Friday, January 11, 2008


The advertised title of the lecture was “Faith-Based Initiatives: Role and Efficacy in a Civil Society.” That seemed interesting and unbiased enough to me, so I devoted a long lunch hour to walking across Duke campus and attending.

It didn’t take long for me to start feeling like a sucker. Even before the speaker got to the heart of his topic, the names he dropped made me a little queasy. He reminded us that he is newly on the faculty at Baylor University, which requires a profession of faith in Christ from all its faculty hires. He boasted of the support his research center has gotten from the John Templeton Foundation and the Heritage Foundation. All of this was by way of his PowerPoint presentation, the first 20 minutes of which was an infomercial for his center and its director, his boss—not what I expect from this academic lecture series I’ve been attending for a couple of years now.

The speaker is a criminologist, and the real content of his talk was not faith-based initiatives in general, but one in particular: a faith-based prison launched in Texas by Charles Colson’s outfit, Prison Fellowship. (Colson was described as a well-known Christian leader and prison evangelist. Full stop.) Our guest related the story that Colson had applied to 11 states with this proposal and been turned down 11 times, before he found his Promised Land in Texas in the late 1990s, and his champion in the person of Governor George W. Bush. Dubya of course was interested—the themes of faith-based governance and compassionate conservatism which would propel him to the White House may have begun to form in his not-inquisitive but acquisitive little brain--and in effect said to Colson, “Where have you been all my life?”

That’s a verbatim quote of our speaker’s joke. It was just a throwaway line, I don’t think the guy put any thought behind it, but I had to laugh out loud, a little too loud for the social situation, at the image of George W. Bush warmly greeting Charles Colson, saying “Where have you been all my life?” Dubya was probably pretty coked out during Watergate, so it’s understandable he might not have recognized Colson (though would it have killed him to ask Poppy?). But sometimes two guys just have an instant connection.

Anyway, the research our speaker presented was on Colson’s prison program and its relationship to recidivism rates. He talked around the issue a lot, about the difficulties of his study, inmates dropping out or being paroled early, the absence of quality control in the services provided. His data was really limited to one bar graph, which showed a small differential in re-arrest and re-conviction for Colson’s group, and nothing about statistical significance.

Speaker Guy alluded to the objection that there may have been selection bias: that men who enrolled in Prison Fellowship are inclined to go to Bible studies and also inclined not to re-offend, and the services themselves may not have made much difference. He tried to defuse that objection by saying he interviewed wardens and chaplains, who assured him that the prisoners who chose to go into the Colson program weren’t more devout, they were just cynically trying to get more privileges. That’s not terribly rigorous or convincing. It looks to me like there is probably a selection bias at work: There might be correlation, but not necessarily causation.

It turns out that this research study has a checkered history that the speaker didn’t divulge. I did a little Googling when I got back to the office. Colson’s Texas prison is one of the early success stories in the faith-based initiatives movement, one of its crown jewels. This 2003 Slate article by Mark Kleiman, however, throws cold water on the so-called success. Kleiman accuses evaluators of cherry-picking the data in order to show positive effects on recidivism. I believe the presentation I heard has been refined since 2003 (our guest complained of having to include in his sample even those who were early dropouts, which seems to address one’s of Kleiman’s objections) but I don’t know exactly how.

These prisoners, it appears to me, were being relatively showered with resources: Bible studies, life skills training, mentoring that carried over from incarceration to re-entry, and other stuff. Sure it did some good! What I’d like to know is, what was the effect of the faith-based nature of the services? Is it better to get inmates to participate in Bible study than in Oprah’s Book Club? Is it better to get inmates connected with a church on the outside, than it would be to get them connected with a softball league? Education and positive social bonds would seem to help keep crime down, regardless of any religious content.

In talking about all the complicating factors our guy all but admitted that some churches and mentors in the program don’t know what they’re doing. (There’s an inherent problem when your volunteer service-providers live in Katy and Sugar Land, and your clients live in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Some mentors were happy to go to meetings in the prison, but didn’t want to meet their mentees in the ‘hood for aftercare.) Showering money upon people who didn’t know what they were doing: sounds the George W. Bush M.O. to me. Another comment that strikes me as funny in retrospect: in the infomercial part of his talk, the speaker alluded to a grant his center had to study culture and values in China, but said that there were sensitive issues in the work and that he didn’t want to comment on it in a setting where he was being tape-recorded. Always respect the power of electronic surveillance.

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