Advocacy and Justice: An Interview with Steven Harris

The Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission's policy director on advocacy and the history of criminal justice.

In national politics, lobbying is usually discussed as a problem that needs to be solved. But citizen activism, advocacy and lobbying are important parts of our policy-making process. Our country is large and our people are diverse, so few of us can expect our elected officials to see most issues the same way we do ourselves. Lobbying, advocacy and activism are the various processes constituents use to make our hopes and convictions known to our elected officials between elections. This is true at all levels of government, but becomes especially important when it comes to the federal government, where our elected officials both represent very large constituencies and spend a significant portion of their time discharging their duties in Washington, DC, far away from their home districts.  

In the abridged timeline of criminal justice reform we shared earlier this month, we included several specific examples of activism and advocacy. This included personal lobbying by celebrities (Kanye West and Kim Kardashian), direct advocacy from special-interest groups (a coalition of black clergy), and the work of an even wider range of activists who sprang into action when the opportunity presented itself. 

To help give us a clearer idea of what this activism and advocacy looks like in action, I reached out to Steven Harris. Steven is a Policy Director at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which is the lobbying arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). As the largest protestant denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention is often seen by policymakers and journalists as a bellwether for evangelicalism as a whole, so the ERLC’s team can offer helpful insight into what the process of citizen lobbying is like. 

I spoke with Steven about the history of the push for criminal justice reform and what the ERLC’s participation in the push looked like.  

 

Rick Barry
The New York Times recently quoted Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, as saying that, “Criminal justice has gone from being the ultimate wedge issue to the most meaningful area of bi-partisan agreement.” We are in a deeply weird moment in American partisan history where this issue that, for my entire life, was a big winnowing rod, an easy way to differentiate between conservatives and liberals, is now maybe the only thing that Republicans and Democrats can agree on.

I’d love to talk a little bit about the story of how this happened.

Steven Harris
One of the things that has united a lot of people is revisiting the history of this issue, and reckoning with the history of the current policy—its intents and its effects. The “Tough on Crime” era is a big historical flashpoint for people. People are putting together the data on what those kinds of policy prescriptions ended up meaning for our communities and asking whether where this particular approach got us is where we would want to be: Incarceration rates have sky-rocketed. Recidivism rates have not gone down in the way that we would like them to. And we’re seeing that this particular system has kind of wreaked havoc on particular communities, with individual lives being affected, families being affected, multiple generations of families being affected.

So the present-day discourse is certainly informed by a particular reading and rereading of the policy history. A lot of people are looking very critically at that and thinking very critically about whether we can remedy and right those wrongs.

The “Tough on Crime” era refers to a period when violent crime became an increasingly common topic in US national politics, provoking a feedback loop between candidates and the electorate. The issue could easily provoke fear in the electorate, which led to candidates championing increasingly harsh and punitive policies so as to avoid being painted as “soft on crime” by their opponents. The result was a virtual arms race of rhetoric—the more candidates campaigned on the topic, the more heavily it weighed on voters’ minds; the more it weighed on voters’ minds, the more they demanded it be addressed by their legislators. This changed the character of the electorate and the nature of many laws.  

While its roots stretch back much farther, the “Tough on Crime” era is generally considered to have begun with the introduction of “mandatory minimums” under President Reagan, escalated  with 1988’s infamous “Willie Horton” ad, reached its apex with the Crime Bill signed into law by President Clinton in 1994, and concluded with the Congressional expansion of mandatory minimums in 2003 under President Bush.

Rick Barry
As I understand it, this is one of the issues that ERLC has a position on and has been doing some work on. Is that correct? If so, Can you share a little bit about what role, if any, ERLC has had in this process?

Steven Harris
Yes, that’s correct. The [Southern Baptist] denomination passed a resolution in 2013 entitled “On America’s Growing Prison Population,” which sought to interrogate long-held assumptions about how our criminal justice system operates. The resolution sought to make sure that we were thinking wisely about how we deal with individuals who enter into our justice system and with individuals leaving the system. Were we really lowering recidivism rates?

The denomination really sought to issue a decisive critique of not only sentencing, but also internal programs that were being done in our federal prisons so that we might move to a place where we’re not just warehousing offenders, but being more transformative, wiser, thinking about the long-term sustainability and flourishing of our communities and the individuals who enter into that system.

So, the denomination has spoken very clearly about this, and we have been very pleased to engage in criminal justice reform efforts based off that statement.

Rick Barry
What does that engagement look like? What have you all been doing in the five years since that resolution was passed?

Steven Harris
We have been engaged in coalition work[, building teams of people and organizations] to raise this issue and make it a priority with different congressional offices. We make the case that, “Hey, this is something Christians are sensitive to. Here is why many Christians are growing in their engagement on this front, and how those Christians tether their biblical convictions to this particular issue.”

When I first started in this role, there was a big, comprehensive bill that called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act led by Senators Durbin and Grassley. We were very engaged with on-the-ground advocacy for that particular piece of legislation, trying to make the case to different members in both the House and the Senate. The House proceeded in a more piecemeal fashion under the leadership of Rep. Bob Goodlatte and the House Judiciary Committee.

Rick Barry
You said a lot of your advocacy has been meeting with members of Congress or the Senate, or their staff, to explain the perspective, values or desires of Southern Baptists. You’re almost doing advocacy on behalf of those Southern Baptists. It’s like you’re deputized by citizens who are members of the Southern Baptist Convention to speak for them on particular issues so that they don’t have to be the ones constantly writing the letters, booking plane tickets or train tickets, driving to DC to try to get a meeting with their representative about every issue that motivates them.

Steven Harris
That’s exactly right. We’re always trying to make the case, depending on what office we’re in and what issue we’re talking about, that, “Some of your constituents are theologically motivated. If you’re going to represent them well, we think it’s best for you to know as much as you can about as many of the people you’re seeking to represent as you can.”

Rick Barry
And working on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention probably puts you in a unique position. There are definitely particular states and particular regions where the Southern Baptist Convention is more widely represented, where there are more Southern Baptist than others. But the Southern Baptist Convention is also the largest protestant denomination in the country. So, do you tend to target your advocacy work state-by-state? Do you have deeper relationships with representatives from states where there are more Southern Baptists? Or does the SBC’s status as the largest protestant denomination mean that you have room to speak into the decision-making of representatives from other states, too?

Steven Harris
If we’re doing good work, we’ll always be aware of the constituencies of the member of Congress, the region, the state we’re talking about. But, as a denomination, we’ve often gone into offices on particular issues because a staffer says, “Hey, my boss really wants to get a feel for where evangelicals are on this issue.” That may not be a state where there’s a deep population of Southern Baptists in particular, but they just want to know what people of faith think about a given issue. The ERLC, by God’s grace, has been perceived to be one of those organizations where we can kind of give that kind of perspective. “Not all Christians think this way, but here’s how many Christians think about it, and possibly why.”

Rick Barry
I imagine that the nationalization of our political identities, and the nationalization of our media, has probably opened some of those doors, as well. A representative from Maine probably wouldn’t need to bear in mind what southern evangelicals thought about a particular issue 50 years ago.

Steven Harris
Yeah, I think that’s certainly the case, particularly as the relationship between religion and politics is one that is very ripe in our public discourse. People are being sensitized to the different ways in which citizens are motivated, the different ways in which we orient our lives—whether that’s religiously, or by some kind of self-identifier. Elected officials wanting to fulfill that title, “representative,” and so they want to know the different ways in which people situate themselves. I think that’s a good thing.

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