The Devil You Know: The Surprising Link between Conservative Christianity and Crime

Author: Elicka Peterson Sparks
Publisher: Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2016. 330p.
Reviewer: Barry Latzer | May 2016

This book hints at, but doesn’t really address, an important issue in the study of violent crime, namely, why is it that rates of quarrel-based assault and homicide are significantly higher in the American South than in the non-South? And, we might add, why has this phenomenon persisted for roughly two centuries or more? (See Latzer 2016.) Unfortunately, Elicka Sparks’s book does not come close to seriously examining, much less answering, these questions, mainly because her research design is woefully inadequate. She is persuaded – though she will not persuade serious readers of her work – that fundamentalist Christian ideology (which she also calls “Christian nationalism,” “dominionism,” and “Christian reconstructionism”) causes violent crime. In Sparks’s words, “fundamentalist Christian ideology is criminogenic – in other words, it actually causes crime” (14).

Note that Sparks is seeking to correlate a “belief system” with violence, though whose “belief system” is unclear. While she denies that she is referring to a particular sect, Sparks is careless about differentiating fundamentalist Protestants, evangelicals, Pentecostals, etc., and even concedes that some contemporary American Mormons and Catholics may share in the relevant beliefs (44). She also recognizes that the American South has the greatest concentration of evangelical Protestants, who, she hints, provide the vast bulk of the adherents to the relevant belief system (42). Nevertheless, she does not ask whether there is something in southern culture, broadly defined, as opposed to a particular religious ideology, that accounts for the high levels of violent crime.

To prove her point Sparks presents page after page of biblical quotations that appear to endorse violent acts, many of which are little more than corporeal punishments for offenses, common in historical eras in which there were no conceptions of imprisonment for crimes and no distinctions between moral transgressions and crimes. These passages comprise roughly 20 percent of the book’s narrative.

Sparks’s inference is that people who agree with the scriptural passages she quotes engage in higher levels of violent crime. However, she offers no measures of the size or nature of the population that actually approves or endorses these passages (proportion male? middle-aged? white? Hispanic? southern?), and no measures of the intensity of their commitment to religious beliefs or these particular excerpts. Nor does she indicate the proportion of this population that was actually accused or convicted of violent crime, or the aggregate rates of violent crime in locations in which such views may predominate. Indeed, Sparks fails to provide even a straightforward operational definition of violent crime. In short, there simply is no study here worthy of the appellation “scholarly.”

Sparks asserts that three features of the relevant belief system are associated with criminal violence: 1. a fundamentalist “theology of violence”; 2. the psychology associated with a belief in an afterlife (insulation from fear of death); and 3. the laws, policies and programs stemming from the belief system (78).

The first feature, a “theology of violence,” is linked by Sparks to beliefs in punitiveness. But the linkage between such beliefs and criminal violence is not carefully demarcated. Sparks reasons, for example, that a belief in retribution for transgressions supports violent crime because a violent response to offending behavior may be a form of retribution, a sort of “violent conflict resolution” (81). It is entirely plausible, however, that a belief in retribution as a basis for punishment could have an inhibiting effect on crime since the retributivist might think that punishment of his own transgressions in accordance with law is likely to be both inevitable and harsh. Thus, something must explain the propensity to engage in violence outside the law, and a belief in retribution alone is not sufficient. In any event, Sparks presents no proof, such as opinion survey data, to demonstrate that support for retributivist views are more frequently or more intensely held by fundamentalist Christians.

The second feature, a belief in an afterlife, supports violent crime, according to Sparks, by rendering adherents aggressive in defense against perceived threats to their religion and their religious community (93). This claim is vacuous, as numerous Christian sects have for millennia believed in an afterlife without necessarily resorting to violence. As a matter of sheer logic, there is no more reason for a believer in salvation to be violent than nonviolent.

The third feature of the relevant belief system is the support of adherents for “punitive criminal justice policies” (96), which in Sparks’s perverse thinking translates to support for violent crime. So, for example, support for capital punishment is deemed a cause of violent crime (99). I confess that I am unable to follow the logic of this at all. While many arguments have been made to prove that the death penalty is unfair, ineffectual, or too costly, seldom has a claim been tendered that suggests that it affirmatively causes murder. (There have been articles, though very few, claiming that publicizing executions has a “brutalizing effect” that causes short-term spikes in murders (Bowers and Pierce 1980). Sparks, however, does not make such an argument.)

Incidentally, Sparks’s treatment of the death penalty and other criminal justice policies or general sociopolitical views she dislikes, such as opposition to various homosexual rights, gives her work the flavor of a screed and undermines any claims she might make for objectivity.

The flaws in this book are so obvious that merely to recite them is to say quite enough. Clearly, the fundamental premise of The Devil You Know is mistaken. Reliance on biblical excerpts, especially passages from the Old Testament, as an explanation for violent behaviors is profoundly specious since many Christians, from the early victims of Roman persecution, to the Franciscan orders among Roman Catholics, to the liberal Protestant churches of the current day have adhered to the Five Books of Moses while remaining fundamentally nonviolent. The fact that contemporary liberal Protestantism accepts and endorses the same biblical passages as conservative Christians, while interpreting them in a manner consistent with their own nonviolent sociopolitical views, demonstrates that the words of Scripture simply cannot be invariably linked to violent behaviors. Likewise, Jews, whose most fundamental beliefs and practices are drawn from the Pentateuch or the Tanakh, have a long history of nonviolence. And, of course, in the last several decades, the greatest worldwide focus of concern has been extremist acts of violence motivated by adherence to aggressive versions of Islam, not Christianity.

As the preceding suggests, there is a complicated and profound relationship between religiosity and violent behaviors, a relationship that crude and simplistic analyses such as Sparks’s cannot begin to address.

Even if one were to narrow the issue to religiosity and crime in the United States in the last several decades, it would take a much more sophisticated type of analysis than the one offered in The Devil You Know to produce anything meaningful. A recent meta-analysis of 62 relevant studies published during the last four decades found an inverse relationship between religiosity (perceived importance of religion in the participant’s life) plus church attendance, and three indicators of delinquent behavior, viz., alcohol use, illicit drug use, and nondrug delinquency (Kelly, Polanin, Jang, and Johnson 2015). Though the study was not limited to fundamentalist Christians, much less those who adhered to the relevant “belief systems” identified by Sparks, it certainly suggests that, contrary to Sparks, religious views discourage criminal offending. (Of course, we do not know if “nondrug delinquency” includes violence, or if it does, to what extent.)

On the other hand, a 2003 study demonstrated a link between aggregate-level concentrations of conservative Protestantism and homicide rates in metropolitan areas (MSAs) in the American South (Ellison, Burr, and McCall 2003). Especially telling was a finding of the absence of any effect in MSAs outside the South. In other words, the presence of conservative Protestants in non-southern cities did not raise homicide rates. One implication is that there may be a distinctive southern culture that supports violent crime, a culture that is related to Protestantism, but is not entirely defined by it.

It is plausible to think that there may be certain characteristics of evangelical Christianity that interact with other beliefs and values of American southerners and thereby produce higher levels of violent behaviors, including violent crime. But it will take a very different type of work than that offered by Elicka Sparks to flesh out the connection. The work will have to be more historically informed, more systematic and meticulous in its definitions, and more sophisticated in its writing style. It will, in short, have to be more of a scholarly analysis than a crude polemic.


Bowers, W. J., & Pierce, G. L. (1980). Deterrence or brutalization: What is the effect of executions? Crime and Delinquency, 26, 453-484.
Ellison, C. J., J. A. Burr, & McCall, P. L. (2003). The enduring puzzle of southern homicide: Is regional religious culture the missing piece? Homicide Studies, 7, 326-352.
Kelly, P. E., Polanin, J. R., Jang, S. J., & Johnson, B. R. (2015). Religion, delinquency, and drug use: A meta-analysis.Criminal Justice Review, 40, 505-523.
Latzer, B. (2016). The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America. New York: Encounter.

Barry Latzer, Emeritus Professor of Criminal Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY


by Elicka Peterson Sparks

Barry Latzer’s critique of The Devil You Know was puzzling in many respects, and I appreciate the opportunity to address his points here to set the record straight. First, I’m compelled to point out that many of his criticisms assume that the book is a purely academic offering, rather than a book written for a mainstream audience that contains social commentary. I wrote the book for a general audience in the hopes that my work might have an impact beyond the confines of the field of criminology, and am currently writing an academic article to present the theory to other scholars. Overall, Professor Latzer seemed to miss both the intent and scope of the book, and spent a great deal of time complaining about things the work was not intended to address. I will attempt to respond to each of his criticisms in turn.

To start, Latzer complains that I was careless in differentiating among denominations. He clearly missed a very thorough discussion regarding the fact that Christian nationalism (which is not my term) is not specific to any particular religious denomination, and as such, denominations should not be used as proxies to measure these beliefs. In fact, I take pains to carefully delineate the Christian nationalist belief system, and offer many suggestions regarding its measurement without resorting to blanket assumptions based on membership in a particular denomination. The fact that the belief system is so pervasive in the United States is due, in part, to its support among believers of many stripes. Throughout his review, Professor Latzer also fails to note that this belief system conflates nationalism with Christianity, and thus gives the impression that the theory focuses solely on Christianity, rather than a special brand of American Christianity that is permeated with both patriotism and capitalism.

Next, Latzer accuses me of not questioning whether there is something in Southern culture aside from this particular religious ideology that accounts for the higher levels of violence we find in the South, and in doing so, again misses the point of the theory: I’m proposing that this belief system is the something he speaks of, and that it warrants scholarly attention. In his review, he notes Ellison, Burr, and McCall’s (2003) finding that there is a link between aggregate-level concentrations of conservative Protestants and homicide rates in Southern metropolitan areas, and that this connection is absent in other regions of the country, then muses that there must be a “distinctive Southern culture that supports violent crime, a culture that is related to Protestantism, but is not entirely defined by it.” I believe he’s right—and the distinctive feature is Christian nationalism, which incorporates far more than theological beliefs, as Latzer should know having read the book. Only subsequent research will reveal whether this holds true.

Professor Latzer then misrepresents my work in suggesting that I present ‘page after page’ of biblical quotations to ‘prove my point’, and characterizes many as examples of little more than corporeal punishments for offenses occurring in a time prior to access to a formal system of justice. In fact, I present these Bible verses in support of my contention that Christian theology is predominantly violent and steeped in notions of vengeance and retribution, rather than the loving and redemptive book it is often thought to be. If Christian nationalists read the Bible with its historical context in mind, it would be unnecessary to make this point. However, as carefully elucidated in the book, they do not. Christian nationalists believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, approach it with little to no understanding of how it is situated historically and how that might impact interpretation, and use such passages to justify modern beliefs such as their support for the death penalty, as well as for violence in a number of situations that appear righteous to them.

Individuals who believe in and agree with these passages may or may not be more likely to engage in violence, but the point is that this theology has played a large role in shaping the culture in the United States, and that this culture of vengeance might well account for America’s unusual standing in the world with respect to our rates of violence. Given the location of the Bible Belt, the fact that these beliefs are more strongly rooted in the South simply provides another means to test this assertion, along with international comparisons to countries that do and do not have cultures that are significantly impacted by this type of religious nationalism.

Latzer then takes issue with violent theology, the first of three features of Christian nationalism that I believe contribute to violence. He argues that the retributive attitude engendered by the theology is plausibly countered by the fear of formal retribution. Well, yes, it could be—and in some Christian nationalists, that is likely the case. However, in many cases, God’s law is viewed as overriding secular law, and when the two conflict, Christian nationalists are likely to see the law of the land as wicked. As such, breaking secular law actually conveys status to offenders for being particularly Godly (as we see in the example of killing abortion providers or refusing to issue marriage licenses to LGBT couples). Here again, though, this is primarily a macro-level theory, and my contention is that the punitive and violent nature of the belief system permeates the culture in the United States, resulting in higher levels of violence. A reasonable critique of the book might be that I do not make the level of measurement clear enough, and I would plead guilty to that charge, as I found it difficult to convey that concept to a mainstream audience (the reviewer didn’t note this problem, but it is an area of legitimate weakness).

Latzer then complains that I offer no proof, such as opinion data, to demonstrate that fundamentalist Christians are more likely to be retributivists. While, again, this is a theory, rather than a test of a theory, Professor Latzer is simply wrong. I offer several findings from respected survey research outlets that support the contention that these folks are more retributive, such as their higher than average levels of support for the death penalty, and their punitive responses in research employing the Right Wing Authoritarian Scale. After the book went to press, an international study was conducted showing further support for this contention. In six countries, this study of a sample of 1,170 children between the ages of 5 and 12 showed that more religious children were less altruistic and more punitive, challenging the assumption that religiosity facilitates pro-social behavior (Decety, et al., 2015). This finding is not an outlier in the field of psychology (see, e.g., a meta-analysis conducted by Shariff, Willard, Andersen, & Norenzayan, 2015).

With respect to violence in protection of belief systems that insulate followers from a fear of death, Latzer is particularly dismissive, despite considerable research cited in the book showing that this is precisely what happens when such a primal fear is triggered. I’m not sure how the array of research on terror management theory in the book amounts to a ‘vacuous’ claim, but I’m even less impressed by the reviewer’s claim that “numerous Christian sects have for millennia believed in an afterlife without necessarily resorting to violence”. I think the well-documented history of bloody conflicts over whose religion is right provides more than a modicum of support for this tenet of the theory, and is fairly devastating to Latzer’s claim that it’s a matter of ‘sheer logic’ that a believer in salvation is no more likely to be violent than nonviolent. While I provide a slew of research to support this specific aspect of the theory, more scholarly attention is, of course, warranted (and encouraged in the book).

Professor Latzer also completely misrepresents the third tenet of my theory—that support for punitive criminal justice policies also results in more crime—in saying that my ‘perverse thinking’ translates this into ‘support for violent crime’. I’m frankly perplexed as to how he arrived at this interpretation of what I wrote. Given the strong predictive power of incarceration with respect to future criminality, the possibility of a brutalizing effect in the case of the death penalty (which I do discuss in my book, though briefly), and the fact that the United States now leads the world in incarceration, whether or not one agrees with the contention that our criminal justice policies are contributing to our crime problem, it is certainly a perfectly rational assertion to make. Moreover, there is ample support provided in the book for the related contention that this sort of religiosity is positively correlated with greater support for more punitive criminal justice responses to crime. Only continued research will settle the matter conclusively. (Incidentally, I don’t believe this is the strongest facet of the theory, and present it as having the least influence of the three tenets.)

Latzer is clearly bothered by the work in a way that causes him to miss the nuances, despite the fact that they are not subtle. His review strongly suggests that my book contains the incredibly simplistic claim that violent scripture alone somehow causes violent behavior, and enumerates the history of nonviolence on the part of many religious orders, before making the point that the greatest focus of worldwide concern in the last several decades is violence motivated by aggressive versions of Islam, not Christianity. Where to begin. It is ironic that most of the reviewer’s criticisms rely on anecdotal examples, such as pointing to the existence of nonviolent religious groups, while claiming that my theory is somehow devoid of a basis in research, when nearly half the length of the book was required for scholarly citations in support of my claims. With respect to his point about Islam, I explicitly discuss the fact that Christian nationalism is only the focus of the book due to my goal of explaining differences in rates of violence and homicide in the United States, and that I would also expect to see higher levels of violence in other countries where different brands of religious nationalism are exerting a greater influence, such as those associated with Islam, Judaism, or Catholicism.

In a somewhat bizarre turn, Latzer cites the meta-analysis by Kelly, et al. (2015) showing the positive impact of religion on delinquency and drug use that was published after my book was at press to suggest that I am wrong about the impact of religiosity on criminal behavior. What Professor Latzer fails to mention is that I make this point myself at several points in the The Devil You Know, citing more than 20 articles showing a positive impact for religious participation (mostly measured by church attendance and self-reported religious convictions) on low-level delinquency and drug use. I make a point of saying that there are certainly elements of social control in this sort of participation in religious life, though that relationship is far more complicated than Latzer’s discussion suggests (for example, research shows that the positive aspects of social control are greatly reduced when such teens are outside of the influence of their religious communities). The bottom line here is that I never suggest that Christian nationalism does not play a part in curbing some types of criminality, and this is a fact that I acknowledge and discuss at several points. Even more to the point, these sorts of low-level offenses are superfluous in a discussion of my theory—which is focused on explaining violence and homicide.

Overall, I am proposing a theory that might shed light on the lingering question of why the United States is such an outlier among similar countries when it comes to our rates of violence. The book is a call for more sophisticated analyses of this variable in order to flesh out competing beliefs that fall under the very wide umbrella of religion—including some that are emphatically nonviolent. The vast majority of criminological research on the impact of religion has employed very blunt tools to measure these beliefs, and seems to have approached the question almost exclusively from the theoretical assumption that all religion is a form of pro-social control. Dr. Latzer’s unusually mean-spirited critique was not a surprise to me in light of the research I conducted in writing the book; it speaks directly to the kind of thoughtless aggression that the defense of religious nationalism tends to elicit, and, ironically, why it can so easily evolve into a mechanism for violence. Hopefully, as researchers in criminology and criminal justice, we can move past such reactions, along with the automatic assumption that religion somehow serves as a supernatural chaperone inhibiting bad behavior.

Elicka Peterson Sparks, Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Appalachian State University


Decety, J., J.M. Cowell, K. Lee, R. Mahasneh, S. Malcolm-Smith, B. Selcuk, & Zhou, X. (2015). The negative association between religiousness and children’s altruism across the world. Current Biology, 25, 2951-55.
Ellison, C. J., Burr, J. A., & McCall, P. L. (2003). The enduring puzzle of southern homicide: Is regional religious culture the missing piece? Homicide Studies, 7, 326-52.
Kelly, P. E., Polanin, J. R., Jang, S. J., & Johnson, B.R. (2015). Religion, delinquency, and drug use: A meta-analysis.Criminal Justice Review, 40, 505-23.

Shariff, A. F., Willard, A.K., Andersen, T., and Norenzayan, A. (2015). Religious priming: A meta-analysis with a focus on prosociality.Personality and Social Psychology Review, 20, 27-48.

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