Take a middle-American US city – a fairly typical city with the usual mix of rich and poor, down-town and suburban, black and white. Indianapolis, let’s say. Which areas do you think would have the highest levels of crime?
Well, the poor areas of course. No surprises there. Down-town areas and those area with low population density are also at risk – probably a result of increased opportunities. Racially mixed areas have higher level of theft and burglary, although not violent crime. And there also seems to be a strong ‘cultural’ effect. There are pockets of high crime that persist even after taking into account all the other factors.
And, last but not least, you also get more crime in neighbourhoods that have more Christian congregations.
Now, the effect isn’t across the board. Catholic and non-Protestant congregations are not related, either positively or negatively, to crime levels. And although Black Protestant and mainline Protestant congregations tend to be located in areas of high commercial burglary (and larceny, in the case of mainline Protestants), they aren’t associated with other types of criminal behaviour.
It’s evangelical Protestants (aka ‘fundamentalists’) that show the strongest connection. Those areas of Indianapolis with more evangelical Protestant churches also have more robbery, aggravated assault, vehicle theft, commercial burglary and larceny. Blimey.
This is just a statistical association. So it could simply be that these churches set up shop in those areas with highest need – with the highest crime rates. But remember that this association remains even after controlling for all those factors I mentioned above. These churches are located in areas that have more crime than you would expect, given the level of deprivation and other factors that predispose to crime.
It could be that these evangelical churches actually increase crime rates as a direct result of their teachings. Often these churches extol the virtues of defensive and punitive violence, and Manichean (i.e. dualistic, ‘heaven and hell’ religious concepts) have been linked to more violent societies. But evangelical churches were not associated with more homicide in this study (although they were linked to more aggravated assault).
The researchers (led by Scott Desmond at Purdue University in Indiana) think that it has something to do with the relative newness of Conservative congregations. In particular, it might be that many people commute to these congregations, rather than living locally. The normal social networks that help forge society are undermined when people travel to meet people over long distances, rather than getting to know their neighbours.
There is, however, one final possibility suggested by the researchers. In the US, churches are a fundamental of social fabric. But the evangelical churches are highly polarising. Could it be that having one arrive in the middle of your neighbourhood actually leads to suspicion, resentment and even hostility?
If that were so, then more evangelical churches could actually have a destructive effect on local society.
PS. I’m currently away, but will catch up on comments and emails when I get back!
Desmond, S., Kikuchi, G., & Morgan, K. (2010). Congregations and Crime: Is the Spatial Distribution of Congregations Associated with Neighborhood Crime Rates? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49 (1), 37-55 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01491.x