Unspoken Connection: Fundamentalism and Punishment

In this passage from Michael Tonry’s Punishing Race, an insight is offered, a key to the American mind. Fundamentalism is a powerful force, especially in the Republican Party, but also in mainstream society in general. Fundamentalism isn’t just about Southern Baptists. It is a larger worldview that seeps into every pore of American society.

Most of the time, crime is discussed ‘objectively’. It is as if one could understand victimization, violence, and mass incarceration simply by analyzing numbers. We Americans love data. We keep records almost religiously. Reality is messy, but numbers are clean and simple. The data, as some claim, speaks for itself. But the data also can hide that which we would rather not see, since data is only as good as the methods for gathering it.

What is the dark shadow cast by this data? What is left unspoken? What is the belief that motivates punitive crime policy?

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The sizable political science and religion literatures on religion and politics in the United States are silent, except in passing, on the influence of Protestant fundamentalism on American crime policy generally. They focus on abortion, women’s and gay rights, and separation of church and state. None of the major recent works includes the terms crime or capital punishment in its index (e.g., Layman 2001; Green 2007). One leading work, however, Religion and Politics in the United States (Wald and Calhoun-Brown 2007), explains how and why Protestant fundamentalism shaped American crime control and punishment policies for three decades. Whereas Catholics and mainstream Protestants espouse a commitment to social welfare consonant with their belief in “a warm, caring god,” the fundamentalist “image of a cold and authoritative deity lends support to government’s role in securing order and property” (121). Richard Snyder, a former dean at New York Theological Seminary, explains the fundamentalist vision this way: “If we believe that all persons are essentially corrupt save for the extraordinary intervention of God’s grace in their lives, it is a simple step to think that those who are poor, or sick, or in trouble with the law, or different from us in any way are somehow evil. The redeemed are God’s children; the unrepentant are children of Satan” (2001, 14).

Fundamentalists are “characterized by a quest for certainty, exclusiveness, and unambiguous boundaries” and attempt “to chart a morally black and white path out of the gray zones of intimidating cultural and religious complexity” (Nagata 2001, 481). In its 1995 Contract with the American Family Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition accordingly called for increased penalties for convicted criminals (Wald and Calhoun-Brown 2007, 351). A year later Bennett, DiIulio, and Walters (1996) produced the fullest elaboration of fundamentalist crime control policy analysis ever published.

The near absence of crime control and punishment from the politics and religion literature is odd. The nexus seems self-evident. The Republican resurgence of the past forty years is attributable in large part to the Southern Strategy. The political influence of the religious right on Republican politics is well known (e.g., Green 2007). As one major review of the literature on fundamentalism and conservative politics observed, “The [religious right] enjoys something like a veto power in the Republican Party” (Woodberry and Smith 1998, 48).

By contrast the criminology literature, though small, has ferreted out the connection. Unnever, Cullen, and Applegate’s examination of attitudes toward capital punishment concludes that those fundamentalists “who have a rigid and moralistic approach to religion and who imagine God as a dispassionate, powerful figure who dispenses justice are more likely to harbor punitive sentiments toward offenders” (2005, 304). A slight but fascinating article based on a representative survey of Oklahoma City residents showed that Protestant conservatives viewed nearly all crimes as “very wrong” and thus did not differentiate among them in terms of seriousness (Curry 1996, 462). This finding goes a long way toward explaining why traditional ideas about proportionality in punishment are irreconcilable with many modern three-strikes, mandatory minimum, and life without the possibility of parole laws.

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