In 1993, I received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion at an award ceremony in Buckingham Palace. I represented the thousands upon thousands of Prison Fellowship volunteers and staff who are offering the hope of new life in Christ to prisoners around the world.
I was honored to stand next to Prince Philip when he gave me the medal. We were surrounded by dignitaries. Then the Prince asked me, “Mr. Colson, what can we do about juvenile crime here in England?” I told him: “Send more young British children to Sunday school.” He smiled, thinking I was joking. I think I shocked some of the dignitaries, who no doubt thought I was being a bit cheeky.
I was deadly serious. I told the Prince, “Professor Christie Davies at the University of Reading conducted a study that showed when Sunday school attendance was highest in England, crime was lowest. Conversely, when Sunday school attendance declined, the crime rate increased.” So I said to him, “Send young boys to Sunday school so they can be taught the basics of Christian morality.”
“Pretty good idea!” Prince Philip replied.
A pretty good idea, indeed. And it’s an idea that is being proved right again and again. In the Wall Street Journal, the eminent social scientist James Q. Wilson reviewed Baylor professor Byron Johnson’s new book, More God, Less Crime.
In researching his book, Johnson looked for every study “that measured the possible effect of religion on crime” published between 1944 and 2010. In case you were wondering, there were 273 of them.
Wilson noted that according to 90 percent of those studies “more religiosity resulted in less crime.” While Wilson cautioned that a lack of statistical controls makes these numbers hard to evaluate, Wilson wrote that the sheer number of studies showing the positive effect on religion offsets their potential weaknesses in methodology.
Wilson, the preeminent man in the field, pointed to a landmark 1986 study conducted by Harvard economist Richard Freeman, who found that “going to church is associated with substantial differences in how young men behave. More churchgoing, less crime, less alcohol and fewer drugs.”
And, Wilson suggests, among studies of actual prisoners the “strongest results” come from Prison Fellowship, particularly Johnson’s own study of our InnerChange Freedom Initiative in Texas.
When you compared a group of similar Texas prisoners to the InnerChange Freedom Initiative graduates, you see that after two years the post-release re-incarceration rate is 8 percent for our graduates against 20.3 percent for the matched comparison group.
These results, and the mountain of evidence showing that religion makes a difference, are enough for great scholars like Wilson to take notice.
Unsurprisingly enough, it’s not enough for many of our secularist, academic elite. Johnson was dismissed some years ago from the University of Memphis because his research on crime and religion -- and his Christian views -- meant that he “simply didn’t fit in.”
But what Johnson’s book More God, Less Crime shows so clearly, is that we’ve been right all along: The Gospel changes lives, and it’s the best hope for keeping men and women out of prison.
The evidence is clear, and it’s a great testimony. We just need eyes to see it.