Ask that question and you’re bound to hear a litany of familiar responses: poverty, racism, social alienation, lenient judges, not enough prisons. The remarkable thing is that, according to recent studies, none of these is the real cause. Contributing factors, yes, but not the root cause.
Criminologist James Q. Wilson decided to research the causes of crime in American history. He wanted to explain why crime decreased in the middle of the last century and then, after some fluctuations, shot up dramatically in the 1960s–and has been climbing ever since.
Wilson checked all the standard explanations of criminal behavior. But he found that none of them correlated with the patterns he was seeing. Take poverty, for example. If poverty causes crime, it’s very difficult to explain why crime was low during the Depression, when over a quarter of the population had no income at all. Or why crime rose during the affluent ’60s and ’70s.
Then Wilson stumbled on a historical fact he had not noticed before. The decrease in crime in the last century followed on the heels of a widespread religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening. Repentance and renewal spread across the country. Church membership rose steeply. Christians formed voluntary associations devoted to education and moral reform.
The entire American society came to respect the values of sobriety, hard work, self-restraint–what sociologists call the Protestant ethic.
As the Protestant ethic triumphed, the crime rate plummeted.
But then the trend shifted. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, the Protestant ethic began to fall out of favor among the educated classes. Following in the footsteps of Sigmund Freud, social scientists began to teach that self-restraint is not good but harmful. The educated classes began to view ethical principles as oppressive.
Their cause was no longer freedom for religion–a classic American liberty–but freedom from religion.
The attitudes of the educated classes percolated through to popular consciousness in the 1960s. The ideal of self-restraint and community responsibility was out; the ideal of personal liberation was in. When the hippies demanded the freedom to do their own thing, they were speaking for a wider cultural shift away from a shared moral consensus and in favor of individual choice.
The result was a sudden and dramatic increase in crime.
The message of history is clear: When Christian belief is strong, the crime rate falls; when Christian belief weakens, the crime rate climbs. Widespread religious belief creates a shared social ethic that acts as a restraint on the evil side of human nature.
Without the internal restraint of a shared ethic, order has to be imposed externally by force. That’s what Mao Tsetung, meant when he said morality begins at the muzzle of a gun. As leader of the bloody revolution that imposed Communism on China, Mao was not speaking abstractly.
There are only two ways for a society to survive. Either its civic order will flow from a shared social ethic rooted in spiritual commitments, or order will be imposed by the muzzle of a gun.
That is the choice facing America today.
Pull quote: As the Protestant ethic triumphed, the crime rate plummeted.