It was an interview with law enforcement somewhere in Georgia, and the news was that some court there decided that for particular low-threat prisoners they would be given an unusual option for serving their sentence: Jail or Church.
On the surface it sounds reasonable. Give people a choice of incarceration or moral reformation. Who couldn’t use a little of that, anyway? But scratch beneath that surface.
First of all, this generous option defines church as a punishment. Doing time. Not in a cell, granted, but in a sanctuary. We have already have enough people who feel like they are serving some kind of sentence in church. Parolees for the Lord. Nah, I don’t think so.
Secondly, we really think a crash course in moral education – absent free will and served for an ulterior motive – will bring about some lasting transformation? Even prison chapel allows for choice. No, you can lead the convict to church but you can’t make them drink.
Thirdly, this is presented as a choice, and it is on the surface. They don’t have to go to church. They could, after all, choose cell block one instead. But who are we fooling here? Anyone would rather read the New York Times on Sunday morning in the back pew rather than from behind bars.
Fourthly, there is this itsy bitsy blurring between church and state. The state should not be establishing – suggesting – a religious practice in any sense, especially as a part of coercion. And why, pray tell, is church the option as opposed to, say, the synagogue or mosque?
Jail or Church. Sounds like a good, socially helpful, spiritually enlightened choice. But it’s not, not really. It is shadows of sending off the morally questionable to a nunnery. It didn’t work then. I doubt if it will now.