The civil society perspective predicts that civic and voluntary organizations promote the welfare of communities by enhancing social capital and cohesion. Here, I examine whether black Protestant churches, because of their dual emphasis on personal piety and social justice, function as agents of civil society in the southern United States by reducing crime, and whether structural context moderates the relationship between black religious ecology and crime.
With data from the 2010 Religious Congregations and Membership Survey, I used spatial regression analyses to estimate models of arrest rates in 799 southern counties. I examined indices representing both property and violent crime provided in the FBI Uniform Crime Reports.
In main effects models, black Protestant density related inversely to county-level property crime arrest rates, but it was unrelated to violent crime arrest rates. Interactive models revealed that black Protestant affiliation was particularly protective of property crime in counties with the highest levels of resource disadvantage. While black Protestant affiliation was protective of both property and violent crime in low-income counties, it had a positive association with arrest rates in high-income counties.
Net of total religious adherence, the Black Church has a uniquely protective effect against crime in the most disadvantaged southern communities. Findings were largely consistent with ecological theories related to social capital, social organization, and collective efficacy. They also highlight limits to the moral communities thesis. Results suggest that more scholarship should examine racialized law enforcement practices in high-income counties.
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Very few studies, in contrast, address potential bidirectionality between religion and crime, despite Thornberry’s (1987) important articulation of just such a theoretical imperative. Just as factors like unemployment might be both predictor and outcome to deviant behavior, so might religious participation. The limited research is mixed. Some studies, for instance, demonstrate a null relationship between prior substance use and later religiosity but a significant relationship between prior religiosity and later substance use at the micro-level (Jang 2018; Thomson 2016). At the collective level, rising crime rates in a neighborhood might deter individuals from attending religious services, or as Heaton (2006) argues, those involved in crime might abstain from religious involvement due to guilt or institutional censure, though mission-oriented churches might also intentionally plant in distressed neighborhoods. While an important theoretical consideration, the question of bidirectionality between religion and crime is beyond the scope of the present study.
Harris and Ulmer (2017), in contrast, replicate analyses with mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, Catholic, and overall adherence rather than black Protestant adherence in separate models, which allows them to conclude that black Protestantism has a unique effect, but not a net effect.
Excluding counties in Florida, African Americans comprised a significantly smaller share of the population in counties excluded due to missing data on religious adherence of black Protestants than included counties (5.4 vs. 25.0%). Lack of data thus likely reflects relative absence of the Black Church, rendering such counties less relevant to the present study. Excluded counties are also significantly less urban and less disadvantaged in terms of income, inequality, unemployment, poverty, and female-headed households, but they have a significantly smaller share of residents with a high school diploma. Both property and violent crime rates were significantly lower in excluded counties than in included counties, as expected based on socioeconomic indicators (except education). Substantively, I would also expect—consistent with hypotheses developed herein—that black Protestant churches would not necessarily be related to crime in these more affluent counties.
I do not control for percent black as a potential covariate of crime rates because it is strongly correlated with my primary independent variable of interest (black Protestant affiliation rate, r = .68, p = .0001). I do consider the relative size of Hispanic populations, however, as research consistently demonstrates a negative relationship to crime rates for reasons similar to those hypothesized herein for black Protestant affiliation. Namely, Harris and Feldmeyer (2015) found that Hispanic immigrant rates were positively associated with religious adherence, civically engaged religious adherence, and religious homogeneity, each of which were negatively related to violent crime.
Median household income also loaded onto the common factor, though in a direction opposite to the other variables. I therefore modeled it as an independent measure.
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I wish to express my deepest appreciation to Paul Froese for his guidance and mentorship, as well as Lindsay Wilkinson, Matt Bradshaw, Jerry Park, Carson Mencken, and Charles Tolbert for their feedback on early drafts of the manuscript. Thanks also to Elaine Howard Ecklund, Brielle Bryan, Tony Brown, James Elliott, Sharan Mehta, and Raul Casarez, the editor, and blind reviewers for their substantive feedback as well.
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Thomson, R.A. Religion in Civil Society: The Influence of Black Religious Ecology on Crime in the South. J Quant Criminol 37, 73–99 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10940-019-09444-7
- Structural disadvantage
- Religious ecology
- Crime rates
- Civil society perspective