was not the only one pushing this message. Other people working for Youth for Christ and similar organizations in the mid- to late 40s and early 50s are very zeroed in on the problem of teenagers “running wild.”
There's this real sense that this emerging category of the teenager, even as a space between childhood and adulthood, is somehow up for grabs, and the evangelicals need to say something about this.
When I started working on the research, I thought I was going to find Billy Graham talking about how we need to crack down on these kids, but that's not really what I found. He's very concerned that kids behave, he's very concerned about youth—and so are other evangelicals like Jim Voss, David Wilkerson—but the way they talk about it is so much more in terms of, we need to love these kids. We need to help these teenagers and bring them the gospel so that their lives will change. It was not really punitive.
So then, what changes that? What changes that evangelicals go from this mode to wanting a state solution to crime?
Aaron Griffith: One of the things I try to show is how that move that Billy Graham and David Wilkerson and others are making, help set the stage for the shift.
First of all, because they are so focused in on individual offenders, whether delinquents or otherwise, they are still able to make an argument that it isn't really about social conditions, that crime is really still a matter of the individual. The use of the language of “making a decision for Christ,” which is this very individualistic notion of conversion, and applying it to matters of criminality kind of removes social conditions from the equation for a lot of evangelicals in terms of how they think about where crime comes from, understanding why people might commit offenses or why people get involved in gangs.
David Wilkerson, famously the author of The Cross and the Switchblade, which would sell millions of copies, and while he talks about his own deep love and concern for the youth he finds in Los Angeles—those who were involved in gangs, those who are addicted to drugs— at the same time he's doing that, he's blaming the city. He's labeling the city as disorderly, as a place that is sinful, as a place that causes problems. And I think [things like ] that get evangelicals ready for what comes next.
Evangelicals start to look at cities and the problems there that they see happening, the disorder there that they see on their television screens and newspapers, and they start to think these people are acting wrongly. They don’t have a strong sense that they're receiving the love of Christ-like they should, and so perhaps there's another option for them. And that's law and order.
So that brings us to the 60s and 70s. Is this officially where we see “law and order” and “war on drugs” campaign comes into the political realm, or is it still mostly a religious thing?
Aaron Griffith: So we have Nixon, who identifies as a law and order candidate and brings Billy Graham out to help him capture votes among white evangelicals, especially in the South. But I want to do a couple of things to complicate that story a little bit. And that’s looking at the state level and local level, and not just seeing law and order as a federal operation.
In 1966, for instance, before Nixon shows up, Governor Reagan is running and making crime a signature campaign issue in California and also courting evangelical voters. So local communities and state leaders are developing their own policing and “tough on crime” practices.
The second thing I'll say is as I was writing this, I was struck by how white evangelicals, especially those who saw themselves as moderate, wanted to frame “law and order” as a matter of colorblindness, as a matter of racial justice—“we are helping black communities by sending the police.”
One of the main people I write about here is Congressman John Anderson in Illinois, who has this dramatic conversion on the issues of civil rights, but at the same time he is becoming more open to civil rights legislation, he’s also doubling down on the need for crime-fighting, the need for law and order. To secure not only voting rights and desegregation but to also secure public safety.
So what I noticed about is how white evangelicals would narrate policing and law enforcement is narrated as racially neutral or even as racially sensitive. But it clearly wasn't because when you listen to African Americans, especially African American evangelicals, some of them start to point out the problems here. Tom Skinner has a dramatic moment at the Urbana conference for InterVarsity in 1970, where he calls out Billy Graham. And he says, “All of you are talking about law and order, but you're ignoring how law and order affects our neighborhoods. All of you pay lip service to this idea of this racially-neutral colorblind dream, but it's actually hurting our communities.” He calls the police an “occupational force in our community.”
Do you just feel like some of the key white evangelical proponents did not listen or did not want to listen or had their own self-interest and comfort in mind when they were advocating for particular policies?
Aaron Griffith: I've been thinking about this a lot in the last couple of days, just on police brutality and how white evangelicals have reacted. And I was remembering how in the 60’s, as the law and order rhetoric is becoming a major feature of the national political landscape, white Christians are getting drawn into siding with candidates who they see as tough on crime. And in response to complaints about police brutality, white evangelicals would claim that police brutality wasn't a real problem or that police use of violent force was justified.
I'm thinking here of one piece from 1969 in a Presbyterian magazine. It's a piece written by a concerned mother who praises police brutality because she sees it as something positive and needed for young people. And what's striking in that piece is she doesn't talk about race at all. She removes police brutality from the context of it's clear, long-documented harm towards African Americans.
And I think that this shows how white evangelicals had little sense of why police brutality was a matter of concern for African Americans. How it was possible to keep talking about law and order and race-neutral terms, to avoid discussion of race. And to be frank, I see this happening today. I see very similar things happening today, where leading evangelical figures downplayed brutality and the concerns of people of color.
The Franklin Graham Facebook posts from 2015 are exactly that. It's so hard to hear that, and not just hear how tone-deaf it is and how ignorant it is of this history of how the police force has been used in very harmful ways among African American communities.
How did the police get this very sterling reputation, even though police brutality has been seemingly going on for a very long time?
Aaron Griffith: Evangelicals are narrated as political conservatives, which on some issues they are. They want to withdraw state power from common life, usually in the economy, but on issues of criminal justice, it's flipped. There is an interest in inserting state power all the more forcefully into our common life.
And this has changed in the last couple of years as conservatives have sort of woken up to some of the challenges there, but generally, you just see time and time again, evangelicals appealing to Romans 13. Saying that police are chosen by God, they are divinely ordained by God to keep the peace, to maintain justice. And when you have a sense that something is divinely ordained, it becomes very easy to overlook problems, overlook the misapplication of force, or to even question the existence of a profession like policing altogether.
I also just want to mention another complicating factor here. I'm glad you read the Franklin Graham quote from 2015 and then his quote from the last couple of days in response to George Floyd killing. What I worry about is the blurred lines between those two Facebook posts. I worry that many white evangelicals are talking about the problem of police brutality in terms of the exceptions, in terms of the bad apples. And then proposing things like more training or pushing more into the colorblind frame or even mobilizing language like “racial reconciliation,” to say that black Americans have an opportunity to forgive and befriend the officers in their midst.
That is very concerning to me because we've seen this before. We've seen this in moves toward community policing, which envisions the police as more closely connected, and perhaps even friendly, to the neighborhoods they serve. But community policing projects are really much more about just changing perceptions of law enforcement, not the practices of how they operate. And really, making police more directly connected to communities, embedding them more closely in communities, often just exposes residents to more interactions and more risks.
And so I think we have to move beyond talking about these issues in terms of bad apples, a colorblind frame, or that somehow, we can train our way out of this. There has to be a much deeper reckoning in terms of the racial injustice that occurred here.
Do you see there is an opportunity to take the idea that sin is a problem that we all have, and use it to minimize certain acts of brutality? We have some history where people, recognizing their sinfulness and their complicity, has been a time for repentance and for significant social change. Do you see signs that there is a contemporary shift that is going on right now regarding policing and police brutality?
Aaron Griffith: To be honest, after yesterday, when you see President Trump forcefully have law enforcement clear out a space, using tear gas and flash-bang grenades, so he can go do a photo op with a Bible in front of St. John's church down the street from The White House…
I saw people on Twitter and elsewhere saying, can you believe this? Isn't that so strange? And I thought, no, that is exactly how this works. That is the story of the 20th century in terms of how crime, the concern of disorder, and religious concepts are mobilized together.
So I worry that we're going to see more of the same. And I worry that we will continue to see videotaped killings of African Americans and people will call for incremental change and police departments, and nothing will actually change. Because we've known about this kind of stuff forever. We've had videos of it for years now, and it still keeps happening.
But I also want to make sure that I'm not coming across as like ripping the police because I don't think I am. I think actually we have to reckon with ourselves. We have to reckon with our society and that we demand too much of our police. We ask them to be things that they are not trained to be. We want them to be social workers. We want them to mental health workers. We want them to be school resources. That's not what they're trained to do, but they have to do it because we've divested from the kinds of programs and shared practices of common life that could enrich our communities, particularly those communities that are vulnerable.
So I think we as a society are to blame. And I say this to my white evangelical brothers and sisters. We are to blame. We are not capable of speaking in critical ways about our own propensities toward violence, endorsement of state power, and our inability to seek social change in more constructive ways. And that's a big problem here.
And it goes beyond the individual intentions of a single police officer. It is our story.
What would you say to communities not to be over-policed and for whom place brutality is not to be a thing, those in majority culture? What will they have to give up to change?
Aaron Griffith: We have to realize that it hasn’t always been this way and it doesn't have to be this way. There has to be a shift in the imagination of what we think is possible, but that may mean that we have to change how we live our lives.
When we see someone that we deem to be suspicious, what do we do? How do we interrogate our own presuppositions, our own instinct to call the police? How do we think about what ways of common life? What forms of politics are possible for addressing the number of very real issues that our communities face, that our cities face, that our nation faces—in terms of education, in terms of mental health, in terms of our economy?
The second thing I would say is that I think Evangelicals have some resources in terms of living into their very real concern for individual lives, to see that God loves people and has a plan for their lives. That means that we can invest in people's lives and we can take risks in ways that require a lot from us.
There's a wonderful book I want to recommend called Punished: Policing the Lives of black and Latino Boys by Victor Rios that I think really gets it this. In the end, he talks about how the support of these youth comes from someone deciding, I'm going to mentor somebody, I'm going to show up in their school, I'm going to help them.
And I think evangelicals can be really good at that. I think evangelicals have a sense of individual accountability in a positive way there. And I hope we can live into that while at the same time, maintaining a healthy skepticism of the ways that violence can be and act in our nation in other ways.