The Politics of Religion, Crime, and Punishment in the United States

Religion and Politics 275

Fall 2018

John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics

Washington University in St. Louis

Course Description

This course traces the relationship between religion and the politics of crime and punishment in the United States from the Colonial and Revolutionary Eras to the Trump Administration. We ask how religious movements and religious ideas shaped the establishment of penitentiaries, the structures of modern policing, and the prisoners’ rights movement. We also explore how religion shaped the priorities of the FBI, contemporary movements for prison reform, and the contours of American debates about immigration and the War on Terror. The course highlights the unintended consequences of efforts to reform and rehabilitate and emphasizes religion’s interconnections to race and citizenship. Students will leave the course with an understanding of how American religious traditions and movements from Quakers and followers of the Social Gospel to the Nation of Islam and evangelical Christianity have continually reshaped the politics of crime and punishment in America.

Assignments and Grading

Your grade will be calculated as follows:

  • 30% class participation (this includes blog posts, quizzes, and other forms of participation)
  • 20% two short essays
  • 20% take-home midterm exam
  • 30% take-home final exam

Note: All assignments must be completed to receive a passing grade in the course.

The electric chair was supposed to illustrate the advanced technology of the 19th century. To many observers, the invisible power of electricity seemed to be a sublime and divine force. Reprinted in Harper’s Weekly, February 25, 1988.


The most important assignments for this course are to attend class regularly, do the reading, and participate in discussion. Given the importance of in-class discussions, all students are expected to go beyond the role of the “active observer” and merely attending lecture/discussions. Rather, students must work towards critical engagement with their peers and the instructor. Therefore, it is imperative that students complete assigned readings on time and come to class ready to critically engaged the subject matter and share their reflections and insights.


Whether it’s the Trump Administration’s travel ban or churches trying to shield people from deportation, the themes of this course are often relevant to current events in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. Each student in the course will create an account on Twitter and tweet about current events relating to the course using the hashtag #RelPolt. We will often begin class by discussing the news and our tweets about it. Each student should share at least 5 articles before the end of the semester.

Blog Posts

Throughout the semester, you will write four blog posts, each due before the start of class. These 250-400 word posts should be written informally and posts are due by the start of the relevant class or section meeting. The blog posts are designed to help you prepare for discussion and to provide a forum for you to write informally. They should include your response to the readings: What do you have questions about? What confused or interested you? How do themes in recent readings relate to topics we studied earlier in the course.


Weeks without other assignments will entail short quizzes (5-6 minutes) at the beginning of class. These quizzes are graded generously and serve two functions: 1) they help ensure that all participants read the materials before class and 2) they help guide your studying and learning by highlighting the most important questions and themes of the course. The goal setting assignment due through Canvas before the second day of class is assessed as a quiz for grading purposes.

Short Essays

Two short essays, between 800-1100 words, will follow units on the Disciplinary Prison and on the Policing of Religious and Racial Pluralism during the Cold War. Prompts and instructions for these essays will be distributed in class.


Take-home midterm and final exams will consist of short answer identification questions that will help you organize and retain the key thematic ideas, three to five slightly longer form questions to be answered in a paragraph, and one (for the midterm) or two (for the final) short essays asking you to synthesize your knowledge. The exams will be based closely on the assigned texts and discussions from class. In addition to review, the best way to prepare for them is to keep up with the reading, actively participate in class discussions, and review the material covered in the quizzes.

In the 1960s, religious groups promoted rehabilitation programs by emphasizing that former prisoners were “sinners like you and me.” Pamphlets from St. Leonard’s House, ca. 1965, Box A664, Archives of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

A Note on the Structure of these Assignments

This course uses frequent, low-stakes assessments (such as quizzes, blog posts, and short essays) for several purposes. One function is that they provide me an opportunity to gauge your learning and comprehension; by the same token, they will also provide you with a sense how you are doing in the class. Another important function is that they provide an opportunity to practice the types of skills you will be asked to demonstrate on exams. Questions on quizzes will resemble the short answers and the blog posts and essays will resemble the essays that are part of the midterm and final exams. It is best to think of the low-stakes assignments as skill-building activities. The assignments in this course are “scaffolded,” meaning that they become more difficult over the course of the semester as you develop your skills and deepen your knowledge.


All articles, book chapters, and documents listed in the syllabus will be available electronically, either as pdf files on Canvas or as online links in the syllabus.

Technology in the Classroom

Laptops or tablets will serve useful purposes in this course, including bringing up digital copies of readings and documents during discussion. For some in- class exercises, it will be essential for at least some members of the class to have access to online databases archives and to the Canvas site. Laptops/tablets should be closed during the class segments when they are not necessary. Using technology for non-class related purposes is not allowed and is both disrespectful and distracting to your classmates. The research on the negative effects of online multi-tasking during class is unambiguous. Cell phones should be turned off or muted during class and should not be in sight at any time. Please follow these guidelines so that we can utilize technology productively in the classroom, rather than adopt the zero-tolerance policy of many university courses.

Style and Citation Guide

You should write papers in a double-spaced, reader-friendly, size 12 font and use normal (1 or 1.5 inch) margins. Proper citation of all sources is expected. Please use the Chicago Manual of Style or follow the guide written by Steve Volk, available here.

Course Schedule

This syllabus will change. Any change will be announced on Canvas, in class, and reflected here on the online syllabus.


Monday, August 27, 2018

Execution Sermons: Community, Order, Vengence

Wednesday, August 29: Goal Setting Assignment Due before Class.

  • Katherine Grandjean, “‘Our Fellow-Creatures & our Fellow-Christians’: Race and Religion in Eighteenth-Century Narratives of Indian Crime,” American Quarterly 62, No. 4 (December 2010), 925-950.

  • Nathan Strong, A Sermon Preached in Hartford, June 10th, 1797, at the Execution of Richard Doane (Hartford: Elisha Babcock, 1797). A PDF of the original printing is available on Canvas. A transcription is available here.

  • Bob Marley and the Wailers, “Keep on Moving” (1977).

A depiction of a hanging in New England, courtesy of the New England Historical Society.

The Disciplinary Prison in the Revolutionary Era

Wednesday, September 5

  • Michel Foucault, “Torture,” in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage, 1979).
  • Handout for Blog Post #1 Distributed in Class.

Monday, September 10 (Rosh Hashana): Blog Post #1 Due before Class.

Wednesday, September 12

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday September 12-14

  • Meet 1-on-1 to discuss your essay, due the following week.

Monday, September 17

Criminalization, Racism, and Social Control

Wednesday, September 19:

  • Film: 13th, Ava DuVernay (Netflix, 2013).

First Short Essay Due on Canvas at 6pm Friday, September 21.

Monday, September 24

At Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, the administration forced prisoners to wear masks if they moved out of their cells as part of an effort to prevent prisoners from being identified. Courtesy of Eastern State Historic Site.

Solitude and isolation were believed to facilitate penitence and reform. Courtesy of Eastern State Historic Site.

Vice, Morals, and the Social Gospel

Wednesday, September 26

Campaigns against “vice” defined many aspects of urban American life during the Progressive Era.

Monday, October 1: Blog Post #2 Due at 10 pm September 30.

Wednesday, October 3

Monday, October 8

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Killing with Electricity

Wednesday, October 17

Policing Religious and Racial Pluralism during the Cold War

Monday October 22

Wednesday, October 24

  • Kathryn Gin Lum and Lerone A. Martin, “American Religion and the Rise of Internal Security: A Prologue,” in The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11, ed., Sylvester A. Johnson and Steven Weitzman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017).

  • Dianne Kirby, “J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI, and the Religious Cold War,” in The FBI and Religion, ed., Sylvester A. Johnson and Steven Weitzman.

  • Song: Raymond J. Mauer, “Duck and Cover” (1951).

Monday, October 29

Prisoners at Attica State Prison in 1971 participate in a negotiation session. Associated Press.

Religious Movements for Criminal Justice Reform amid Mass Incarceration (on the Political Left and Right)

Wednesday, October 31

Monday, November 5 Blog Post #3 Due at 10 pm on November 4.

  • Garrett Felber, “Shades of Mississippi: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle,” Journal of American History (July 2018).
  • Suggested/supplemental listening: Interview with Garrett Felber, Journal of American History Podcast (June 2018).
  • Skype Q&A with Garrett Felber.

Wednesday, November 7

Monday, November 12

Wednesday, November 14

After converting in prison, former Nixon aide and Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson established Prison Fellowship. The organization promotes prison ministry and advocates for criminal justice reform. Colson died in 2012. Courtesy of Prison Fellowship.

Monday, November 19: Second Short Essay Due on Canvas.

Wednesday, November 21

Civil Religion and Surveillance in the “War on Terror”

Monday, November 26

Wednesday, November 28: Blog Post #4 Due 10 pm November 27.

Migration and Sanctuary into the Trump Era

Monday, December 3

Wednesday, December 5

TBD – Take-home final exam due.