30 Oct 2008

Worship and Sin: an exploration of religion-related crime in the U.S. [book review]

State University of New York - Oswego

Cardinal Sins

Professor's book looks at religion's role in crime

Karel Kurst-SwangerSensitive to an emerging social issue five years ago, Dr. Karel Kurst-Swanger of SUNY Oswego’s public justice faculty thought of developing a course. Looking for a textbook on the issue—religion and crime—she found none existed. So she wrote it.

“Worship and Sin” was published earlier this year by Peter Lang Publishers and is the text for the course Kurst-Swanger is teaching this fall for the first time, PBJ 454: “Religion, Crime, and Justice.”

“This important work fills a void in the criminological literature and is sure to become the definitive book on the topic,” wrote the late Albert R. Roberts, a leading authority on criminology and a former professor of criminal justice and social work at Rutgers University.

The author of an earlier book published by Oxford University Press, Kurst-Swanger found herself searching for a publisher for this book, she said, because of its potential for controversy.

“It’s a book about crime rather than a book about religion,” she said, but it is groundbreaking in that it looks at religion’s role in perpetrating or at least opening a door to criminal conduct rather than deterring it.

Crime in her book is violation of American law, and religion encompasses the diversity of faith traditions in this country, both mainstream and fringe.

Kurst-Swanger said she began mulling the idea for the book after working with Oswego colleague Margaret Ryniker on a chapter on religion-related crime for a 2003 book edited by Roberts, “Critical Issues in Crime and Justice.” The two came up with a descriptive framework to explore the issue in a comprehensive way.

“Worship and Sin” organizes religion-related crime in three categories: crimes that result from a particular religious custom, practice or belief; crimes that stem from tensions between a religious person or group and the broader secular community; and abuse of religious authority.

This framework encompasses crimes ranging from violent attacks to tax fraud, including, for example, polygamy, arson at a church or mosque, use of illegal drugs in ceremonies, sexual abuse by clergy, harassment and murder of abortion providers or other demonized individuals, visa fraud by religious workers and misappropriation of church funds.

“My goal was to have this be comprehensive and to look at it from a number of different perspectives,” the author said. Because crime records and statistics rarely take religion into account, she added, “I had to really dig deep to find what I was looking for.”

“Worship and Sin” sells for $34.95 in paperback. Libraries at colleges and universities across the country have purchased the book, Kurst-Swanger said, noting that religious-affiliated colleges as well as Ivy League schools and law schools are among institutions that have it in their libraries. SUNY Oswego’s Penfield Library owns a copy.

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CONTACT: Dr. Karel Kurst-Swanger, 312-3413

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