How religion (really) drives support for the police using force

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Photo by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/5645621541/

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/5645621541/

This graphic is not offered for republication.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

A year after the events of Ferguson, the public is still grappling with questions about race, inequality, and the role of police. Religious groups differ in how they view the use of force by police, but how they differ is not obvious at first glance.

Sociologists and criminologists who have examined public opinion toward police have found that support for the use of force is driven by one’s stake in the system. The General Social Survey taps support for the police by asking,

Are there any situations you can imagine in which you would approve of a policeman striking an adult male citizen?

White, male college graduates are the most likely to say that they would approve. Over 80 percent of college graduates say that it’s ok for police to use force, compared to only around 60 percent of high school graduates. Men are more in favor of police than women. Three-quarters of whites back police use of force, compared to less than half of blacks.


SEE Video: Faith leaders in Ferguson, a view from within the protests


What about religion? The most supportive are Mainline Protestants and Jews. Catholics and those in historically black churches are the least supportive. But these percentages don’t show the true effect of religion on attitudes toward police; they are driven by differences in status, race, and education.

We can control for these differences through statistical models that allow us to estimate support for the use of force holding each tradition at the same level of education and other demographics.

The adjusted percentages show how much of the original differences between groups is due to differences in social status. The differences become much smaller after we adjust for differences in education and other factors.

Still, there are differences, and these differences show the real effect of religion. Support for the police is highest among those who attend an historically white Protestant church. Controlling for education differences, evangelicals aren’t any different than their mainline cousins.

Catholics, black Protestants, and those of minority religions are the least supportive of police. This may be due to differences in belief, but it may also be because these groups are historically the “out groups” in American society.


READ Why churches recognize Memorial Day:  Two graphs on veterans in American religion


Religion is intertwined with social status, and it is status (including race) that drives support for the police. But the story is more than that. Controlling for differences in status we see that the dominant religious group in American society—historically white churches—are the most supportive of police using force.

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  • Dominic

    I would think that anyone wishing to live in a peaceful community would allow the police to use any reasonable measure to repel crime and criminals. I don’t think religion is a major factor.. being civilized is.

  • alison

    There are a few reasons I can think of. First is that as Christians we are taught to be in submission and obedient to those who have authority over us. Sometimes we go overboard and give those in authority too much authority! But it’s what we’ve been taught since childhood. Secondly, we are to respect those in authority because God has placed them there for our good and the good of civilization. Thirdly, we usually don’t consider civil disobedience to be an option unless we are told to do something that is contrary to God’s Word. These are all New Testament principals.

    From the Old Testament we see a violent God. When Moses came down from the mountain and saw the golden calf, he asked for volunteers whom he then instructed to go from tent to tent, killing their neighbors. This view of God is problematic for a lot of people, including me, and it plants the idea that violence is an acceptable way to counter disobedience.

  • Ma Fca

    Different cultures have different ideas about correct behaviour. Now that the U.S. Is so much more multicultural than before, the education of white elites from white enclaves hasn’t caught up with reality. Same with would-be policemen. In addition, the school system doesn’t educate students about why our political system is so different from the rest of the world. Our citizens are innocent until proven guilty; we have individual rights to act independently w/o getting permission from authorities; the police don’t have the power to control peaceful citizens, nor to decide who’s a criminal…that belongs to the court system. READ THE CONSTITUTION and study some U.S. history.we were founded by people fleeing religious persecution, and in the South West, people fleeing dictatorial governments.

  • Doc Anthony

    The solution is simple. Crooks better stop their crooked mess, or else they’re gonna get what’s coming to them some MORE !!

  • Eric

    “I would think…”

    Let us know when you actually start to think, because this comment betrays a clear lack of thought.

  • Eric

    Where, in your “simple solution” here, do innocent people who “get what’s coming to them MORE!!” fall?

  • Jack

    These results are very interesting from many angles.

    They are consistent with the responses on other message boards to such things as what happened in Ferguson. An extraordinary majority of posters wanted the police to get tougher once the peaceful demonstrators were eclipsed by rioting.

    There is good news and bad news in the poll. The good news is that, at least among whites, support for law and order is off-the-charts overwhelming. It obviously transcends political ideology, which is good.

    Obviously, the bad news is the racial gap — how many black people truly distrust law enforcement. I don’t blame them, given the history of this country. There has to be racial reconciliation on all levels in order for this gap to close. That doesn’t mean whites should all become pander bears. But it definitely means we as a nation have unfinished business to do.

  • Jack

    Just to be clear, there’s no question, based on other polls, that the vast majority of both white and black Americans support law and order — a strong police presence. The difference, as the poll suggests, is in how willing each side is to allow the police to use force. That’s where a trust issue arises, understandably so.

  • Jack

    Doc is saying that if crooks of any kind think most Americans are going to side with them when they start physical fights with cops and the cops respond accordingly, they are seriously mistaken, as evidenced by the poll.

    If we ever get to a point where race relations truly heal, you will find overwhelming majorities of black Americans feeling exactly the same way about use of force. I believe we will be there some day.

    But there’s a good irony here as well…..Despite all the well-publicized cases of police using force, police departments are probably better trained today than ever on how to be more effective using less force.

    And that’s good news all around.

  • Ellen Tucker

    The survey question posed does not elicit much precision on people’s actual opinions about police use of force. It does ask what constitutes EXCESSIVE use of force. There is probably a very wide range of opinions on this. So I don’t know what conclusions one might draw from this.

  • What would have made an interesting story more interesting is how if at all these churches / denominations have chosen to address police accountability in pastoral letters, sermons, public statements, etc.