Baylor University criminologist Byron Johnson is the author of "More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More." Johnson, an evangelical Christian, was recently named Big Brothers Big Sisters' Big Brother of the Year for the North Texas area. Johnson was in Washington earlier this month for a lecture and meetings.
Your book says "the faith factor" is an effective antidote to many problems in America's criminal justice system. Can religious organizations help criminals better than the government can?
In many ways, they can, yes. What the book does that I think hasn't been done before is it really does capture in an empirical sense what these faith-based groups are doing and have been doing for many, many years but with little attention. If you, today, were to go get a degree in criminology at the undergraduate or graduate level, you would never hear a reference to religion in any of your courses. You wouldn't see it in any of your textbooks. And yet we have this mounting body of evidence that indicates it's important. These are published studies in the top journals. I hope this book would encourage these faith-motivated people to do even more than they're doing. And it's also a wake-up call to the government to say, "You know, you're not going to be able to solve these problems that we have without assistance. We need to reach out intentionally to congregations and faith-motivated individuals and faith-motivated groups."
The book also takes a lot of shots at the faith community for being somewhat isolated and insular and reluctant to partner with people that don't maybe think or act like them. There are some exceptions, but they tend not to be open to research. They say they don't need to prove anything, and my contention is: Yes, you do have to prove it. It's not enough to be called to it; you have to prove that what you're doing is effective.
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How does the idea of religion being a positive influence on crime fit with crimes committed within religion, such as priests or pastors who have molested children?
I think what happens is people sometimes focus on outliers. You don't have to look far to find these stories. But how common is it, really? And is that really fair? There's a tendency for people to generalize and stereotype. To those people who say, "Look at these negatives," these faith groups are volunteering enormous hours and work year after year to make a difference. Should we do something about these isolated cases? Yes, we should. But it doesn't change the fact that there's so much good going on out there that's worth huge economic returns for us. We just completed a return-on-investment study where we showed this one faith-based program saves the state of Minnesota $8,300 per participant over time in crime reduction and taxes that they generate as a result of being crime-free workers.
At your core, what is one of your defining beliefs?
Faith gives us hope. It certainly keeps me motivated. I know we live in an uncertain world, and I can see how that's disturbing to people; but my faith is in God, and that gives me hope and purpose and meaning.