A new study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion suggests that the link between religious affiliation and punitiveness in the United States is more complex than previously thought. The research found that religious affiliations, particularly the Evangelical affiliation, were no longer significantly associated with punitive attitudes after accounting for racial resentment.
“A core interest of mine is the American public’s attitudes toward crime and punishment. What I found when reading much of the literature published on this is that a large number of studies focus on two correlates of punitive attitudes — religion and punishment,” explained study author Jacob Harris, a PhD student at Cornell University.
“There is a lot of great work on this with some mixed findings on religion and near-universal support for prejudicial racial attitudes being associated with greater punitiveness. What was intriguing to me, however, is that no research had considered how racial attitudes might affect the relationship between religion and punitiveness, despite all three being correlated with one another. This was the main motivation for the study.”
For their study, Harris and his colleagues examined nationally representative data from the 2017 Kids’ Wellbeing Survey. The data included responses from 3,455 adults living in the United States. As part of the survey, participants were asked the extent to which they agreed with the statement “It is really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.” The survey item was used as a measure of racial resentment.
The researchers found that 27.4% of participants completely agreed and 28.9% mostly agreed with the statement. Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and Evangelicals tended to express greater agreement with the statement compared to their religious and nonreligious counterparts.
Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and Evangelicals also expressed more support for punitive measures to reduce crime among youths, such as longer sentences and putting more police officers on the streets. Importantly, the researchers found that the relationship between religious affiliation and punitive attitudes was mediated by racial resentment.
“The relationship between religion and punitiveness is complex, but often misunderstood,” Harris told PsyPost. “In the aftermath of the ‘tough on crime’ movement, many people have been quick to point the finger at Evangelism for providing and ideological and politically mobilizing base for punitive crime policies. What I find is that the relationship between religion (Evangelicals, Protestants, and Catholics) is no longer significant after accounting for racial resentment.”
“My findings also suggest that the effect of religion becomes insignificant after accounting for racial attitudes because religious affiliation, in some contexts, is associated with greater racial prejudice. While we cannot definitively show this with observational data, this hints at a possible causal relationship where religious affiliation (in some contexts) leads to greater racial prejudice, which in turn leads to greater punitiveness.”
The findings held even after the researchers controlled for factors such as frequency of church attendance, partisan identification, support for Donald Trump, income, gender, age, education, race, and region of residence. But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“The most serious limitation for this study, and most other studies on religion and punishment, is that it is usually impossible to make causal claims about the effect of religion or racial sentiments on punitive attitudes,” Harris said. “Because religion and racial attitudes are typically impossible to randomly assign as treatments, I am limited to making associational observations between these variables.”
“Another important limitation is the way that I measured punitiveness,” Harris explained. “Punitiveness has been measured in countless different ways and there really isn’t one commonly accepted definition. My measure of punitiveness has to do with how the public crime committed by young people should be dealt with. There were four possible options in the survey: prevention, rehabilitation, punishment, and enforcement. The dependent variable was collapsed where prevention and rehabilitation equal 0 (non-punitive) and punishment and enforcement equal 1 (punitive). A preferred approach would be to use several different measures of punitive attitudes and combine them in an index, but given the data available this was our best option and still provides a meaningful way of assessing punitive attitudes.”
The study, “Religion, Punitive Sentiment, and the Mediating Effect of Racial Resentment“, was authored by Jacob W. Harris, Melissa S. Jones, and J. Quin Monson.