The Devil You Know: The Surprising Link between Conservative Christianity and Crime

The Devil You Know: The Surprising Link between Conservative Christianity and Crime

by Elicka Peterson Sparks


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In this trenchant examination of Christianity's dark side, a criminologist argues persuasively that high rates of violent crime in the United States can be correlated with Christian conservative attitudes, especially in regard to social mores and politics. Of particular concern is "Christian nationalism." Supporters of this movement argue that America was founded as a Christian nation and they work to install their fundamentalist brand of Christianity as the dominant factor in American political and social life. Far from being a fanatic outlier sect, this group is shown to have significant cultural influence, especially in the American South. Not coincidentally, the author suggests, the South also has the highest homicide rates.

Noting the violent biblical passages often cited by religious conservatives, their sense of righteousness, their dogmatic mindset that tolerates no dissent, and their support for harshly punitive measures toward "sinners," Peterson Sparks shows that their worldview is the ideal seedbed for violence. Not only does this mindset make violent reactions in interpersonal conflicts more likely, the author says, but it exacerbates the problems of the criminal justice system by advocating policies that create high incarceration rates. The author also devotes particular attention to the victimization of women, children, and LGBT people, which follows from this rigid belief system.

While not resorting to a blanket condemnation of Christianity or religion as a whole, Peterson Sparks issues a wake-up call regarding conservative Christianity's toxic mixture of fundamentalism, authoritarian politics, patriotism, and retributory justice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633881501
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 02/23/2016
Pages: 330
Sales rank: 893,283
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Elicka Peterson Sparks is associate professor of criminology and director of the honors program in the Department of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University. In addition to scholarly articles and contributions to textbooks in criminology, she is coauthor of the forthcoming book Intimate Partner Violence: Effective Procedure, Response and Policy with Kit Gruelle. Her work has been cited in the New York Times and she has consulted on several documentaries, including PBS's Blind Spot: Murder by Women and HBO’s Private Violence. 

Read an Excerpt

The Devil You Know

The Surprising Link between Conservative Christianity and Crime

By Elicka Peterson Sparks

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2016 Elicka Peterson Sparks
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63388-150-1



A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.

— George M. Marsden, in Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism

The Bible does not guarantee human rights. At the time of the fall, man lost all rights except the right to die. ... What this means is that all protection, all justice, all compassion, and all fairness are given to men on the basis of grace and an adherence to the Scriptures, not on some nebulous and subjective notion of rights.

— George Grant, from The Changing of the Guard: The Vital Role Christians Must Play in America's Unfolding Political and Cultural Drama

Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.

— Matthew 10:34 (New American Bible)

Writing this book has been unsettling for several reasons. First, I consider myself fairly well-informed, yet I remain stunned by what I have discovered in the last four years about the extent to which the religious right has managed to impact political and social systems in the United States. Like most Americans, I noticed the movement in this direction: Michelle Bachmann's assertions that homosexuals are trying to legalize child sexual abuse, the number of Republican politicians proudly proclaiming their belief in creation rather than evolution, fights over books and scientific curriculum in schools, an Oklahoma political hopeful unapologetically expressing his desire to see LGBT people stoned to death, and skirmishes over Ten Commandment statues on government property. Stories such as these are ubiquitous and make it fairly clear that the United States remains a bastion of Christian fundamentalism, despite secular progress.

But impacting the realms of politics and policy is a far cry from infiltrating these systems with the aim of creating a theocracy or fundamentalist Christianity having an unintentional criminogenic impact, and, prior to this project, I felt utterly secure that anyone suggesting the latter idea likely needed fitting for an aluminum foil hat. I do not wear recyclable headgear, but I confess that there have been innumerable times in the course of researching this theory about the impact of the religious right on violent crime that it has felt more than a touch surreal that this striking movement has received so little attention in the mainstream media.

The second unsettling thing about addressing this topic is that the religious right, a powerful and vocal special-interest group in America, is unlikely to be thrilled with the theory I am positing about the impact of conservative Christian ideology on crime, and some of them do wear tinfoil hats. While there will probably be few members of the religious right who will read this book, those who do are unlikely to be happy about it and will likely do so in the service of either trying to discredit it or looking for evidence to further advertise the idea that fundamentalist Christians are persecuted in this country. The Christian right seems to have an "ignore it or deplore it" dichotomy in their response to information they find threatening to their belief system, and attorney Wendy Kaminer had it right in saying that, in the United States, "making fun of religion is as risky as burning an American flag in an American Legion Hall." While I am not actively making fun of fundamentalist Christians, the facts are not always flattering, so it is difficult to imagine a positive reaction toward this work from their camp.

However, both the historical and current truth is that this movement spends more time in the service of persecuting others than in being persecuted, and it is amazingly adept at harnessing feelings of persecution to its advantage. Part of this mechanism is fueled by three teachings of the Beatitudes from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, which blesses those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, as well as those who are insulted, persecuted, or falsely accused of evil for following Jesus.

People who suffer such earthly attacks are promised great rewards in heaven. This is one of the primary reasons why this movement is extremely resilient to adversity: Defeat only strengthens their resolve, as it lends credit to the notion that they are underdogs in a spiritual war against a wicked world. In this respect, I might escape persecution for writing this book. After all, I am providing grist for the idea that Christians are put upon, and the mill is gravely lacking in real grist, because mainstream religions in the United States are sheltered from even deserved scrutiny through the accommodation of the American media, politicians, and citizenry — all of whom are rightly reluctant to be accused of picking on Christians. I am sympathetic, truly, as wearing kid gloves with respect to religion has become deeply engrained in our culture as synonymous with being respectful.

We will talk about this more later, but, for now, know that (a) I think this preferential treatment goes too far and is even a bit dangerous, and (b), given this, I urge politicians, journalists, criminologists, and the American public to start earnestly examining this brand of religion at their earliest convenience. It is uncomfortable to consider addressing negative consequences associated with a religion, due to our ethos of religious liberty, but it is necessary, and not a threat to liberty. The religious right has absolutely no problem grumbling about having to use politically correct (i.e., respectful) terminology in interactions with other groups — or even viciously attacking other groups — but appear to have no compunction in insisting that we bestow preferential treatment on them. This has to stop.

When you think about it, it is somewhat surprising that religion has not been researched to death in the context of crime, but it has not, and, while it is cliched to say that more people have died in the name of religion than for any other cause, it is likely true with respect to crime as well as terrorism. As criminologists tend to be fairly interested in homicide, the relative dearth of scholarly attention is perplexing. As you will see later in this book, there is too little academic work on the intersection of religion and crime, particularly where the research attends to the conflation of religion and conservative ideology. There is no criminological research on the specific focus of this book: Christian nationalism in the context of violent crime.

So you know what you are getting yourself into here, the Reader's Digest version of the theory posited in this book is that fundamentalist Christian ideology is criminogenic — in other words, it actually causes crime. The United States has more fundamentalist Christians than any other comparable nation. The United States also has a very high rate of violent crime — and particularly high rates of lethal violence — compared to other similarly situated nations. In this book, I am positing a criminological theory suggesting that this is not a coincidence. Focusing on the United States necessitates focusing on Christianity, but it should be noted that this focus would shift in considering several other countries in which the theory could apply, such as Israel and many other countries in the Middle East. Similar books might be written about the criminogenic impact of fundamentalist Islam or Judaism in other parts of the world.

In offering this theory, I will show how a distinctively American brand of conservative Christian ideology called Christian nationalism has both a direct and indirect impact on the crime problem in the United States. In a direct manner, this belief system — and the culture it inspires — lends itself to many types of criminal activity, including the promotion of violent crimes against a variety of victims, terrorism against those of different faiths, and even crimes against the environment. There are some types of crimes, and especially delinquency, that are mitigated through at least some kinds of religious involvement, though they tend to be far less serious crimes, such as drug and alcohol use in adolescents. The results are modest and mixed, but I believe other researchers have missed the greater influence of Christian nationalism due to measurement issues that will be discussed in chapter four.

On the second, indirect, front, conservative Christian ideology provides tremendous cultural and political support for criminal justice responses that are, in themselves, criminogenic. The so-called wars on drugs and crime, and a plethora of other "get-tough" policies, have resulted in shocking rates of incarceration and capital punishment in the United States, at a staggering expense both in human and economic terms. There is nothing compassionate about the Christian right's response to crime, and that response has resulted in incredibly high recidivism rates that perpetuate and amplify our crime rate.

Despite the fact that it receives very little attention, Christian nationalism (also called dominionism or Christian reconstructionism) is incredibly pervasive in America and is unwittingly supported by many people completely unaware of its goals, harms, and, indeed, much of its ideological underpinnings. Adherents to this ideology can be identified by a number of their beliefs, which should ring a bell as natural extensions of common right-wing political messages. Though rank and file members of the Christian nationalist movement are largely unaware of the extent of its goals and its history, this postmillennial theology was the brain child of Rousas John Rushdoony in the early 1900s. Chief among these beliefs are the following convictions:

• The idea that the Bible is the literal word of God, and thus incontrovertible and authoritative in its assertions.

• That the Bible should serve as the sole foundation for every facet of American life — including governance and law.

• That the United States was formed as a Christian nation and must be restored to its original status as what essentially amounts to a theocratic society (something of a neopuritan model).

• That separation of church and state was not intended by the framers of the Constitution.

• That theology conveys a superiority to conservative Christians, who have dominion — the right to rule — over America vis-à-vis Genesis 1:28.

• That the United States was once a great country, but that the liberal agenda of secular humanism has steered it in an ungodly direction that must be corrected.

• Issues such as marriage equality and legalized abortion have become central in mobilizing this movement, though appeals to the three Fs of American conservative Christianity — family, flag, and faith — are also routinely engaged with considerable success.

This movement harkens back to the Great Awakening of the mid-1700s, with the current resurgence gaining its initial momentum around the issue of desegregation, though a convincing case might be made that the movement received on-the-job training pushing Prohibition. In fact, the John Birch Society, an early Christian nationalist organization, led a drive to impeach Chief Justice Earl Warren, railing against the judicial tyranny of the liberal courts. The modern equivalents to the Birchers include James Dobson's Focus on the Family, the late Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, D. James Kennedy's Center for Reclaiming America and (with James Dobson) Alliance Defense Fund, David Barton's WallBuilders, Rick Scarborough's Vision America, and Lou Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition, among many other euphemistically creative organizations. The doctrine disseminated by groups such as these are the object of this study of crime.

After years of research, I believe that this form of religiosity is a powerful — and largely ignored — variable in the study of violence. Further, the increasingly strong influence of Christian nationalism has set the United States on a dangerous course with respect to both crime and human rights, and this influence has not been subject to the attention and debate necessary to stem the tide of social problems it is creating. Thomas Jefferson pointed out that "error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." Checks and balances are key features in our system of government with good reason: Problems arise when people do not speak out to challenge errors of opinion, and, as I mentioned previously, both the mainstream media and politicians of all stripes are clearly shying away from meaningful discourse about the conservative Christian influence in America to avoid charges of anti-Christian liberalism.

This silence is largely unilateral, and when we shy away from reasoning with one another, tolerance itself becomes a threat to maintaining the balance necessary to protect ourselves from tyranny. As a criminologist, it is difficult to observe the state of crime and what passes for justice in this country without wanting to do something about it.

Though my critics will inevitably have much to say about this, I am not a rabid hater of Christians. I am not even a casual hater of Christians, actually — I have a number of wonderful people in my life who exemplify the remarkable fruits possible through a loving, thoughtful, and reasoned approach to faith. And while some Christians may be a little too prone to see discrimination and persecution against them, while busily and often simultaneously dishing it out, I think it is ridiculous to say that discrimination against them does not exist. While their influence is great, the religious right represents only a small portion of citizens who identify themselves as Christians in this country. In fact, depending upon how you define conservative Christianity, it is estimated that this group accounts for only 8 to 35 percent of the general population, though this feels incongruous given their tremendous impact in the public realm.

There are extreme edges to most social groups — radical feminists, rabid Republicans, knee-jerk liberals, Rush Limbaugh — but, historically, most have held limited sway over policy and culture as a whole. This is no longer the case. Partly, the ideology of Christian nationalism has managed to infiltrate American culture and processes to the extent that it has because a more moderate and liberal Christianity is already firmly engrained in our country's history and identity. Thus, Christianity is familiar and garners support based upon common language and ideals that do not appear alarming at first blush. Similarly, patriotism is certainly nothing new in the United States, so appeals to the flag do not tend to cause much concern. The great irony with respect to patriotism is that Christian nationalists do not really love America — in fact, they believe that we are something of a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. What they love is a wholesome vision of America as they believe it once was and will be again: A Christian nation straight out of Mad Men, but without all the sinning and angst.

Additionally, many Christians who embrace a quieter faith likely feel uncomfortable speaking out against this vocal fundamentalist minority given that minority's penchant to label those with different ideas as substandard Christians — or because some tenets of their ideals and doctrine are shared. But we have reached a moral threshold in America, and the danger of tolerating intolerance is something with which the left and center must come to grips.

As I write, Barack Obama is finishing up his second term as president of the United States, and, to most, the tide would seem to have changed dramatically, to the extent that this discussion might no longer seem relevant. But despite recent victories for mainline and progressive ideology in America, the influence of the religious right is always more likely to grow than wither under a progressive leadership. Examples where political setbacks have served to fuel the fervor of the religious right abound in recent years, as this faction draws strength from the perception that they are engaged in a holy war against a powerful enemy aimed at their destruction. Count them out at your peril.

President Obama's emphasis on change in his first campaign spoke directly to another strong motivating factor for the American Christian movement: an ideology that romanticizes the traditional values of the past while demonizing the progressive ideals of the present. In fact, it was during the Clinton years that this movement picked up much of its momentum and made the bulk of its progress in developing the organization necessary to gain the footholds that came to fruition with the Bush administration. You can bet that the current political landscape will serve to motivate adherents, and, just as they failed to learn anything from the debacle of the Bush years, it is likely that moderate and liberal Americans will fail to reflect upon how these interests grew so powerful in the first place. Such is the history of ignoring history — it is an equal-opportunity folly.


Excerpted from The Devil You Know by Elicka Peterson Sparks. Copyright © 2016 Elicka Peterson Sparks. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 9

Chapter 1 When Did Christians Get So Mean (Again)? 11

Chapter 2 Jesus Loves You, but We're His Favorites 25

Is the United States a Christian Nation? 27

Historical Arguments 28

Cultural Arguments 38

Statistical Arguments 41

The Continuing Influence of Christianity in the United States: The Example of Nonbelievers 44

Chapter 3 Why Pick on Christian Nationalists 53

A Cultural Movement 54

Attributes of the Belief System 56

Criminogenic Features of These Attributes 58

Chapter 4 A Theory of Violent Religiosity 75

The Big Three: Criminogenic Aspects of Christian Nationalism 78

A Theology and Culture of Violence 80

The Psychology of the Fear of Death 88

Providing Support for Criminogenic Strategies in the Criminal Justice System 93

Predicting Violence Related to Christian Nationalism 101

Comparisons to a Few Competing Explanations 104

Some Final Thoughts and Suggestions for Researchers 106

Chapter 5 The Bible, Cafeteria Style 111

The War on Sin 112

Lethal Violence in the Bible 115

Women as Wicked and Subhuman 135

God Hates Homosexuals 149

Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child 152

Chapter 6 The Lion or the Lamb-The Future of Crime and Justice in America 163

From Theory to Research to Improvement 164

Freedom from Religious Tyranny 170

The Ten Commandments in Action 172

What Would Jesus Really Do? 175

Ten Suggestions for Combating Religious Violence in the United States 179

Notes 185

Bibliography 233

Index 315

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