The religious roots of southern punitiveness

The Death Penalty Information Center reports that 37 people will be executed in the United States in 2008, down 12 percent from 42 in 2007 and a 30 percent drop from 2006.

Are we looking at a gradual erosion of support for the death penalty, or a meaningless statistical blip?

The AP report notes that Texas accounted for half of the executions in 2007 (18 of 37, or 48% of the national total).  That’s a big improvement from 2007 when Texas executed 26 people (62%) out of the 42 inmates executed nationally.

Unlike most reports on this year’s numbers, the AP article notes that nearly all of the execuations inAmerica this year took place in the South.  Only two non-Southern states, Oklahoma (2) and Ohio (2) performed executions this year.

Although Oklahoma was still a dumping ground for displaced native Americans at the end of the Civil War, it was largely populated by Southerners and is sometimes considered a southern state for statistical purposes.

But lets not quibble.  Of the 1137 executions in the United States since the re-institution of the death penalty in 1976, 935 occurred in southern states.  That’s 82%.  In recent years, the South has accounted for an even higher percentage of the executions in America.

Why are the execution numbers dropping?  Juries in several states (Texas among them) can now hand down a sentence of life without parole.  Many jurors will back away from the ultimate penalty if they know a dangerous killer will never be released from custody.

I would like to pose another question: Why are southerners so enamored of the death penalty?

Track lynching statistics  by year and by state between 1882 and 1962 (the beginning and end of the Jim Crow period ) and you will think you are looking at contemporary death penalty stats.  Lynching was much more prominent in the South than elsewhere in the United States.  Moreover, lynching was far more likely to be used against black victims in the South, especially in the first half of the 20th century.  For instance, of the 581 people lynched in this period in the state of Mississippi, 539 were black.

In the West, lynching was chiefly used as a form of vigilante frontier justice and most of the victims were white.

A similar trend emerges when we consider incarceration rates.   According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2005 the South had a regional incarceration rate of 519 prison inmates per 100,000 population (the numbers rise significantly when jail inmates are included).  In the same year, the Midwestern states had an incarceration rate of 386, the rate for the Western states was 378 and for the Northeast it was 314.

By international standards, even the Northeastern states are locking people in alarming numbers, but why is the rate of incarceration so much higher in the South?

When we consider that the cluster of states around Texas (with an incarceration rate of 691 per 100,000), the numbers skew in a highly punitive direction: Mississippi (660), Oklahoma (652),  and Louisiana (797).  In this clump of states, the incarceration rate hovers around 700, almost twice the national average.


The question becomes more critical when you consider that incarceration rates in Midwestern Red states are virtually the same as in Midwestern Blue states (a tad lower, in fact).

Religion, not conservative politics, is the key factor here.

There is an tragic correlation between high rates of church attendance and high rates of incarceration, but the folks who attend southern evangelical churches are singularly punitive.  In particular, a high concentration of Baptists goes hand-in-hand with multiple executions and an incarceration rate up in the nosebleed region.   In the cluster of Red states around Texas, Baptists comprise 37% of the population, compared to 21.8% in the Blue Southern states and around 8% nationally.  The average incarceration rate in the Blue South (states characterized by a low Baptist count and a vast in-migration of northerners) is 430, much lower than the regional average of 519 and only 61% as high as rates in Texas and the cluster of southern neighbor states cited above.

How do we account for Southern punitiveness, especially the extreme form on display in and around Texas?

I have spent eight years of my life studying theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.  Five of those years (1989-1994) were devoted to an in-depth study of church history with a particular focus on Baptist history in the South.  As part of this work I traced the gradual evolution of Baptist attitudes and influence in the southern slave states.

Early on, Baptists were low-status commoners in southern states like Virginia where the Church of England was established.  This explains why Baptists like John Leland petitioned Thomas Jefferson for a separation of church and state after the Revolutionary War.

Initially, most Baptists in the South opposed slavery as something antithetical to biblical religion.  But as the South expanded westward after the Louisiana Purchase and slavery became the region’s peculiar and defining institution, Baptist attitudes began to change.  In 1845, when Baptists split North and South over the issue of slavery, the newly formed Southern Baptist Convention rapturously embraced the virtues of a godly slave society.

By the advent of the Civil War, Southern Baptists had moved from condoning slavery to proclaiming it’s moral superiority to all alternatives.  The South was God’s Zion largely because it practiced the biblically mandated instituion of slavery.

After the holocaust of civil war, the battered South re-organized around the Southern Baptist Convention.  Pastors who disagreed with the Jim Crow regime had to find another line of work.  I have read hundreds of books by Southern Baptists from the first half of the 20th century.  White supremacy was largely assumed, though the indelicate and worldly subjects of slavery and segregation were rarely addressed.   Woe to the pastor who addressed the elephant in the room from a progressive perspective.

As late as 1972, an employee of the Sunday School Board in Nashville was fired for publishing a picture of black and white children playing together.  Segregation died hard.

During the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and early 60s, Southern Baptists were disproportionately represented within the KKK and the white citizens councils.  Official pronouncements from the Southern Baptist Convention had a moderate and faintly progressive sound, but the reality in the largely rural and small town Southern Baptist churches was quite different.

When Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy sparked a mass shift of southern whites from the Democratic party to the Republicans, Southern Baptists led the way.

I am not suggesting that Baptists are inherently punitive.  Nor am I arguing that Baptists were the only southerners to embrace slavery and Jim Crow segregation while opposing the civil rights movement.  Baptists simply provide the most illuminating case study.

Religion in the slave states reflected the paranoia of the times.  Slaves had to be kept into submission, a fact that encouraged runaways.   Fear of insurrection was constant, particularly in regions where white freemen were outnumbered by black slaves.  During the Jim Crow period, lynching was used to enforce white supremacy.  This constant brutality left its mark on the brand of southern evangelical religion that provided a theological justification, and later a twisted spiritual celebration, of slavery.  The result, a perverse alchemy of Christ and Anti-Christ.

How do you preach “whosoever will may come,” in the heart of the Jim Crow South?  Very carefully.  It is hard to preach grace to people you regard as subhuman.

A turn-or-burn religion based on the crude juxtaposition of heavenly bliss and hellish torment fit the spiritual needs of the slave states.  It was essential that religion be utterly divorced from politics and social p0licy.  The profane elephant in the room had to be ignored at all costs.

The hyper-spirituality of southern religion has little to do with evangelical theology.  In the North, as in England, evangelicals were frequently at the heart of the progressive movement.   But in the slave states, the church was the piper and the wealthy planter class called the tune.  These brutal facts of history gave southern evangelicalism a disembodied, anti-incarnational, and schizophrenic character that persists to this day.

Oddly, the punitive cast of southern evangelicalism is more apparent in the courthouse than in the churchhouse.  Southern attitudes are changing.  The crude racial bigotry of the Jim Crow period is dying fast (the proliferation of noose hangings and hate groups notwithstanding).  But the paranoia and punitiveness of the Old South lives on in the juryroom.  Fear of the other, a stark line of separation between the saved and the damned, and a deep-seated fear of the angry black man translate into support for the death penalty and mass incarceration.

I am not advocating that southerners turn their backs on evangelical religion.  Quite to the contrary; the South needs a revival of a radically biblical evangelicalism freed from the shackles of cultural captivity.

Support for slavery and segregation meant the abandonment of biblical grace and justice.   That’s the problem.

Once the disease is diagnosed, the cure is obvious.  The South will find its salvation in a back-to-the-Bible revival of religion.

22 thoughts on “The religious roots of southern punitiveness

  1. Alan, I don’t like what you are saying. I don’t like it because it is largely true. For your call to a back-to-the-Bible religion, I invite readers to search this blog back to the report on red letter Christians that I did for this site in September or October.

    John Mitchell, an editor at the Sunday School Board, was the guy who got canned at over the picture, in a Sunday School book, of black kids and white kids playing together. It raised such a furor in the constituency that the powers that be got rid of John rather than trying to changed the minds of the constituency. John and I were close friends. John passed away, I think it was a year ago yesterday. I have tried unsuccessfully to contact his widow and get more details regarding this. John was one of a host of evangelicals who paid a price for standing up for what is right, true, biblical, and evangelical. I salute his memory.

  2. I reccommend you research the extremely high murder rate in enlightened long time democratic cities and compare it to the rapidly increasing incarceration rates. You may wish to use subgroups and immigration statis in reviewing the FBI data. It is more dangerous in Chicago than Iraq, maybe we need more community organizers?

  3. “Red Letter Christians” can be found on this site by clicking on “Archives,” “September 2008” then scrolling down to the September 25 entry.

  4. Thank you, Charles. I will post the link to your post tomorrow. Mac-101, thank you for your comment. I did not mean to suggest that the South has a worse crime problem than other parts of the country, just that the response is much more punitive. You raise a valid point which I will address in the near future.


  5. Unfortunately, lynching was a result of a society maintaining it’s control over people by fear and intimidation. If anyone stepped out of line and was suspected of rape, child molesting, thiefing, rustling, whatever, they got lynched. Old data I read was their was about 3500 hundred DOCUMENTED lynching in the south between the end of the Civil War and the 1970s. About one third were white. During and after the Reconstruction the common cry was to Lynch the Negro and the Republican!

    As for todays crime rate, society must become color blind and consider a murder of a human being the ultimate hate crime regardless of color. I personally beleive in capital punishment. But as a realist I support Life without parole and doing it at Hard Labor instead of laying up in AC and watching cable. Sheriff Joe as the Nations Jailer!

  6. I have just contacted John’s widow. She thinks it was in 1972 that John was fired at the Sunday School Board. She doesn’t remember any of the details except that they just let him go with no opportunity to do anything else. Fortunately, he was an innovative person and did educational consulting all over the country. He passed away on December 5, 2007, an unsung hero of justice.

  7. Mac-101, As you suggest, lynching in the South was applied more or less indiscriminately to whites and blacks in the 19th century. As time went on, however, the number of white lynchings dropped dramatically and black became the primary victims of this vile practice.

  8. My early life in Dallas in the fifties is certainly consistent with your analysis. Although I was raised a Presbyterian the total absence of anything to do with race in my church is very like your Baptists. Dallas has its own history of lynching, of course, including hanging of clerics after the Dallas fire of 1860 (an interesting story in itself).

    I now live in Kentucky and have wondered how to account for the present day strength of the KKK across the Ohio in Indiana.

    John Swindells

  9. Dear Alan,

    i read this essay with great interest. I think it is a brilliant exposition of the interplay between religion and the thought control exercised by the landed elites in the South who benefited from slave labor.

    Terror and religion.What a mix.

    A friend of mine who has done some writing on Virginia said that the Baptists (and,I think also, the Methodists) were opposed to slavery, as you say, and that it was the Episcopalians, or Anglicans, who put enomous pressure on them to stop agitating for emancipation. Of course, this sect represented the landowning class, so it is hard to demark religion and business/politics in this process. You make that point, I think.

    The description of the migration of the Baptists from their original opposition to championing slavery was interesting. I would like to know more about that.

    i am also interested in the lynching of the whites. Do you know how much of it was of political opponents of the dominant class? If it was extensive it represents a period of terror in support of thought control comparable to the dictatorships we fought in the last century. This is not to diminish the horror of the violence inflicted on people of color. Which was terror in the service of thought control in an extreme form.

    My friend said that starting in the early 19th century many laws were passed in Virginia directed at whites who wanted to help African Americans. There was a prohibition against helping a black person learn to read, for example. (Or was it just slaves?) The police state mentality descended on everyone.

    The role of the Baptist church in all this, as illuminated in your thoughtful essay, was fascinating. And it explains much of our recent history, including the firing of the man in 1972 for the crime of touting a picture of successful integration.

    Keep up the good work.

    Edmund Rennolds

  10. David Mitchell, son of John Mitchell who was fired at the SS Board in 1972, is writing a doctoral dissertation on anti-Catholicism in the South. That should be an enlightening exercise for both the writer and his readers. Unfortunately, there is not likely to be many readers unless he can get it published.

  11. Your absolutely correct. I am a person highly skeptical of organized religion and the concept of God more generally precisely because it has the ability to provide conviction and justification to any act. While religion can also provide one strength in pursuit of noble endevors the certainty it provides can too easily be abused. I would be interested on your take on the Georgian move to change the law to allow the death penalty to be applied without a unanimity among the jurors and how that factors in.

  12. Ian, I’m sure you’re asking Alan and not me, but my take is that if unanimity is required for declaring guilt, then it makes sense that unanimity be required for sentencing. Without unanimity, you have a hung jury.

  13. Do you have any info about lynching in Catawba County of North Carolina. Could it be that the legacy of these heinous acts remains unhealed in our community? How can there be reconciliation and restoration without recognition of what happened in our community and a sincere desire to ask for and extend forgiveness? Who will take the lead…our churches, our local government, community organizations?

  14. Robert, I don’t have any specific on Catawba County, but I have met people who are convinced that there is a direct correlation between terroristic acts in the past and current social strife. I believe strongly that communities can’t deal with the future until they have come to terms with the past. I will be writing more on this theme in the New Year.

    Alan Bean

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