Blue lives matter and they matter especially to God. Or so goes the thinking in certain law enforcement circles. Recently, a Louisville newspaper revealed that a Bible verse along these lines was used in a 2017 police department firearms training. The verse, Romans 13:4, adorned a “thin blue line” symbol often associated with the “blue lives matter” movement. It reads: “For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
The use of this verse in a firearms training was significant given that this was the same department from which officers executing a raid shot and killed Breonna Taylor in 2020. It also mirrors other forms of Christian influence in modern American law enforcement such as police-themed Bibles, Christian police retreats and trainings, and similar blue-hued religious emblems. Critics have argued that this influence represents a threat to the separation of church and state. For police ministries and Christian supporters, however, the linkage of faith and policing serves to offer officers a sense of divine purpose in the face of trauma and criticism. But this connection also threatens to obscure problems in the profession, bolster the power of the police, and foreclose other possibilities for addressing America’s social problems and inequalities.
Policing is challenging work. In addition to the stresses of the job itself, officers are at a high risk of experiencing trauma and diminished mental health. At the same time, police have been the target of criticism amidst growing public awareness of officer misconduct and racial disparities in how citizens are treated by the police. As I discuss in my scholarly work, Christian officers have also wrestled with the competing demands of peaceful discipleship and departmental duty. Simply put, can one be a good police officer and obey Jesus’ commands to turn the other cheek and forsake violence?
As law enforcement has searched for solutions to these problems that have troubled officers from the inception of the modern policing profession, supportive Christian efforts have proven to be a powerful resource. The Christian Police Association was founded in 1883 in London and established branches in American cities soon after. Association sites ministered to officers and argued for their profession’s spiritual validity. Later in the 20th century, amidst a surging evangelical movement, organizations like the Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers (FCPO), founded in 1971, functioned similarly. One FCPO member reported in 1979 that he had initially wrestled with his police duties given Jesus’s commands. But through the FCPO he had learned that policing was a distinctly Christian obligation. “Enforcing the laws of the land,” he said, “[is] enforcing God’s law.” Similar justifications could be found in various evangelical books and films from around the same time that promoted the work of policing as a legitimate, even ideal, Christian vocation.
Today, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association houses a National Law Enforcement Ministry and runs retreats for officers that echo these past efforts. Though the ministry has faced criticism for its conservative views on sexuality, most retreat sessions focus on providing for officers’ “spiritual fitness” through emotional care. At the same time, Christian Bible publishers have made holy writ itself a site for police support. Bibles like Zondervan’s Peacemakers New Testament, Holman’s Law Enforcement Officer’s Bible, and the American Bible Society’s Strength for the Street all have police-themed aesthetics such as badge seals and the “thin blue line flag” cover theme, and include spiritual instructional material for officers trying to deepen their relationship with Jesus. As the Holman Bible puts it, Jesus is “the most pro-cop person in the universe.”
The overarching message in these ministries and media is that God loves police officers and has a plan for their lives. Verses from Romans 13, the same Bible passage the Louisville department training referenced, are frequently appealed to; one popular Bible paraphrase even inserts the word “policeman” itself into the passage, in place of “ruler” or “servant.” Jesus’ proclamation “blessed are the peacemakers” is likewise read as applying to the work of policing, with “thin blue line” dog tags to match.
This is a message with a clear resonance among white American Christians more broadly. PRRI polling has shown that whereas 61 percent of Americans trust police “to do what is right” either “just about always” or “most of time,” 82 percent of white evangelicals and white Roman Catholics express the same sentiment, with white mainline Protestants not far behind at 80 percent.
However, white Christian police support also provides religious justification for a profession that is violent, that disproportionately affects the poor and communities of color, and that has a tragic record of racism. Perhaps this is why the same polling shows Black Christian trust for police is far lower, at only 32 percent. Baptist pastor F. Bruce Williams voiced frustration on this point after the “thin blue line” Bible verse image was revealed in Louisville. “Given the long, nightmarish history that Black people have not only with LMPD but with police departments in general,” he told LEO Weekly, “that’s a very scary prospect to have a Bible verse like that and to describe the police force as the wrath of God to carry out justice on evil doers.”
Enthusiastic Christian identification of policing as a divinely appointed role may originate from a desire to address problems officers face. But it also easily accepts the status quo, limiting the possibility of asking hard questions about problems with police tactics, racial bias, funding, or the prospects for dramatic change. If you believe God has instituted the law enforcement authorities, can you defund them when they are failing? The answer for most Christian police ministries is clearly no. As one Christian law enforcement retreat speaker put it, after declaring that governmental authorities were God’s servants, “There shouldn’t be any worry about equipment or overtime.” Many evangelical pastors and churches agree, hosting “back the blue” events and urging fellow believers on national television to “defend, don’t defund” the police.
Police supporters contend that their full-throated defense of police and dismissal of defunding efforts is ultimately about addressing the problem of crime. This was a motivating factor in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, when evangelicals’ pro-police apologetics emerged in full force; crime rates, particularly rates of violent crime, were rising dramatically then. Similarly, pro-police politicians today point to crime rates as a rationale for expanding law enforcement funding and presence, even framing the cause as progressive and a needed service to poor neighborhoods and communities of color.
In the face of crime, Christian police supporters argue that communities need law enforcement to protect the innocent and keep chaos and evil at bay. This has been an especially common evangelical refrain throughout the 20th century. To be sure, some evangelicals defended brutal police tactics and behavior. But overall, their vision of policing has been less about hailing macho “Dirty Harry” types looking for a fight, and more about stressing compassionate servanthood and love for communities. Indeed, Christians have been among the most vocal advocates of community policing efforts that forged social service partnerships and emphasized sensitivity and neighborhood engagement over a purely punitive mentality. “God’s servant warriors,” as Zondervan’s Peacemakers New Testament puts it, are there to enact Jesus’ commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Community policing efforts have been criticized for co-opting social services and for enshrining an expansive police presence in disadvantaged communities. However sensitive they may be, reliance on police results in more people being surveilled and locked up. Instead, critics, Christians among them, contend for other possibilities for public safety, including the abolition of police departments altogether. Far from ignoring the problem of crime, abolitionists argue that our present system of policing does little to address actual harms or the deep-rooted social and economic inequalities that foster violence. As one Mennonite abolitionist Bible study curriculum puts it, riffing on well-known abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore and St. Paul, a “transformed, baptismal life” offers a vision of community that does not rely on policing or prisons in order to achieve accountability, equality, and justice.
American Christians unfamiliar with abolition will no doubt find these arguments challenging and perhaps practically unworkable. However, whether or not they embrace abolition or a more modest vision of police reform, what would it take for Christians to develop a more critical account of policing? It might start with scripture, by avoiding a simplistic reading of Romans 13 that offers cover for unjust policies and glorifies the violent power of authorities. Indeed, for biblical scholar Esau McCauley, Romans 13 actually shows the limits of state power, the judgment of God upon authorities who uphold structures of injustice and who fail to defend the weak.
Christians longing for changes to American law enforcement might also grant the point made by police ministries: officers face trauma themselves. To contend for a more critical approach to policing should not lead Christians to ignore the very real challenges and struggles that officers face. Because our nation has forgone substantive investment in disadvantaged communities, officers are too often the ones who bear the burden of solving crime problems that are rooted in lack of quality education, housing, jobs, and healthcare. This burden should not be on individual officers as much as it should be on a society that demands safety at any cost and that refuses to address structural inequalities that create conditions for crime, addiction, and violence.
Do blue lives matter to God? As a Christian myself, I would say yes. But not because they are police. Police officers matter to God because, like all people, they are bearers of the divine image. Therefore, we might think about the possibility of a Christian understanding of policing focused less on some abstract notion of “backing the blue” and more on the well-being of human communities, police and policed alike, who need more than a sword to truly flourish.
Aaron Griffith is assistant professor of history at Whitworth University and author of the book God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America.