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Measuring the Mountaintop
Research at the Divid between Church and State

Byron Johnson

Byron Johnson went up to “God’s Mountain” over the summer. He didn’t see a burning bush there, but he did observe “an awful lot of hugging going on” amid a multitude of over 2,000 who sang hymns and listened to sermons. The occasion was a reunion of former drug abusers and their families at the Teen Challenge residential treatment center in Rehrersburg, PA—called “the mountain” by those who kicked their habit with the help of a program grounded in bible study and Christian faith.

Johnson, a criminologist and director of the Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society (CRRUCS), attended the gathering as a social scientist to conduct focus groups and to interview the men whose lives had been turned around by what happened to them on the mountain. For over 40 years, Teen Challenge has taken on the most desperate and intractable cases of drug and alcohol addiction and claims to have won. It now has over 400 centers worldwide, suggesting there might be something to the claim.

In conversations with Johnson, the reformed addicts told of running up credit cards and running out of money, of going back to detox a dozen times only to find themselves shooting up on the way home from detox. Many of the addicts, after repeated offenses, ended up at Rehrersburg when judges gave them a choice between doing Teen Challenge’s tough religious program or doing hard time. After failing at every treatment program in the book, they said, only Teen Challenge was able to heal their rock-bottomed-out lives. The embrace of faith and prayer and bible study were decisive. “There’s a God-size hole in our hearts, and you can’t fill it with drugs,” one sermonized. Johnson watched every head in the group bobbing Amen, brother.

“ We know there are religious organizations out there trying to combat serious social problems,” the social scientist maintains, “but we don’t know very much about them.” There are entire university departments dedicated to religious studies and theology, but there is only one doctoral dissertation on the work of Teen Challenge. “Unless you go out and spend some time with these organizations, you don’t really have an accurate understanding of what they do,” and you won’t have anything more than your own personal bias to tell you whether people are being helped.

CRRUCS looks at how churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions help solve big-city problems and how local faith communities and grass-roots ministries make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged, mostly urban people. It’s a “faith-friendly but fact-based” research enterprise, Johnson explains. “We’re looking to see if these organizations are effective or not.” Scrupulous empirical and statistical methods are applied to examine how religion helps—or does not help—people cope with social ills such as poverty, crime, prisoner recidivism, and drug abuse. If the evidence shows a ministry is achieving results, CRRUCS will spread the good news in their reports. If a religious program is shown to be ineffective or to cause harm, the center will tell that story too.

Johnson calls it “inexcusable” that such studies have not already been done and suspects that academics tend to look askance at social programs that use and are motivated by “high octane religion.” In some cases, the presumption seems to be that religion is forced down the throats of individuals already beaten down by circumstances and bad choices. “That in itself is an interesting empirical question worth examining,” he contends. “We have a very limited understanding of these faith-based organizations, but at least [CRRUCS] has been out there investigating and trying to provide long-overdue empirical answers
to some of these questions.”

In a recent study, Johnson found that religious commitment and church attendance offer “protective factors” to “high-risk” inner-city youths. Other CRRUCS studies have demonstrated, among other things, that religious youths are more healthy—they are less likely to fight, drink and drive, or carry weapons; and more likely to exercise and eat right. Another research project showed that privileged youths benefit from religion too, documenting that “low-risk” teenagers are less likely to experiment with drinking, drugs, and delinquency.

Johnson’s latest report is on a prison program in Houston, Texas. The study, The InnerChange Freedom Initiative: A Preliminary Evaluation of a Faith-Based Prison Program, found that inmates who complete a two-year rehabilitation program immersed in bible study and Christian worship have a better chance of staying out of jail, once released, than members of the general prison population.

The report, officially released at a White House roundtable discussion in June, found that inmates who graduated from the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) were less than half as likely to be back in prison within two years as a comparable sample of convicts who were not in the program. In the correctional experiment, which was set up in 1997 when President George W. Bush was governor of Texas, inmates nearing the end of their sentence could volunteer for the faith-based prison. The IFI program emphasizes education, work, life skills, mentoring, and group accountability, all carried out in a prison environment permeated by religious instruction. Just 8 percent of IFI graduates went back to prison within the two-year study period, compared with 20.3 percent for a matched sample of prisoners who did not have the religious intervention.

“ The results are positive but preliminary,” Johnson cautions.

The Texas program might be biased, he speculates, because recruits were selected for their suitability—they had to be able to read and couldn’t be sex offenders— rather than being a true random sample. And Johnson would be more comfortable with data that looked at recidivism rates over three years after release rather than just two. The IFI report also holds less flattering numbers. It notes, for instance, that if the data included inmates who started but did not finish the faith-based program, then the proportion of IFI re-arrests (36.2 percent) would exceed the rate of arrests for the comparison group (35 percent).

Whatever the methodological reservations, the report suggests that religious faith—“inner change”—enhances rehabilitation. A key to the IFI program is “spiritual transformation,” the report notes. Prisoners repair their poor self-image by discovering or rediscovering a relationship with God. Of the 125 inmates interviewed, more than half said, “ I am not who I used to be.” The data for re-arrests hints that they may be right, but Johnson is holding out for closer study and more definitive evidence.

Over the next ten years, about 650,000 convicts will be released from prison every year. “We know there are plenty of faith-based organizations partnering with authorities to help with this avalanche of offenders coming back into the community,” offers Johnson. “Is that a good thing? We don’t know, but we ought to find out.” With the right funding, CRRUCS researchers may one day come down from the mountaintop with some answers—and the data to back them up.

CRRUCS reports are available online at

Copyright ©2004 University of Pennsylvania
School of Arts and Sciences
Updated August 30, 2004