Families, Churches, and Crime PreventionBy Ken Blackwell Senior Fellow for Human Rights and Constitutional Governance
Ken Blackwell is Senior Fellow for Human Rights and Constitutional Governance at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Heritage Foundation's 2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity.
Politicians often argue that the solution to reducing crime is more government programs or building bigger jails. Yet government cannot adequately address the underlying problems of criminal behavior or fill the holes in people’s lives.
What families need more than government programs are married fathers and mothers together in the home and faithful churches on the corner. Within families, children learn how to govern their lives. Churches help to reinforce these principles and strengthen the family in its role. When these institutions are weak or absent from peoples’ lives, society becomes increasingly dependent on government to impose restraint.
The evidence is overwhelming: When families are broken, children are more likely to engage in criminal behavior. Having both mother and father as mutually supporting authority figures in a child’s life to provide leadership and security is vitally important for a child in many ways, both physically and emotionally. Researchers find, for example, that:
- Children raised in non-intact homes are more likely to engage in violent crimes;
- Children who grow up without a father in the home are also significantly more likely to be incarcerated as adults;
- Children and youth in married-parent homes are also less likely to be victims of violence and maltreatment; and
- Children in married-parent homes are far less likely to experience other types of child abuse (emotional or sexual abuse).
Among adults, marriage also seems to be connected to lower rates of criminal activity for men, even when considering characteristics associated with greater likelihood of marriage. Counties with higher proportions of single-parent homes tended to have higher homicide rates, compared to counties with higher proportions of intact families.
Sadly, it is not always possible for a child to be raised by a married mother and father, but much more can be done to address the high rate of unwed childbearing in the United States, which has soared over the past five decades, as well as the historically high divorce rate.
American families also need faithful churches. These churches teach that there is an authority higher than man-made government and that our rights are gifts from a loving God, not privileges granted by government. Faithful churches inform the conscience about right and wrong, teach that each life has a purpose and that individuals are responsible for their lives and others’, and cultivate virtues that form the bedrock of a prosperous society.
- Couples who attend church regularly together and are more religious have, on average, higher-quality marriages, which can serve as a buffer against societal breakdown and the social ills connected with it.
- Individuals who attend church regularly, compared to those who attend only rarely or never, are significantly less likely to engage in violent behavior against their partners.
- Research also shows that, for youth, involvement in religious communities and groups may protect them against engaging in delinquent behaviors. Youth who participate in religious activity, such as prayer or reading or watching religious content, are also less likely to display antisocial behavior.
Limited government endures when people govern themselves. In the words of Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School’s Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration, “democracy works because most people most of the time voluntarily choose to obey the law.” The family is the incubator of liberty. It is there that a person learns values, hard work, character, and what is most important in life. Religious congregations reinforce the principles taught in the home and support the family in its role of raising the next generation. Society thrives when families and religious communities are strong and when the principles they cultivate inform the daily choices and personal conduct of their members.
Government cannot replace the kinds of support offered by the family or a religious community. Embracing these twin pillars of social strength ensures that individuals will be stronger and society will be safer and more stable.
- Stephen Demuth and Susan L. Brown, “Family Structure, Family Processes, and Adolescent Delinquency: The Significance of Parental Absence Versus Parental Gender,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Vol. 41, No. 1 (February 2004), pp. 58–81.
- Cynthia C. Harper and Sara S. McLanahan, “Father Absence and Youth Incarceration,” Journal of Research on Adolescence, Vol. 14, No. 3 (September 2004), pp. 369–397.
- Heather A. Turner, “The Effect of Lifetime Victimization on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents,” Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 62, No. 1, (January 2006), pp. 13–27.
- W. Bradford Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson, “One Way to End Violence Against Women? Married Dads,” The Washington Post, June 10, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/06/10/the-best-way-to-end-violence-against-women-stop-taking-lovers-and-get-married (accessed April 25, 2016).
- Ryan D. King, Michael Massoglia, and Ross Macmillan, “The Context of Marriage and Crime: Gender, the Propensity to Marry, and Offending in Early Adulthood,” Criminology, Vol. 45, Issue 1 (February 2007), pp. 33–65.
- Jennifer Schwartz, “Effects of Diverse Forms of Family Structure on Female and Male Homicide,” Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 68, No. 5 (December 2006), pp. 1291–1312.
- W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas H. Wolfinger, “Better Together: Religious Attendance, Gender, and Relationship Quality,” Institute for Family Studies, February 11, 2016, http://family-studies.org/better-together-religious-attendance (accessed April 25, 2016); K. T. Sullivan, “Understanding the Relationship Between Religiosity and Marriage: An Investigation of the Immediate and Longitudinal Effects of Religiosity on Newlywed Couples,” Journal of Family Psychology, Vol. 15, No. 4 (December 2001), pp. 610–626.
- Christopher G. Ellison, John P. Bartkowski, and Kristin L. Anderson, “Are There Religious Variations in Domestic Violence?” Journal of Family Issues, Vol. 20, No. 1 (January 1999), pp. 87–113.
- Michelle J. Pearce, “The Protective Effects of Religiousness and Parent Involvement on the Development of Conduct Problems Among Youth Exposed to Violence,” Child Development, Vol. 74, No. 6 (November/December 2003), pp. 1682–1696.
- Liberty Institute, “Clay Christensen on Religious Freedom,” https://www.libertyinstitute.org/clay-christensen (accessed April 25, 2016).