Elicka Peterson Sparks
Official Site of
Author & Criminologist
In the Press
"The Devil You Know: The Surprising Link between Conservative Christianity and Crime, by Elicka Peterson Sparks, dissects crime, punishment, and faith in the United States. Peterson Sparks is an expert in the study of crime and its patterns in the United States Her new book shares a calm, persuasive, and chilling look at a highly emotional topic. Its reasonable tone stands to be celebrated, particularly given the contentious nature of her topic in public discourse . . . Notably, Peterson Sparks doesn’t take issue with the whole of Christianity, but rather with the way certain groups morph their biblical beliefs into nationalism with a focus on authority and punishment . . . The Devil You Know turns into
heartening and compelling territory, even while recognizing that the road ahead is daunting. This book is a critical read for leaders in religion and in social justice who are looking to help uproot crime more effectively . . . Peterson Sparks presents a challenge to Christians, and even people of other faiths, to truly evaluate
the far-reaching effects of their beliefs and practices. The principles and lenses used in her research are valuable for
other questions of religion and public life."
“Why is the United States such a violent nation filled with so much crime? The startling answer proposed by criminologist Peterson Sparks is that it’s due to the tremendous impact of the Bible and Christianity on the culture, institutions, and political life of the United States. She specifically indicts Christian theocratic nationalism for this, with its hateful, xenophobic, war-mongering, gun-toting, misogynistic, child-abusing, gay-bashing, get-tough-on-crime, right-wing nuts. This is the devil in disguise we already know, finally exposed for the evil it is. This book is a masterpiece! It should scare the hell out of you.”
John W. Loftus,
Author of Why I Became an Atheist and editor of Christianity is Not Great: How Faith Fails
Bonnie Berry, PhD, Director
Social Problems Research Group
“Rarely does a book come along that startles like The Devil You Know does. Elicka Peterson Sparks confronts a touchy subject (religion) and analyzes its impact on criminal behavior and criminal justice in an honest and courageous fashion. This clearly and beautifully written book connects religion and crime through a number of social forces: politics, media, education, the economy, human rights, and the law (notably the US Supreme Court). No matter how surprising the conclusions, this book is recommended reading for all Americans.”
“In The Devil You Know, Peterson Sparks bravely, and in delightful prose, asks a crucial question that many other scholars either feared asking or did not know to ask—is religiosity in the United States related to criminality? The argument she poses cannot be ignored and has opened the door for vital future research.”
Hector A. Garcia, Psy.D.,
Author of Alpha God
". . . A recommended read."
Voice of Reason Journal
“A compelling read, well researched, and interesting.”
The Devil You Know by Elicka Peterson Sparks will not be a popular read in many corners of America. An associate professor of criminology, Sparks has taken on a topic to grapple with that many people will find insulting but others will find interesting, if not accurate.
She theorizes that there is a definite connection between conservative Christianity, especially Christian nationalism, and crime. Christian nationalism is defined as a political ideology steeped in “a Christian right to rule.” She explains that its followers believe in a revisionist history specifically focused on America’s founding fathers as devout Christians who did not believe in separation of church and state.
In an effort not to appear prejudicial about her theory, Sparks explains her personal position as: “I clearly do not believe in God, . . . I tend to strive even harder to be fair and scrupulous in my presentation of facts . . .” She delves into the Bible to make her points clear, and also shares her thoughts about the book, “I do not view the Bible as the literal word of God . . . I view the Bible as fiction . . .”
The book is well organized, and she brings her points home through her scrupulous research.
Her first chapter, “When Did Christians Get So Mean (Again)?” provides background to her research, and she admits that it has been an unsettling writing process for several reasons: 1. The connection between violent crime and the religious right has received such little attention; 2. The religious right is powerful and vocal and will probably attempt to discredit Sparks’ findings.
In this chapter she introduces how she came to their theory and discusses many of the surveys and academic works she studied. In questioning the meanness of Christianity she focuses on the doctrine of fear and violence versus forgiveness and mercy. She settles on Christian nationalism’s attempts to tout fear to increase its ranks—in particular, fear of death. She further declares the meanness as a result of using increased political power to coerce others to their cause.
Chapter two, “Jesus Loves You, But We’re His Favorites” is where she begins to explain her theory the Christian nationalism is criminogenic (crime-producing). She asks the question “Is the United States a Christian Nation?” and to answer it she delves into the historical arguments with special attention on the founding fathers and their own approach to religion. In her cultural arguments she focuses on the influence of religion on politics, in particular its hijacking of the Republican party. Having studied this concept, she concludes, “Suffice it to say that it is through culture that I contend that the United States is a Christian nation.”
She supports this statement with statistics—both national and international, and it is with these statistics that she maintains that due to the fact that the U.S. tops the list of countries with Christian populations, there is a reason to compare crime and Christian nationalism. In this chapter she goes on to examine the prejudices shown by the Christian nationalists to non-Christian religions as well as non-believers.
She provides an interesting look at American presidents including Andrew Jackson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama and their Christian practices once they take office. The results are eye opening.
In chapter three, “Why Pick on Christian Nationalists?” Sparks surmises, “While the reality of Christianity encompasses many positive features, it also includes a number of features that are criminogenic in nature.” She proceeds to explain that statement through a discussion of how Christian nationalism has developed a cultural identity related to the “perception of religiosity.” Specifically, it is an ideology that impacts culture, politics, and institutions. In this discussion she presents numerous attributes of this belief system and how these beliefs relate to criminality. It is in this chapter where she begins to discuss how the Bible justifies violence to the Christian nationalist community. In particular she points out that the Old Testament, with its violence, is appealing to this conservative group.
She points out in detail how Christian nationalists fail to support programs and policies that would draw down crime; they do not respect secular law. They do not support policies that support anti-discrimination laws and at times take that fight to violence.
She takes her theory of violent religiosity into the next chapter with the question: Why does religion cause crime? She answers that question with three points: “the explicit theology of violence present in fundamentalist religions; the psychology attendant in insulating oneself from fear of death through religion; and the promulgation of laws, policies, and programs to address crime that stem from this belief system.” Sparks explains each of these points with biblical discussion. Her discussion is especially interesting relative to the Christian doctrine of eternal life and fear of death. “Any endeavor . . . serves to connect us to something that will outlast us in the mortal coil . . .”—thus the religious desire for eternal life.
There is an eye-opening discussion about “rightwing authoritarianism (RWA)” describing a lack of charity by this group and explaining group prejudice. She points out an important underlying assumption of her theory is the sense that many people believe that America is special because it is a Christian nation. She produces five predictions to support her hypotheses:
Violent crimes will increase as religious nationalism increases;
Christian Nationalism will flourish in the South where its influence is the strongest;
There will be higher rates of violence in the U.S. as compared to other countries where the culture of religious nationalism does not flourish;
There will be higher rates of violent crimes among blacks versus whites in the U.S.;
There will be a higher rate of violence among men than women;
As secularism increases, violence will decrease.
Here she takes the opportunity to encourage researchers to approach this theory through conducting more thorough surveys.
One of the most interesting chapters in the book is chapter five, “The Bible, Cafeteria Style.” Here she cherry picks scripture in the Bible and draws connections between the potential for more violent crime and specific scripture. While she points out various aspects of the New Testament and Jesus’ teachings, most of the connections are taken from the Old Testament, given its violent picture of religion. She makes her point regarding crime and religion with selections on violence; women as wicked and subhuman; “God hates homosexuals;” and the abuse of children.
She begins to close her argument with a discussion on the future of crime and justice in America. She presents an interesting dialog on the Ten Commandments in which she questions how many Christian nationalists can even name five of the commandments, much less all ten and more often than not, the commandments are used to make a point, not to live by.
Here she questions what Jesus would do, and she theorizes that he would not approve of the Christian nationalist approach to religion. While Jesus is perceived as loving, understanding, and peaceful, the Christian nationalists present themselves more as judgmental, hateful, and militant.
Sparks closes her discussion with ten suggestions for combating religious violence in the United States. She makes these suggestions based on her research. While the suggestions hold water, and certainly are presented in an effort to curtail violence, the question remains; Who will take her up on these suggestions? The question is unanswered, but Sparks makes a good case for her theory; it’s a good place to start.
Whether the reader agrees with the theory presented in this book, or even with some of the hypotheses put forward, The Devil You Know is a compelling read, well researched, and interesting.
The New York Journal of Books
Advance Praise for Intimate Partner Violence
Intimate Partner Violence is a masterful, experience-based and crystal-clear condensation of knowledge about domestic violence and how to stop it. The product of a unique collaboration between a top-flight researcher and a survivor and pioneer in our advocacy movement, the book exposes common myths about perpetrators and victims and offers practitioners, survivors and policy makers step-by-step guidance on how to build much needed bridges to safety, real accountability, dignity and the full equality without which our families and communities cannot thrive.
Author of Coercive Control
WalletHub article, "Should Teachers Be Armed: Experts Pick Sides"
Elicka Peterson Sparks, Ph.D. is a Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology and Honors Program Director in the Department of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.
Dr. Sparks’ research focuses on victimology, the criminogenic impact of religion, domestic violence, and homicide. She has published scholarly articles on homicide, domestic violence, sex offending, jury decision-making, juvenile justice, actuarial justice, mentoring, police response to intimate partner violence, and criminological theory,
and her research has appeared in criminological journals such as Theoretical Criminology, Homicide Studies, Punishment & Society, The Criminal Justice Law Review, and The Journal of Criminal Justice Education.
Dr. Sparks is the author of the books, The Devil You Know: The Surprising Link between Conservative Christianity and Crime and Intimate Partner Violence: Effective Procedure, Response and Policy (with co-author Kit Gruelle). She is currently under contract for a book due to be released in the fall of 2019 entitled Violent Crime in the United States: Examining the Facts. She has also won numerous teaching awards, and consulted for numerous news media outlets, and on several documentaries, including PBS’s Blind Spot: Murder by Women and HBO’s Private Violence.
In her free time, Elicka is a is an avid reader who also enjoys hiking, gardening, canoeing, biking, and spending time with friends. She is happily married, with two wonderful stepdaughters, Megan and Jess, two hilarious mutts, Sugar and Spice, and a saucy little cat named Annie.
News & Events
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Release date for The Devil You Know
Release Date for Intimate Partner Violence
5:00 p.m. The Country Bookshop
Southern Pines, North Carolina
Reading/Signing Event for The Devil You Know
11:30 a.m. EDT Interview with Irish radio's NewTalk (106-108 fm) Talking Books program.
Reading/Signing Event for The Devil You Know
7:00 p.m. Left Bank Books
St. Louis, Missouri
Reading/Radio Interview for The Devil You Know
Radio Interview for The Devil You Know
9:30 p.m. EDT Interview on Scared Monkeys Radio / Dana Pretzer Show.
Radio Interview for The Devil You Know
4:35 p.m. EDT Interview on The Signorile Show (SiriusXM127)
Television Interview for The Devil You Know
The Allman Report, ABC 30 in St. Louis
Book Talk for High Country Lifelong Learners
2:00 p.m. 132 Poplar Grove Connector, Second floor conference center
Boone, North Carolina
Talk for Senior Scholars: Christian Nationalism in Trumpistan
2:00-4:00 p.m. 132 Poplar Grove Connector, Second floor conference center
Boone, North Carolina
Release date for Violence in America: Examining the Facts
Sabbatical in New York City
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