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Why do people support police using force? Religion is part of the answer

Videos of police shootings (again) divide public opinion. Here's how religion shapes views of police.

Siren - courtesy of Shinichi Higashi via Flickr

The past 24 hours has put police violence to the forefront of our public debate.

Post something about these shootings on your Facebook page or other social media and you’ll quickly see the divide over how the public views the use of force by police.

Why such differences in opinion? 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.

Who tends to support the police? Whites. Males. College graduates.

Who are less supportive? Racial and ethnic minorities. Women. Lower income groups.

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.

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.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

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.

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.

Note: Portions of the column were published in 2015, a year after the events in Furguson, Missouri. 

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