Let's just put the answer out right up front: Yes. Here's what the experts say...
Jeffery Ulmer, professor of criminal law and justice, who oversaw a study by Penn State's Social Science Research Institute says, "In the big picture, religious presence seems to [influence] the amount of violence and crime in a community, it matters to blacks, whites and Latinos." OK. So, everybody?
A Baylor University study of more than 15,000 people ages 18 to 28 found that young adults who considered themselves religious were less likely than others to commit violent or property crimes. A separate study analyzing crime and religion data from 182 counties in three states similarly found that violent crime decreased when greater numbers of people were religiously active in a community. They found the effect was particularly pronounced in the commission of black violent crimes committed in disadvantaged communities where there are the highest number of victims. Apparently, while faith is inherently personal, scholars say it can also exert substantial moral influence over a community.
Why? Because faith is especially effective at "setting moral norms, and places of worship and religious teaching encourage social ties and regularly invest a sense of purpose and higher meaning into their communities"
According to Penn State's Professor Ulmer, "The findings suggest that religious groups have the ability to cultivate moral attitudes "that counteract the code of the streets."
Consider these purely statistical findings:
- Black and white violence decreased significantly as the percentage rose of county residents who regularly attended religious services.
- Black and Latino violence was lower in communities where residents belonged to similar types of religious institutions, indicating faith groups exert greater influence on community values when they had a significant presence.
- Religious homogeneity was not associated with overall rates of white violence, but further breakdowns showed communities with larger percentages of evangelicals had lower rates of white violence.
- Latino violence was found to be significantly reduced in communities with large numbers of active Catholics.
- In counties with high levels of poverty and unemployment, black violence dipped dramatically where large percentages of residents were active in congregations.
In an age of Spiritualism, the Baylor study found that those who described themselves as "spiritual but not religious" were more likely to commit crimes than those who claimed religion. However the group that said they were neither spiritual or religious, came out with the highest criminal score.
As Byron Johnson noted in his book More God, Less Crime, the question of whether there is a God cannot be measured by criminology, but the question of whether people who believe in God commit fewer crimes can be asked and answered. The answer is in the affirmative.
There are plenty of naysayers. But faith communities, congregations, and religious organizations are essential in creating the culture necessary to provide the human and spiritual capital to effectively address crime, offender rehabilitation, and the substantial aftercare needed by former prisoners.
More than 2,000 years ago, Jesus said: "Remember those in prison as if you were bound with them."
Our guys have been doing this for a long, long time,