Praise the Lord, Pass the Ammo

If teen violence is the question, religion isn’t the answer.

Addressing a “God Not Guns” rally of ministers near the Capitol a couple of weeks ago, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay offered this explanation for the Littleton, Colo., killings: “I got an e-mail this morning that said it all. The student writes, ‘Dear God: Why didn’t you stop the shootings at Columbine?’ And God writes, ‘Dear student: I would have, but I wasn’t allowed in school.’ “

The view among Republicans is that adolescent violence is inevitable given the decline of religion. Indeed, until the early 1960s’ Supreme Court decisions on school prayer, displays of the Ten Commandments were common. And back then, crime was much less prevalent than today. So, the House voted to undo the “damage” by allowing states to mandate the posting of the Ten Commandments in schools and other public facilities.

In social science terms, the Republicans believe there is a correlation between the influence of religion and obedience to the law. The Ten Commandments prohibit murder, so exposing people to them could tend to discourage lethal violence. The absence of religious faith and norms, on the other hand, might incline someone toward homicide. The argument has particular force in the context of Columbine, where the gunmen asked two girls if they believed in God, and when they answered affirmatively, shot them dead.

The correlation is not implausible, but a correlation is not the same thing as a cause. If we were to discover that none of the killers in the various school shootings were in the habit of eating pancakes for breakfast, we would have established a correlation. But no one would argue that the kids killed because they didn’t eat enough pancakes–much less that the answer to school violence is a national campaign to get children to eat pancakes every day. Once you find a correlation between A and B, you still have to demonstrate that one causes the other.

I n this instance, though, conservatives are claiming to have found a cause without even showing a correlation. Why not? Maybe because they can’t. The United States is the most religious of all the industrialized nations. Forty-four percent of Americans attend church once a week, compared with 27 percent in Britain, 21 percent in France, 16 percent in Australia, and 4 percent in Sweden. Yet violent crime is not less common in the United States–it’s more common. The murder rate here is six times higher than the rate in Britain, seven times higher than in France, five times higher than in Australia, and five times higher than in Sweden. Japan, where Christianity has almost no adherents, has less violent crime than almost any country. There are a few advanced nations that have high rates of church attendance and low rates of violent crime–Ireland, Italy, and Belgium–but they’re the exceptions.

Within the 50 states, there is no evidence that a God-fearing populace equals a law-abiding populace. The Bible Belt has more than its share of both praying and killing. Louisiana has the highest churchgoing rate in the country, but its murder rate is more than twice the national average. The same pattern generally holds in the rest of the South. Tom DeLay’s Bible-toting state of Texas has a murder rate triple that of Massachusetts, which is “ungodly” enough to have elected two openly gay members of Congress. New York, the very symbol of godless depravity, is perfectly average when it comes to extralegal slaughter. In Washington state, where Sunday morning slugabeds are more common than anywhere else in America, murder is 38 percent less common.

House Republicans have also failed to notice that the school shootings have not occurred in hotbeds of secular humanism–say, Berkeley, Calif.; Cambridge, Mass; or New York City–but in towns that Norman Rockwell and James Dobson would be proud to call home. Pearl, Miss.; West Paducah, Ky.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Edinboro, Pa.; and Springfield, Ore., are not exactly Madalyn Murray O’Hair country. Littleton was fertile ground for evangelical churches.

If there is any apparent correlation between the prevalence of Christian devotion and law-abiding conduct, it’s the opposite of the one claimed by Republicans: Religion and violence seem to go hand in hand. That doesn’t mean faith actually causes murder. But it does suggest that when Republicans contemplate the Ten Commandments, they should pay more attention to the ninth, which prohibits false witness.