Evangelicals soften death penalty stance

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A demonstrator wears an anti-death penalty button during a Sept. 15, 2015, protest in Oklahoma City against the scheduled execution of convicted murderer Richard Glossip. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Nick Oxford
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CLAIBORNE-OPED, originally transmitted on Aug. 18, 2016.

A demonstrator wears an anti-death penalty button during a Sept. 15, 2015, protest in Oklahoma City against the scheduled execution of convicted murderer Richard Glossip. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Nick Oxford *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CLAIBORNE-OPED, originally transmitted on Aug. 18, 2016.

WASHINGTON (RNS) The largest coalition of U.S. evangelicals has stepped away from its pro-death penalty stance, which it embraced for the past 40 years.

The board of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Evangelicals announced Monday (Oct. 19) that evangelicals who both support and oppose the death penalty can legitimately ground their beliefs in Christian ethics.

The decision, made by resolution, reflects a larger societal shift away from the practice, though it does not reverse the earlier support for the death penalty.

“This is a sign of shifting, but not decidedly changing sides, on the death penalty,” said Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist and executive director of LifeWay Research, an evangelical research firm.

“A strong majority of evangelicals are still in favor of the death penalty, but that’s moving from an overwhelming majority to a strong one,” Stetzer added. “My guess is that shifting will continue; that’s why they are called trends; they continue.”

Photo courtesy of PRRI

Photo courtesy of PRRI

The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, continues to support the death penalty.

In the resolution, the NAE board said:  “Evangelical Christians differ in their beliefs about capital punishment, often citing strong biblical and theological reasons either for the just character of the death penalty in extreme cases or for the sacredness of all life, including the lives of those who perpetrate serious crimes and yet have the potential for repentance and reformation.

“We affirm the conscientious commitment of both streams of Christian ethical thought,” it continues.

READ: Thank God: Evangelicals shrink back from support of the death penalty

The NAE, which represents more than 10 million Americans and 45,000 congregations, is not the first large evangelical group to adjust its death penalty views. Earlier this year, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, which represents 3,000 congregations, advocated for an end of capital punishment.

The softening of evangelicals’ support for the death penalty is particularly significant in light of their strong support compared with other religious groups. A report from the Public Religion Research Institute from September 2014 found that 59 percent of white evangelical Protestants — more than any other religious group surveyed — preferred the death penalty to life in prison with no chance of parole for those convicted of murder.

But nonwhite evangelicals part with their white co-religionists on the issue.

“The NAE’s rhetorical shift on the death penalty is notable because it signals the increasing importance of non-white evangelical Christians,” said Dan Cox, PRRI’s research director.

“Most white evangelical Protestants support capitol punishment, but it is decidedly unpopular among black and Hispanic Protestants,” he said. “The NAE’s shift is an acknowledgement that black, Hispanic and Asian evangelicals are going to play a vital part in the future of evangelical Christianity in the U.S.”

Most U.S. states, 31, allow the death penalty, though the number rejecting it has increased in recent years. The Supreme Court is set to revisit the issue this session, with several death penalty cases on the docket so far. And though none of the cases directly asks the question, two justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer — have challenged the constitutionality of capital punishment.

NAE president Leith Anderson characterized the move in terms of evangelicals’ larger advocacy for respect for life from womb to tomb.

“Life is the gift of God and humans are created in God’s image, and this speaks to that core issue. It’s important because as evangelical Christians but also as American citizens, we want to engage in how our country lives and the laws of our nation.”


  • Bernardo

    There is one major result of the death penalty: Serial and massacre killers will not kill again.

  • Doc Anthony

    I just wish the mass-shooters, rapists, domestic-abusers, drive-by hobbyists, and serial-jobbers would soften THEIR death-penalty.

    But they are NOT softening anything, according to the weekly crime headlines.

    The crooks get stronger, while the evangelicals get weaker. Go figure.

  • Larry

    I wish death penalty proponents knew a thing about how its applied.

    It is generally applied more towards crimes of people who are too poor to have adequate legal representation.

    People convicted of felony murder (someone dies in the course of a felony, not necessarily by the defendant’s hands/actions) still make up an unjustifiable percentage of those on Death Row.

    There is never much concern over wrongful convictions and execution by that crowd.

    It is far more wasteful of judiciary and penal resources than life without parole.

    It has never had a deterrent effect. Death Penalty proponents should just be upfront about it being retribution. Its not about prevention of crimes. Its about society exacting its vengeance on a person for the crimes they are convicted of. [Not a bad thing if the death penalty was applied more sparingly]

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  • Ben in oakland

    And here is the other major result of the death penalty: we can be certain that innocent people have been murdered by the state.

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  • Elise

    Are they really innocent?

  • Tim

    This is an article about Evangelicals starting to soften their support for the death penalty. So, all the secular reasons for not wanting the death penalty have nothing to do with whether or not God is for the death penalty. EARLY in the Bible – before the 10 Commandments – God issued the command for the death penalty: Genesis 9:5-6. Last I checked, Jesus IS God. So, yeah. As an Evangelical Christian, I’m for the death penalty. Should we apply it VERY carefully? Well of course! Should it be applied on murderers that we KNOW without a shadow of a doubt are guilty of premeditated murder? You betcha!