This research paper provides a review of the literature on religion and crime from three distinctive topic areas: (1) the effects of religion on the commission of criminal and deviant acts, (2) the effects of religion on prison misconduct and recidivism, and (3) the effects of religion on attitudes toward crime control. Studies in all three areas suggest a nuanced and inconsistent relationship between religion and crime. It is fair to say that religion, to varying degrees, is related to several crime-related factors.
II. Religion and Criminal or Deviant Behaviors
III. Religion and Prison
IV. Limitations of Studies
An impressive research literature that identifies linkages between religion and a wide range of attitudes, behaviors, and life events has emerged. This research suggests that religiosity—a cognitive and behavioral commitment to organized religion—is associated with factors such as interpersonal friendliness; psychological and physical well-being; comfort for those who face difficult life situations, such as family problems, divorce, and unemployment; marital happiness; participation in politics and political movements; and volunteering in community organizations. A recurrent theme in this literature is that religion may operate as a social force for reducing negative behaviors and for increasing positive behaviors.
The relationship between religion and crime, however, is not as straightforward. Research on this topic since the 1960s has yielded widely varying results. Whereas many studies have found that religion is significantly related to a host of crime-related factors, others have found no relationship. This research paper is designed to introduce readers to the extensive literature on religion and crime. It is organized along three dimensions. First, research on the relationship between religion and the commission of criminal and deviant acts is discussed. Second, research on religion in the prison context is reviewed. Third, research on the relationship between religion and crime control attitudes is presented.
II. Religion and Criminal or Deviant Behaviors
Researchers have long sought to understand the relationship between religion and the commission of criminal or deviant behaviors. French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1897) was one of the first to consider this topic. Durkheim believed that religion operated as a social force such that greater levels of religious commitment should lead to reduced negative behaviors. Before the empirical research on this topic is discussed, the important question to address is how religion may reduce criminal or deviant behaviors. The answer lies in insights drawn from social capital theory (Coleman, 1988) and social control theory (Hirschi, 1969). Many researchers contend that religious involvement may create social networks and emotional support that will constrain criminal behavior. Religious individuals tend to be bonded to religious institutions that provide informal social control over their behaviors. The behavior of individuals with higher levels of religiosity is thought to be guided by the sanctions derived from religion. According to this logic, religiosity may operate as a shield against negative behaviors such as crime and deviance by creating and reinforcing social networks and social bonds.
Closely related to the avoidance of criminal and deviant behaviors is the promotion of prosocial behaviors. Christopher Ellison (1992) contended that religiosity may be linked with prosocial behaviors for two key reasons. First, individuals with higher levels of religious commitment are more likely to engage in religious role-taking such that they interact with others according to their perceptions of what a “divine other” would expect. Religious individuals may view life from “the vantage point of the ‘God-role,’ by attempting to understand how a divine other would expect them to behave toward their fellows” (Ellison, 1992, p. 413). Second, religious individuals may internalize religious norms concerning kindness, empathy, and civility. Scriptural stories such as the Good Samaritan and scriptural precepts such as the Golden Rule provide structure and a model for relationships with others.
A. Review of Empirical Studies
The first major empirical study of religion and crime was conducted by Travis Hirschi and Rodney Stark (1969). They used survey data on youth from California to test the hellfire hypothesis, which predicted that religion could deter crime on the individual level through the fear of supernatural sanctions and at the same time encourage prosocial behaviors through the hope and promise of supernatural rewards. The authors investigated whether individuals who attended church were less likely than individuals who do not attend church to engage in a variety of delinquent behaviors. They also investigated whether belief in supernatural sanctions for bad behavior deterred the same delinquent behaviors. Hirschi and Stark found no relationship between religious attendance or belief in supernatural sanctions and self-reported delinquent acts. They concluded that respondents’ decisions to commit crimes were linked with perceptions of pleasure and pain on earth, instead of on perceived heavenly rewards for good behavior or the punishment of hellfire for sinful acts. Since Hirschi and Stark’s landmark study, investigators have produced approximately two studies per year on this topic. The relationship between religion and crime has also been the subject of a metaanalysis (Baier & Wright, 2001) and a systematic review (Johnson, De Li, Larsen, & McCullough, 2000).
In a subsequent study, Stark, Kent, and Doyle (1982) suggested that the findings from Hirschi and Stark’s (1969) study were largely due to the moral makeup of the area in which it was conducted (Richmond, California). In what has become known as the moral communities hypothesis, Stark et al. contended that religion is best understood as a structural property of communities rather than as an individual attribute of persons. In other words, religion is most likely to reduce crime and deviance in more religious areas of the United States (e.g., Southeast, Midwest), and is less likely to do so in less religious areas (e.g., Northeast, Pacific Northwest). In terms of church membership and church attendance, Richmond, California, had very low rates of religious commitment relative to the rest of the country. Stark et al. characterized this area as a “secular community” rather than as a “moral community.” The moral makeup of the community thus helped to explain why religiosity did not reduce crime in the original study (see also Stark, 1996).
Similar to Stark et al. (1982), Higgins and Albrecht (1977) suggested that the absence of a significant relationship between religiosity and delinquency in Hirschi and Stark’s (1969) landmark study stemmed from the use of a sample from a primarily nonreligious Western population. Higgins and Albrecht analyzed a sample drawn from the more religious-oriented South and found that religiosity led to reductions in the amount of self-reported crime and deviance. They also found that, in addition to religiosity, peer expectations and relationship with parents were predictors of crime and deviance. Thus, Higgins and Albrecht concluded that Hirschi and Stark’s research may have yielded accurate results for the western area they studied, but the results of studies conducted in other areas of the country, characterized by strong religious communities, are likely to be the opposite.
Burkett and White (1974) offered a rival explanation to Hirschi and Stark’s (1969) findings. They suggested that the effects of religion on crime will vary depending on the type of crime. Using survey data on high school students in Pennsylvania, they found that religion is most likely to reduce behaviors that have a strong moral or ascetic connotation in religious circles but are not universally looked down on in society (e.g., alcohol and drug use, gambling, premarital sex). The authors reported that higher levels of religious participation led to significant decreases in students’ use of alcohol and marijuana, but it did not influence involvement in property or violent offenses. Burkett and White’s work comprises what is called the anti-asceticism hypothesis.
Using data on middle and high school students in three Midwestern states, Cochran and Akers (1989) reached a conclusion similar to that of Burkett and White (1974). Cochran and Akers tested several competing theories of the relationship between crime and delinquency and found that the anti-asceticism hypothesis received the most support; specifically, the more religious students in the sample reported significantly lower levels of alcohol and marijuana use than less religious students and nonreligious students, but there was no significant effect of religion on other types of crimes.
Lee Ellis (1987) suggested that the relationship between religion and crime is spurious; that is, the relationship is contingent on another factor, which in this case is the arousal level of each individual. According to Ellis’s arousal theory, criminal behavior is related to innate variations in each individual’s demand for neurological stimulation. Ellis contended that criminals are naturally prone to boredom and that criminal actions are a means of finding arousal through risk-seeking behavior. If individuals have suboptimal arousal levels (a tendency to be bored), they will seek stimulation to meet their psychological and physiological needs. This need for stimulation is greater than for individuals with normal levels of arousal. This is not to say that all stimulation sought by suboptimal individuals will be criminal but that the risk-seeking behaviors may, in some cases, be criminal.
In terms of religiosity, Ellis (1987) predicted that individuals who have suboptimal arousal levels will have low levels of church attendance, because religious services often are routine and solemn events. In Ellis’s test of his theory, he measured religion on the basis of church membership, church attendance, belief in God, denominational measures, belief in immortality, and other beliefs. He then measured arousal in two ways: (1) neurological and (2) extraneurological. The neurological measure included basic brain wave readings from an EEG. Extraneurological measures were divided into two subcategories: (1) physiological measures and (2) self-reported measures. Physiological measures involved skin conductivity and other arousal indicators, such as heart and pulse rates, startle reflexes, and adrenaline secretions. The self-reported measures consisted of responses about the exciting and boring activities in which the participants took part.
On the basis of this research, Ellis (1987) reached three main conclusions: (1) Among church members, those who attended church more often exhibited lower crime rates than those whose attendance was infrequent; (2) those who believed in an afterlife where their sins would be punished had lower crime rates than those who lacked the same belief, and (3) Jewish crime rates were lower than for Christians, and Protestants had lower crime rates than Catholics. He concluded that religious participation was associated with lower levels of criminal conduct; however, he found that the observed relationship between religion and crime was no longer strong once the level of arousal was accounted for. Thus, Ellis concluded that arousal level was the best predictor of both religiosity and criminal behavior.
Cochran and colleagues (Cochran, Wood, & Arneklev, 1994) used data on high school students in Oklahoma to investigate whether religion could reduce the incidence of several different types of crimes. Along with measures of religiosity, the authors included measures based on arousal and social control theories. Similar to Ellis (1987), the authors found that the religion–crime relationship was spurious; more specifically, the relationship between religion and crime disappeared once the arousal levels and social controls of the individuals were accounted for.
Benda and Corwyn (1997) analyzed data on students in three Arkansas high schools to determine whether religion was related to several different types of delinquent and criminal behaviors. They found that greater levels of religiosity (in particular, church attendance) reduced the likelihood of status offenses (e.g., skipping school, fake excuses for missing school, running away) but did not reduce the likelihood of several crimes against persons or property. When measures of social control were accounted for, however, the relationship between religiosity and status offenses disappeared, and there was still no effect of religiosity on crime.
Byron Johnson and his colleagues (Johnson, Jang, Larson, & De Li, 2001) analyzed data from the National Youth Survey and came to a very different conclusion about the relationship between religiosity and delinquency. They attempted to explain involvement in 35 different types of delinquent behavior on the basis of religiosity, social controls, and social learning, and found that religiosity directly reduced delinquent behavior, even after controlling for youth’s social bonds to society and the extent of their delinquent associations.
Welch, Tittle, and Grasmick (2006) examined the relationships among religiosity, self-control, and crime. They analyzed survey data on adults in Oklahoma to determine the key predictors of five different types of crimes. The authors found that religiosity and self-control operate on significant, independent tracks for deterring crime. In other words, higher levels of religious commitment directly reduced the likelihood of criminal activities even after accounting for individuals’ level of self-control.
Finally, two sets of scholars compiled and reviewed a large number of empirical studies of religion and crime to determine the overall strength and nature of the relationship. Johnson and associates (Johnson, De Li, et al., 2000) reviewed 40 studies of the relationship between religion and delinquency conducted between January 1985 and December 1997. They used a method called systematic review, which involves a search of all peer-reviewed journals in the social and behavioral sciences. Of the 40 studies of religiosity and crime/delinquency they identified, 30 indicated that religion had a beneficial effect (i.e., led to reductions in) on many types of criminal and deviant behaviors. The 10 remaining studies showed either no effect (5 studies), mixed effects (3 studies), positive effects (1 study), or effects not specified (1 study). Thus, Johnson et al. concluded that the research literature consistently has shown that religion leads directly or indirectly to reductions in criminal and deviant behavior. Baier and Wright (2001) reviewed 60 studies of religion and crime that were conducted between 1969 and 1998. They concluded that, overall, religion had a “moderate” effect on reductions in criminal and deviant behaviors.
III. Religion and Prison
The relationship between religion and crime has also received attention from scholars who have studied religion in the prison context. Religion has been a tool for correctional treatment since the inception of the penal system in the United States. In fact, the first penitentiaries were developed by Quakers for offenders to study the Bible to facilitate their rehabilitation. Currently, most states employ full-time chaplains and allow members of local religious congregations to promote faith to the incarcerated. Before studies of religiosity and faith-based programs in prison are reviewed, it is important to learn more about prison chaplains and local religious congregants.
A. Prison Chaplains and Local Religious Congregants
Much of the literature on prison chaplains has been written by chaplains themselves. The most prevalent topic in the literature is the transformation of their position in the last century from guiding inmates to spiritual conversion to serving as counselors, organizers, and liaisons for inmates. One particular concern for chaplains is balancing the provision of religious programs with active proselytization. The once-accepted practice of using inmates as a “captive audience” for chaplains has now been dismissed. It is unethical, and in some cases illegal, for chaplains to force inmates to attend a religious program. In addition to not forcing their beliefs on inmates, prison chaplains must be respectful of whatever religious beliefs are present in the prison. The majority of inmates and chaplains identify with some form of Christianity, but a growing minority adhere to other religions, including Islam and Judaism. Chaplains must ensure that inmates have the materials and personnel necessary to fulfill the religious rites of the faith tradition to which they adhere.
Sundt and Cullen (1998) sought to determine the types of tasks prison chaplains spent most of their time doing in order to categorize those tasks as either spiritual or secular. They also attempted to determine whether what chaplains perceive they should be doing is what they actually are doing. The authors mailed questionnaires to a sample of 500 chaplains. They hypothesized that chaplains would see spiritual duties as their primary responsibility but that they would report being responsible for more secular duties. The authors found that chaplains consider the secular activity of counseling inmates to be their highest priority and the area on which they spend the most time. The study showed that, with the exception of the time spent coordinating volunteers, chaplains mostly spent their time on the tasks they perceived to be most important. Most chaplains perceived their role to be primarily supportive of inmates, but custodial activities were a substantial part of their job as well. Sundt and Cullen concluded that it does appear that chaplains have secular activities, such as counseling, as their primary responsibility; however, this did not appear to produce greater role ambiguity among the chaplains than for most people working in corrections.
In a follow-up study conducted on the basis of data on chaplains in NewYork, Sundt, Dammer, and Cullen (2002) measured chaplains’ support for treatment, the amount of counseling done by chaplains, and the content of the counseling sessions. Most chaplains favored treatment and rehabilitation along with punishment and did not see the rehabilitation model as a failure. They found that chaplains used a variety of counseling methods during their sessions; however, most reported using a spiritual orientation in these sessions. As these studies demonstrate, counseling has become one of the most important aspects of modern chaplaincy. However, in addition to counseling inmates, chaplains are expected to be a liaison between inmates and the rest of the correctional staff and, in some cases, even an advocate for inmates.
In a third study, Sundt and Cullen (2002) surveyed chaplains to determine their perspective on the purpose of imprisonment. They hypothesized that those who are in the field of service, such as chaplains, would be more supportive of rehabilitation efforts and less likely to be punitive. They found that although almost half of the chaplains thought that the primary purpose of incarceration should be incapacitation, when they had to choose between rehabilitation and punishment, they chose rehabilitation. Not surprisingly, chaplains thought that religion was the best method for reforming inmates. The authors concluded that chaplains support rehabilitation and consider their work to be such. Chaplains who felt called to work in chaplaincy and those who viewed God as forgiving were more likely to have a rehabilitative view.
As the responsibilities of prison chaplains change and prison populations increase, local religious congregants are a more vital part of faith-based prison programs. With an increase in secular responsibilities and shortage in money per inmate, chaplains increasingly rely on local religious congregants to help with the workload. Local religious congregants can be helpful when inmates have spiritual requests for which chaplains are not trained or equipped to respond. Tewksbury and Dabney (2004) found that nearly 60% of prison volunteers reported contributing financial or material goods to their work. That is substantial support in an overcrowded prison system in which budgets are limited for rehabilitation programs. The downside of looking to the community for help is that, as a result of budget cuts, chaplains themselves are being replaced by local religious congregants in order to cut costs. According to chaplains, the main disadvantage of this trend is that local religious congregants do not have the training that is required of chaplains. Chaplains are necessary to train the congregants visiting the prison so that they are aware of and adhere to the rules of the facility. Also, local religious congregants cannot be expected to meet all of the demands required of a chaplain, including counseling and advocacy.
Tewksbury and colleagues conducted two studies of prison volunteers. In the first study, Tewksbury and Dabney (2004) surveyed volunteers at a southern prison who were attending a mandatory training session. The point of the survey was to determine who was volunteering, why, and how he or she benefited. The most frequently reported motivation for coming to the prison was to share religious beliefs. Other reasons for volunteering were to help others, because they were asked to do so, or because they had a relative in prison. Overall, the ratings the volunteers gave for their experience and satisfaction were positive. The questions regarding satisfaction all averaged over 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing complete agreement. Nearly half of the volunteers listed seeing a change in the inmates as the most rewarding part of their experience. Tewksbury and Dabney concluded that the main population of volunteers came from the religious community. Those volunteers showed high levels of satisfaction and showed that they are willing to make sacrifices in order to volunteer.
In a more recent study, Tewksbury and Collins (2005) surveyed a different group of local religious congregants doing faith-based prison work. They asked these congregants about the same motivations and their perceived rewards from the work in order to help recruit future local religious congregants. In this instance, the authors used anonymous surveys, which were distributed to local congregants who volunteered in three Kentucky prisons. The vast majority identified with some form of Christianity, and most had served more than 1 but less than 10 years as a volunteer. There were a multitude of tasks that were reportedly done by the local religious congregants. The most commonly reported tasks were teaching, preaching, counseling, and studying religious texts. Nearly all prison volunteers reported intrinsic rewards, such as feeling that they were serving God and had a true sense of purpose.
B. Review of Empirical Studies
Researchers who study religion in the prison context have focused on two issues: (1) whether inmates’ level of religiosity affects prison behavior and (2) whether religiosity reduces the likelihood of arrest after release (i.e., recidivism). Several of the major studies of religion in prison context have been conducted by Johnson and his colleagues. Using a sample of inmates released from a Florida prison between 1978 and 1982, Johnson (1987) found that inmate religiosity, chaplains’ assessment of inmate religiosity, and inmate religious service attendance did not affect the number of prison infractions committed or the amount of time inmates spent in disciplinary confinement.
Johnson, Larson, and Pitts (1997) conducted an evaluation of a faith-based program sponsored by Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM). A sample of prisoners in four New York state prisons was chosen because the PFM staff in that prison had kept thorough records. Among the 40,000 inmates in the four prisons, 201 male prisoners were chosen on the basis of their similarities to the control group. Inmates were categorized on the basis of how often they participated in three different kinds of religious programs and the length of time they were involved in an activity. Inmates who participated in 10 or more activities per year were considered highly active, those participating in 1 to 9 programs were considered medium active, and those who did not attend were classified as inactive. Johnson et al. evaluated the inmates’ incident records while incarcerated as well as their arrest records up to 1 year after release. They hypothesized that the number of infractions while incarcerated, including serious infractions, would be inversely proportional to level of participation in PFM programs and that inmates who were most active would be less likely to be rearrested than those who had less participation.
Johnson et al. (1997) found that participation in PFM activities was not related to the prison infractions; in fact, inmates who were most active in PFM activities were most likely to have a record of serious infractions. The authors were unable to determine which activity was first (the PFM activity or the infraction) but suggested that the inmates might have committed the infractions and then turned to religion to make amends. Inmates involved in PFM activities did not have a significantly reduced likelihood of recidivism compared with the control group. However, Johnson et al. found that inmates who were most heavily involved in PFM activities were much less likely to have been arrested 1 year after their release than individuals in the control group.
In 2004, Johnson conducted a follow-up study with several modifications. In particular, he changed the definition of active participation and increased the amount of time evaluated after the inmates were released. By lowering the number of activities in which inmates must participate to be considered having high participation from 10 or greater to 5 or greater, and increasing the time after release from 1 year to 8 years, he was able to determine more thoroughly the effect of involvement in PFM activities. Johnson found little difference between the median arrest times and reincarceration rates between PFM and non-PFM inmates. The survival rate, or the rate at which inmates were arrested after release, was slightly lower for the PFM group at 8 years, but the only significant differences appeared when highly active inmates were compared with low-activity inmates. Program attendance was insignificant when predicting recidivism, and participation in PFM programs was insignificant as a predictor compared with virtually all other variables through the 8-year mark. Johnson concluded that there was little difference in recidivism rates between inmates at different levels of participation after 8 years.
Todd Clear and his colleagues (Clear, Hardyman, Stout, Lucken, & Dammer, 2000) studied the potential benefits of any type of faith-based prison activity. They noted that although religion might be popular as a way to reduce recidivism, historically, any method for reducing recidivism will fall out of favor if it does not produce significant results. They sought to determine what benefits inmates could receive from religious activities in prisons. Clear et al. used both survey data and an ethnography of inmates involved in Christian and Muslim religious activities over the course of 10 months. They looked at the intrinsic values of being outwardly religious for prisoners, which they defined as the part that religion plays in helping them deal with the bad feelings they experienced because of their incarceration. They proposed that inmates who are active in religious activities would report, or have reported about them, mental or behavioral differences compared with those who were not active in the religious activities. This would demonstrate that religion can have intrinsic value in prison outside of any value it may have in reducing recidivism.
The results supported Clear et al.’s (2000) expectations that inmates who were active in religious activities differed from those who were not active in regard to emotional health, prosocial behaviors, and the benefits they received. They found that faith allowed inmates to receive forgiveness and to make restitution for their offenses. Also, it gave them hope that they could turn their lives around when they were released. The most religiously active inmates reported that religion allowed them a mental escape from the realities of prison life and helped to prevent involvement in activities that could cause them trouble.
Clear et al. (2000) also looked at the extrinsic values of religious participation in terms of how faith affects inmates’ relationships with others. Involvement in religious activities benefited inmates by providing them with a safe context in which to forge positive relationships in prison. These friends ensured a measure of safety. Especially for inmates practicing Islam, being part of a group provided them with a certain amount of protection, because their group was bound to protect them. Also, the physical act of going to religious activities or acting out religious rituals kept an inmate out of trouble or in safe places, such as the chapel. Being active in religious programs also allowed inmates to create relationships with individuals visiting from outside prison. This contact with those in the free world gave inmates a feeling that they had not been forgotten by society. The authors concluded that religious activities in prison can provide inmates with a way of coping with the shock that prison life can present (see also Clear & Sumter, 2002).
Kent Kerley and his colleagues (Kerley, Matthews, & Blanchard, 2005) studied the effect of religiosity on negative prison behaviors, specifically to determine whether it reduced frequent arguments and fights. A random sample of inmates at a large southeastern prison facility completed a survey relating to personal background, religious background, involvement in religious activities, and fighting or arguing with other inmates. The key outcome measures were arguing with other inmates and fighting with other inmates one or more times per month. The authors found that there is a correlation between religiosity and the amount of arguments in which inmates engage. Inmates who reported belief in a higher power and regularly attended prison religious services had a significantly lower likelihood of arguing once or more per month than those who did not. Religiosity reduced inmate fighting not directly but indirectly, by reducing the frequency of arguments.
In a follow-up study, Kerley, Allison, and Graham (2006) found that religiosity did not lead to a significant reduction in the experience of a range of negative emotions. They concluded that prison life is emotionally debilitating to the point that religion does not seem to reduce the experience of negative emotions but does appear to structure interpersonal relationships in prison by reducing negative interactions that could escalate to serious interpersonal conflicts.
Camp, Klein-Saffran, Kwon, Daggett, and Joseph (2006) found that inmates who participate in religious programs are seeking their way in a religious sense. They found that inmates who had a religious identity prior to incarceration were less likely to volunteer for religious programs offered in prison. They argue that religious programs are effective in reducing prison deviance and recidivism only for those inmates who are highly involved and not for inmates who have only a moderate or small amount of involvement.
C. Religion and Crime Control Attitudes
The third area in which investigators have studied the relationship between religion and crime is in regard to how religious ideology influences attitudes toward crime control. Overall, this research has demonstrated consistently that conservative Protestants (also referred to in the literature as evangelicals or fundamentalists) are more likely to support punitive crime control measures such as stricter sentences, three-strikes laws, capital punishment, and boot camps. Moreover, investigators have studied the relationship between religion and the perception of wrongfulness of crimes. Using survey data from Oklahoma, Curry (1996) examined the relationship between conservative Protestant beliefs and the perceived wrongfulness of crimes. He concluded that conservative Protestantism was positively associated with higher ratings of perceived wrongfulness of crimes when compared with other religious traditions and nonreligious orientations. Thus, both in terms of attitudes toward criminal sanctions and the seriousness of crime, evangelical Protestants are thought to hold more punitive and stringent attitudes compared with their nonreligious and mainline counterparts.
The important theoretical question is why conservative Protestants are more likely to support punitive treatment of criminal offenders than their nonreligious and mainline religious counterparts. According to John Bartkowski (2001, 2004), conservative Protestants typically privilege the logic of justice over the logic of mercy. The logic of justice places a premium on the judgment and condemnation of wrongdoing. It is focused on morality and emphasizes the punitive consequences of antisocial and criminal behaviors. By contrast, the logic of mercy stresses the importance of forgiveness of wrongdoers and highlights opportunities for redemption. In the Christian context, the logic of justice distinguishes the sheep (the saved) from the goats (the damned), whereas the logic of mercy stresses the equality of “God’s children,” all of whom are in need of divine redemption. In addition, conservative Protestants are more inclined to embrace an individualistic worldview that downplays the role of structural explanations for human behavior. Closely linked to this commitment to individualism, religious conservatives believe that moral accountability, which is facing the consequences for one’s actions, is of key importance.
The conservative Protestant tendency to prioritize justice over mercy does not mean that religious believers are incapable of exhibiting compassion. In fact, there is growing evidence that although the logic of justice predominates in conservative Protestant congregations, it is often intertwined with the logic of mercy. Recent survey research reveals that religious adherents who embrace images of God as loving and forgiving are less likely to support punitive reactions to criminal offending. Applegate, Cullen, Fisher, and Vander Ven (2005) considered the effects of religious forgiveness and the influence of traditional conservative religious views on punitiveness for offenders. Using survey data from Ohio, they found that a literal interpretation of the Bible and a punitive image of God were significantly related to favoring punishment and opposing rehabilitation programs for offenders. Conversely, they found that persons with stronger values of religious forgiveness were less likely to support capital punishment and less likely to support punitive approaches to offenders. Furthermore, stronger attachments to religious values of forgiveness were positively associated with favoring rehabilitation and treatment.
Unnever, Cullen, and Applegate (2005) investigated what they referred to as the “neglected variables” (compassion, forgiveness, and an image of a gracious God) from prior studies of religion and punitiveness. Using data from the 1998 General Social Survey, they found that all three of these measures of religious orientation were associated with being less punitive. The authors reported that individuals who truly can “turn the other cheek” and are compassionate toward others are less supportive of “get tough on crime” policies. In a follow-up study, Unnever and Cullen (2006) investigated whether Christian fundamentalists were more likely than nonfundamentalists to support capital punishment. Their results indicated that fundamentalists hold more religiously conservative beliefs, are more likely to express forgiveness and compassion, and are not more likely to support the death penalty than nonfundamentalists.
In a subsequent study analyzing data from the 2004 General Social Survey, Unnever, Cullen, and Bartkowski (2006) hypothesized that individuals reporting a personal relationship with a loving God would reject the worldview that punitiveness is an appropriate response to human failings. They argued that instead, forgiveness and unconditional love and mercy are extended from God to all who have failed or sinned. Their findings indicated that individuals with a close relationship with a loving God were significantly less likely to support capital punishment. The authors theorized that people with a close relationship with God are less likely to support the death penalty because it contradicts the power and purpose of God, denies offenders the opportunity for redemption, and is in opposition to the sentiment that only God can give and take away life (Unnever et al., 2006).
Thus, the current literature suggests that the religious convictions and practices of conservative Protestants are complex, not simple reflections of a punitive worldview. Local parishioners who focus on individualism and moral accountability prioritize the logic of justice in forming their crime control attitudes (e.g., judgment of wrongdoers, punitive consequences for transgression). Parishioners who focus on compassion and redemption prioritize the logic of mercy in forming their crime control attitudes (e.g., forgiveness of wrongdoers, reconciliation following repentance).
IV. Limitations of Studies
Many scholars have noted several important limitations of the research literature on religion, crime, and faith-based prison programs. First, scholars have questioned the quality and quantity of the measures of religiosity in some previous studies. Johnson, De Li, et al. (2000) found in their systematic review that only about half of the 40 studies they reviewed included three or more measures of religiosity. They also found that only 65% of the studies measured religious attendance, and only 35% measured time spent in prayer. Second, many studies were based on samples of individuals who had volunteered for faith-based interventions, as opposed to participants who had been randomly assigned to a religious or nonreligious group. This allows for the possibility of self-selection bias, because the effects of a religious program may be due not to the program itself but to whatever caused individuals to get involved in religion in the first place. Third, the large majority of studies have used all-male or predominantly male populations in the U.S. general population or in U.S. prisons. Additional research needs to be conducted with females and in other countries. Fourth, the overwhelming majority of studies have used cross-sectional data gathered at one point in time instead of longitudinal data gathered at multiple points in time. For example, only 5 of the 40 studies reviewed by Johnson, De Li, et al. (2000) used longitudinal data. Thus, more longitudinal studies are needed to determine the long-term impact of religion on crime, deviant behavior, prison behavior, recidivism, and crime control attitudes.
An impressive body of research has identified a significant relationship between religion and a wide range of attitudes, behaviors, and life events. Studies of the relationship between religion and crime, however, have not shown the same significant and uniform effects. This research paper has provided a review of the literature on religion and crime from three distinctive topic areas: (1) the effects of religion on the commission of criminal and deviant acts, (2) the effects of religion on prison misconduct and recidivism, and (3) the effects of religion on attitudes toward crime control. Studies in all three areas suggest a nuanced and inconsistent relationship between religion and crime. It is fair to say that religion, to varying degrees, is related to several crime-related factors. Additional research is needed to explore further the relationship and to understand the nuances. So long as religion continues to be a recognizable and prominent social institution, researchers will continue to assess the extent to which it influences crime and related factors.
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