A punishing god


THE RECENT CNN SPECIAL ON RELIGION IN AMERICA with international correspondent Christiana Amanpour has prompted me to comment on the relationship between religion and punishment in American society. We are without a doubt the most punitive nation in the world, as indicated by the fact that we lead the world in incarceration rates, length of sentences and the use of the death penalty.


To begin with, virtually every religion uses fear and guilt to keep people in line. In fact, the earliest form of law in this country was shaped by Puritan religious beliefs, and most laws in colonial times were almost direct quotes from the Bible. Not surprisingly, many laws in early colonial society were taken almost literally from the Bible, including those prohibiting idolatry, blasphemy, bestiality, sodomy and adultery, all of which were punishable by death. Even after the American Revolution, which stressed a separation of church and state, many religiously based laws remained on the books, some of which were known as "Sunday Laws" and "Blue Laws."


Some of your most punitive people are also very religious, and they have substituted legal punishment for punishment by God. In short, one way to see why we are the most punitive nation in the Western world is to simply examine our religious beliefs. In fact, one could argue that orthodox religions are inherently punitive. This argument has been persuasively made by Helen Ellerbe in her book, The Dark Side of Christian History. She argues that "orthodox Christianity is embedded in the belief in a singular, solely masculine, authoritarian God who demands unquestioning obedience and who mercilessly punishes dissent." Those who adhere to this belief also believe that "fear is essential to sustain [a] divinely ordained hierarchical order in which a celestial God reigns singularly at a pinnacle."


With the fall of the Roman Empire, the Church took control and in the process instituted what amounted to a reign of terror by introducing the Crusades and the Inquisition. The Protestant Reformation commenced to terrify people with threats of the devil and witchcraft while promoting the idea of one God, separate from earth and in complete control. Ellerbe also noted that orthodox Christians believed that "fear and submission to hierarchical authority were imperative," and such a belief saw God as in control "from the pinnacle of a hierarchy based not upon love and support, but upon fear."


In the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom said that without magistrates "and the fear that comes from them," entire nations would fall because there would be no one "to repress, or repel, or persuade them to be peaceful through the fear of punishment." In short, people will be able to co-exist only with the threat of punishment hanging over them. Those who are non-believers or who believe in more earthly gods or multiple gods will be, and have been, punished severely.


I should also note that religion played a key role in the establishment of the first prisons. It was not by accident that they were called penitentiaries (because while they were locked up, prisoners were supposed to seek penance). These early prisons were established by Quakers and other religious groups in the late 18th and early 19th century, when crime was still equated with "sin." These earliest prisons, often based upon what has been called the "Pennsylvania model," had prisoners locked up in solitary confinement almost 24 hours per day, with nothing to read but the Bible, and the only outside visitor allowed in was a member of the clergy. Going to prison was supposed to be a "monastic experience." In many ways, the old "Pennsylvania model" has reared its ugly head, given the increase in the number of "supermax" prisons or areas within many prisons that lock people up 24 hours a day save for an hour outside for "exercise."


Religion has played a key role inasmuch as concepts like vengeance and retribution have dominated discussions of crime control policies. Rational arguments against the death penalty, for instance, have fallen on deaf ears. To most people, the fact that the death penalty is not a deterrent, that it is more costly than life in prison and that it discriminates against racial minorities seems to be irrelevant.


Research has shown a strong correlation between fundamentalist religious beliefs and punishment. One study, in fact, found that respondents who categorized themselves as "Fundamentalist Protestant" were more likely to support corporal punishment in schools than other respondents.