“Four Gods” in Maximum Security Prison: Images of God, Religiousness, and Worldviews Among Inmates


This paper extends research on images of God, which prior researchers based mostly on national survey data, to a study of offenders in prison. We first explore whether the distribution of Froese and Bader’s (America’s four gods: What we say about god–& what that says about us, Oxford University Press, New York 2010) four images of God among prison inmates is similar to that in the general population. We then examine whether an inmate’s image of God is associated with the inmate’s worldviews: beliefs and attitudes toward the law, other inmates, moral responsibility, and ultimate meaning and purpose in life. Finally, we test whether an inmate’s belief in a forgiving God and religiousness explain the association. We analyzed data from a survey of 2249 inmates at America’s largest maximum-security prison, the Louisiana State Penitentiary. We found the distribution of God-images among inmates was the same as that in national samples in terms of rank order. As hypothesized, we also found inmates with an image of an engaged God tended to report lower levels of legal cynicism and sense of illegitimacy of punishment and higher levels of collective efficacy, existential belief, and moral responsibility than those with images of a disengaged God or no God. Finally, we found an inmate’s belief in a forgiving God and religiousness to mediate partly relationships between images of God and the inmate’s worldviews.

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  1. 1.

    Their measure of loving God tapped the character of “forgiving,” “friendly,” and “kind” as well as “loving.”

  2. 2.

    Mencken et al. (2009) and Hinze et al. (2011) labeled Froese and Bader’s (2010) judgmental God as “angry God.”

  3. 3.

    Bader et al. (2010) constructed two variables using Froese and Bader’s (2010) six items of God’s judgment: “God’s anger” (2 items of God being “angered by human sins” and “angered by my sins”) and “God’s judgment” (4 items of whether adjectives “critical,” “punishing,” “severe,” and “wrathful” apply to God).

  4. 4.

    While based on non-survey data, two other studies are worth mentioning. First, Johnson et al. (2015) developed scales measuring personal representations of God as Authoritarian, Benevolent, Controlling, and Loving, and found Authoritarian God was related positively to an individual’s priority value of power and security, while Benevolent and Loving God related positively to conformity, tradition, and benevolence, which were all inversely related to Controlling God. Second, studying the impact of a breast cancer diagnosis on their image of God, Schreiber and Edward (2015) found that those who believed in highly engaged God showed altruistic behaviors such as transformational life changes in self and others, whereas those believers in less engaged God showed egocentric behaviors like attitudinal changes only in self.

  5. 5.

    They believe in objective moral truths based primarily on ethical naturalism (which posits that ethical propositions can be derived from science) or non-theistic non-naturalism (which holds that ethical truths are just brute facts, not reducible to any natural facts).

  6. 6.

    According to the theory, an act is objectively morally wrong if and only if the act would be disapproved of by an ideal observer, were there such observer under ideal conditions. This theory, however, raises operating questions, like how this ideal observer would know what the correct course of action is.

  7. 7.

    Both Angola’s congregations and its seminary flourished under longtime warden Burl Cain, although the congregations long preceded Cain’s two-decade tenure. Cain introduced seminary instruction into the prison only after Congressional revocation of Pell Grant eligibility for convicted felons negatively affected Angola.

  8. 8.

    The alpha of our God’s engagement scale (α = .852) was comparable to that of Froese and Bader’s (α = .85) despite using only half of their eight items, whereas that of our God’s judgement scale (α = .765) was not as high as Froese and Bader’s (α = .91), while we used the same as their six items, though it still had good internal reliability.

  9. 9.

    The former’s “high” group consisted of inmates who strongly agreed (= 4) on God’s engagement, whereas the latter’s “high” included those who either agreed (= 3) or strongly agreed (= 4) on God’s judgment.

  10. 10.

    The category of other religion included Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and “other religion.”

  11. 11.

    While 12.4% of inmates said that they had no religion, the “No God” category had a smaller percentage (7%). If asked, some of the inmates might have identified themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (Jang and Franzen 2013), who had “personal beliefs about God” but disassociated themselves from organized religion.

  12. 12.

    Significant residual correlations among the endogenous variables were in the expected direction (see “Appendix B”), which indicated construct validity of the latent variables.

  13. 13.

    Only parameter estimates (b) are presented (i.e., without their standard error) due to space constraints. We specified relationships among the mediators as their residual correlations like those among the variables of worldview to avoid model misspecification given that their structural relationships were not of our interest.

  14. 14.

    Two coefficients that became significant, both related to legal cynicism, implied suppressor effect of religiousness, specifically, congregational participation, religiosity, and negative religious coping. That is, the variables of religiousness had suppressed differences between inmates with a disengaged (Critical and Distant) God and their atheist counterparts, in which the latter tended show lower levels of legal cynicism than the former, until controlling for variables of religiousness.

  15. 15.

    As a supplemental analysis, we estimated our models, replacing the image-of-God dummy variables with the scales of God’s engagement and judgment. We found God’s engagement was related inversely to legal cynicism and illegitimacy of punishment and positively to collective efficacy, existential belief, and moral responsibility, while God’s judgment was related positively only to legal cynicism and moral responsibility. God’s engagement was also related to all five mediators, inversely to negative religious coping and positively to the others as anticipated, whereas God’s judgment was associated with all but one (positive religious coping) mediators, being associated positively with a forgiving God and negative religious coping and inversely with congregational participation and religiosity. Our test of mediation revealed that 28% (14) of 50 (2 images of God × 5 mediators × 5 ultimate endogenous variables) indirect effects via the variables of religiousness (12 of 14) and the image of a forgiving God (2 of 14) were significant. Five (35.7%) of the 14 were the effects of God’s judgment mediated, whereas nine (64.3%) were those of God’s engagement. Complete results are available upon request.

  16. 16.

    Our interviews with inmates suggested a potential explanation for the limited association. One interviewee, for example, attributed some inmates’ congregational participation to their desire for material benefits, like food or clothing, offered to congregations by outside religious volunteers. Mixed, extrinsic (i.e., using religion for safety, material comfort, access to outsiders, and inmate relations) as well as intrinsic (i.e., living religion) motivations for religious involvement among prison inmates have been recognized (Clear et al. 2000).


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Correspondence to Sung Joon Jang.

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Appendix A

See Table 5.

Table 5 Items used in analysis

Appendix B

See Table 6.

Table 6 Estimated measurement models of latent variables (top panel) and correlations among endogenous variables (bottom two panel)

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Jang, S.J., Hays, J., Johnson, B.R. et al. “Four Gods” in Maximum Security Prison: Images of God, Religiousness, and Worldviews Among Inmates. Rev Relig Res 60, 331–365 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-018-0329-6

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  • Maximum Security Prison
  • Legal Cynicism
  • Existential Beliefs
  • Louisiana State Penitentiary
  • Moral Responsibility