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Atheist group protests Kanye West’s prison proselytizing

Kanye West visited a Texas prison. Then the sheriff, Kanye, and the prisoners were admonished by anti-faith group The Freedom from Religion Foundation.
Libby Emmons Brooklyn, NY

Prisoners often find themselves mixed up in ideological warfare that has nothing to do with their rehabilitation, and everything to do with opposing cultural forces. Such is the case with born-again Christian pop star Kanye West’s recent visit to the Harris County Jail in Texas. West brought his musical worship service to prisoners, leading with light and God’s love, to the people who need it most. For that, the local Sheriff Ed Gonzales, West, and the prisoners were admonished by anti-faith group The Freedom from Religion Foundation.

Sheriff Gonzalez and the prisoners at Harris County Jail had a different take.

While The Freedom from Religion Foundation primarily files lawsuits and does not go into prisons to help prisoners in their journey toward atonement, forgiveness, and reentering society, they took issue with West’s work to actually help people. This is some of the most elitist, entitled, patronizing displays of legal bludgeoning since The Freedom from Religion Foundation took issue with the federal funding of a mentorship program for the children of prisoners.

West made the appearance at the Harris County Jail for a worship service prior to attending televangelist Joel Osteen’s ministry, and repeatedly told the crowd of men in orange jumpsuits that “This is a mission, not a show.” It was that mission that got him in trouble with the atheists, who must think there is some better way to salvation and healing than seeking forgiveness and absolution from a higher power. Perhaps they have a plan to go into prisons and give a concert about how a secular life of consumerist materialism will lead to healing. But probably they don’t.

Despite the downturn in religious practice in the United States, faith in God is still often a way for people to discover a healthy path toward healing and becoming their best selves. While the argument against the intrusion of church into state affairs is judicially established, the emergence of atheism as a religious force should now be subject to those same considerations. Organized atheism is very similar to organized religion, except adherents rally around the absence of God instead of his existence.

Atheism is not neutral, it is, in fact, its own growing belief system. It is just as intrusive to bar religious practice in favour of anti-religious practice, because both are belief systems. If prisoners would rather not be party to either kind of faith practice, or worship service, or nothing service, they don’t have to be. What The Freedom from Religion Foundation doesn’t want to admit to is that putting trust in a higher power in order to become a better person more aligned with the values of kindness, love, and forgiveness, works.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation has that much beef with God and faith that they deny a person’s betterment by demanding that only non faith-based intellectual and emotional tools be sanctioned. Their argument is that classic separation of church and state squabble that keeps prayers out of schools, the mention of God off of memorials to fallen soldiers, and money flowing away from programs that actually help people instead of keeping their feet nailed to the same detrimental path that brought them to prison in the first place.

The argument made against West’s mission was that the prisoners are “literally a captive audience—who have a deep and immediate interest in being seen favourably by the jail staff.” The Freedom from Religion Foundation thinks so little of prisoners’ ability to think for themselves that they would rather deny those who want to participate in religious service than believe that those who don’t want to attend will feel coerced to do so.

Perhaps up next will be the legal removal of every kind of religious services from prisons, chaplains from the armed forces, and crosses atop churches from being visible. If these atheists really cared about the welfare of those men and women suffering in our overcrowded prison systems, they would use their legal funds to bring programs to those incarcerated souls who need uplifting, who need to hear a message that life has meaning and that caring and love are truly possible. Using the court system to belittle and demean those who have already been subjected to the inequities of that system is certainly unreasonably cruel.

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Libby Emmons
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