How religion drives support for use of force by police (ANALYSIS)

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St Louis County police officers hold an anti-police demonstrator in Ferguson, Mo., on August 10, 2015. Police in riot gear clashed with protesters who had gathered in the streets of Ferguson early on Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the police shooting of an unarmed black teen whose death sparked a national outcry over race relations. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POLICE-RELIGION, originally transmitted on August 20, 2015.

St Louis County police officers hold an anti-police demonstrator in Ferguson, Mo., on August 10, 2015. Police in riot gear clashed with protesters who had gathered in the streets of Ferguson early on Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the police shooting of an unarmed black teen whose death sparked a national outcry over race relations. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Lucas Jackson *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POLICE-RELIGION, originally transmitted on August 20, 2015.

(RNS) A year after the events of Ferguson, Mo., the public is still grappling with questions about race, inequality and use of excessive force by the 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?”

Over 80 percent of college graduates say it’s OK for police to use force, compared with 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 with 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 the police. The high support among Jews shows the impact of the main drivers for support for the police: status, education and race. Whites with higher education, regardless of religion, are the most supportive of police use of force.

We can control for these differences through statistical models that allow us to estimate support for the use of force while adjusting for differences in education and other factors among the different faiths.

The adjusted percentages  show the real effect of religion. Support for the police is highest among those who attend historically white Protestant churches. Controlling for education differences, evangelicals aren’t any different than their mainline Protestant cousins.

Catholics, black Protestants and those of minority religions are the least supportive of the police’s use of force. 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 — white churches — is the most supportive of police using force.

(Tobin Grant blogs for Religion News Service at Corner of Church and State, a data-driven conversation on religion and politics. He is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.)

YS/MG END GRANT

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  • David F Mayer

    The entire “flap” on excessive force by police was created by the news media to generate readership and sell advertising. There has been NO INCREASE of incidents of use of force by police. Things are just about the way they always have been. Stories of the type that were ignored a couple of years ago have been made into headlines by today’s yellow journalists. Absolutely nothing unusual or novel is happening except the media exploiting their ability to manipulate public opinion for financial gain.

  • Cameron

    You can imbue a correlation to anything if you try hard enough. Correlation doesn’t imply causation remember? This seems like a false equivalence to me. Just because some religious groups tend to be more white than others, and those groups also happen to support police violence, that doesn’t therefore mean religious groups support police officers using force. Could it be access to education? Age? Income? There are many more factors you didn’t account for, and you need a stronger tie to make this claim.

  • Yes, you’ve stated the point of the article. Graph one shows the differences between groups; Graph two shows the difference after accounting for other factors, including education. Peer-reviewed research has, for decades, shown the relationship I discuss here.

  • Jeff Stefani

    The “Effect of religion,” not a correlation between one of many variables present?

    Does this pass for a Peer-reviewed research publication?

    You’ve put the absurdly soft in “soft science.”

  • kwesty

    Very well said!!

  • Cameron

    Even the graph you have just cited doesn’t give your case much support. The “nones” category would be the control variable if you are investigating religion as the motive. The “nones” show no less support than do any other religious denomination.

    The Catholics are at the lowest end of support, with around 60% and the mainline protestants are at 80%. The “nones/unaffiliated” however are squarely in the middle at about 70%. Your article doesn’t have much of a case, and that’s objectively speaking.

    Considering the source of this article being “religion news”, and your point that Catholics are the least likely to support it (only by a small margin), are you by any chance Catholic yourself? This article seems biased to me, and that you’re using the numbers in a way that doesn’t support the conclusion you’ve drawn.

  • jason

    You are absolutely correct to point out the statistical axiom, “correlation does not imply causation”. It reminds me of a Mark Twain quote. “There are lies, damn lies and statistics”. And the legal idea that, yes, I was in Las Vegas on the day of the murder. That does not mean I committed the murder.

  • jason

    I meant to say “prove”. Sometimes correlation does end up helping prove causation. Ooops.

  • David Thomas Devine

    “Are there any situations you can imagine in which you would approve of a policeman striking an adult male citizen?” … ‘any’? Well yeah … that’d be hard to argue against … I doubt pacifist police officers (I wonder why they use the gendered ‘policeman’) would be very effective … ‘please sir, don’t shoot that person … I urge you not to steal … etc.’