Fundamentalist religious belief more likely to lead to punitive measures

The famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow advised lawyers that they should not pick jurors who had strong Calvinist religious beliefs about right and wrong because they have a harsh and unforgiving attitude. It should not come as a real surprise that new research supports his view.

A new study backs up Darrow’s advice, finding that belief in a vengeful God will lead a person to oppose programs that help prisoners re-enter society, while a person who believes in a loving and forgiving God is more likely to support those programs.

“Stronger feelings of religious forgiveness led to greater support for assisting offenders,” says the study of 386 random Missourians. “The people who had the stronger punitive picture of God were less likely to support transitional programs, things like substance abuse programs,” says Brett Garland, a professor at Missouri State University and an author of the study.

Past research echoes the Missouri findings. “Fundamentalists tend to be more punitive. They do believe in ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” Monica Miller, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, tells Newsweek. Miller’s research found stronger support for the death penalty among those who take the Bible literally and among fundamentalists, who place more weight on the Old Testament than the New.

In Darrow’s time one did not have the option of picking non-religious people since they were unlikely to publicly declare their unbelief so Darrow advised defense lawyers as to which denominations were preferable.

In his 1936 essay for Esquire, Darrow predicted the views toward criminals and defendants that Guyton, the Methodist, and Moore, the Southern Baptist, would hold almost 80 years later. The guidance he gave defense attorneys for picking sympathetic jurors seems to remain solid.

“The Methodists are worth considering; they are nearer the soil. Their religious emotions can be transmuted into love and charity,” Darrow wrote. “If chance sets you down between a Methodist and a Baptist, you will move toward the Methodist to keep warm.”


  1. says

    Altemeyer determines this with his authoritarian attitudes survey, as well. If you haven’t read “the authoritarians” it’s
    a) free on the internet!
    b) a light and quick read

    That’s not to say I think “the authoritarians” is necessarily other than the usual social science glarp of coming up with a name for a syndrome, designing a survey to detect that syndrome, giving people the survey, and discovering that yes, you can write a survey to detect certain things in a self-selected sample of college students. Do I sound cynical about the social sciences? Must be the ghost of my psych degree..

  2. mostlymarvelous says

    I’d have to agree. I can remember being a bit surprised by one devout Catholic friend of ours. He was very conservative -- a doctor who didn’t much like Australia’s “socialist” approach to health -- and frequently expressed the sort of opinions you might think were negative about all kinds of people, all kinds of behaviours and attitudes. But being Catholic, he didn’t have any of those literalist, fundamentalist leanings. He was absolutely adamant in opposing the death penalty. Everybody is capable of redemption and we have no right to take that chance away from them. We should provide every chance for criminals to acknowledge their crimes, redeem themselves and become better people, even if a long sentence means they’ll have little chance to contribute to society.

    (We also later discovered that his, also quite conservative, wife was a regular prison visitor. Not proselytising, simply doing her best for society’s downtrodden rejects. Obviously, neither of them mentioned this in conversation. It was just one of the taken-for-granted duties of an observant Catholic.)

  3. says

    Everybody is capable of redemption and we have no right to take that chance away from them.

    Catholics are weird. If someone’s on his way to the death-chamber, they’re more likely to sincerely repent and have their “soul saved” and go to heaven. They ought to support carnage. Besides, that creates more sinful executioners who need saving.

    I know it’s stupid but it’s not my theology. Silly authoritarian catholic bootlickers need to thinky more.

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