Close up of a drip bag.

Protestants join Catholics in reconsidering the death penalty (COMMENTARY)

Close up of a drip bag.

Close up of a drip bag.

(RNS) Nebraska is showing the most visible signs of a change in thinking by Christians and conservatives on the death penalty, and Catholics are helping to lead the way. For many, the catalyst has been a simple question: “If I value life, how can I support taking a life when the death penalty doesn’t make us any safer?”

In response, more are embracing a consistent life ethic.

Three times in the past month, the Nebraska Legislature voted for a bill to repeal capital punishment and replace it with life without parole. The governor has promised to veto the legislation, and an override vote is looming. Many of the Christian lawmakers made it clear they cast their votes against the death penalty, in part, to promote a whole life ethic.

The leader of the group is Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, a Catholic who put his personal reasons for opposing capital punishment into one easily understood phrase. “I am pro-life,” he said.

Coash and his colleagues are also interested in enacting public policies based on facts, as well as on faith. They have studied capital punishment in detail and have determined it does nothing to contribute to our safety.

They’re concerned about the 153 people released from death row for wrongful convictions and the death penalty’s disproportionate impact on communities of color, the poor and those with intellectual disabilities.

“Is the death penalty truly effective as a deterrent?” Coash asked. “There’s absolutely no evidence that we’ve seen that the death penalty acts as a deterrent.”

Nebraska conservative Christian politicians are not operating in a vacuum. This year in Kansas, Kentucky, New Hampshire and South Dakota, their counterparts sponsored bills to repeal capital punishment. In South Dakota, a Republican state representative who is an evangelical pastor changed his mind on the death penalty and sponsored the bill to repeal it. Conservatives in red states such as Tennessee, North Carolina and Montana, as well as Nebraska, have formed groups to question the death penalty.

According to a recent poll, roughly half of voters in Nebraska support replacing the death penalty with an alternative such as life in prison. That aligns with polling of Americans nationwide. For a growing number of Christians, opposition to the death penalty remains fundamentally grounded to one issue -- their commitment to promoting a culture of life.

“We must all be careful to temper our natural outrage against violent crime with a recognition of the dignity of all people, even the guilty,” the Catholic bishops of Nebraska said in a joint statement on March 17.

Catholics will remember that the seeds for what is happening today were planted 20 years ago with “Evangelium Vitae,” Pope John Paul II’s encyclical expressing the church’s position on the sanctity of human life.

Interestingly, evangelicals in Nebraska and elsewhere are joining Catholics in re-evaluating their support for capital punishment. For example, the Rev. William Thornton told the Nebraska Legislature's judiciary committee:

“I'd like to say that as a Christ follower who believes that Christ died for all, that no person is beyond redemption, that I believe we should never advocate cutting someone's life short and thereby guaranteeing no chance for them to experience redemption.”

Nothing demonstrates this change more emphatically than the stand against capital punishment taken recently by a nationwide group of evangelicals. On March 27, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition passed a resolution calling for abolition of the death penalty.

“This is a biblical commitment,” said the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the association, at a news conference held during the organization’s annual meeting in Orlando, Fla.

New voices, Christian and conservative, are increasingly making themselves heard in America’s death penalty debate. They are coming to the conclusion that ending the death penalty will help them adhere more closely to their faith and be more consistent in their beliefs, while helping our society better value life and promote justice.

(Heather Beaudoin is a national advocacy coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a project of Equal Justice USA.) 




  1. For many, the catalyst has been a simple question: “If I value life, how can I support taking a life when the death penalty doesn’t make us any safer?”

    The answer to that question is equally simple: the franchise of the government to do justice with the gallows was unquestioned for 19 centuries. See Avery Dulles, SJ on this point. A violent criminal convicted at trial is not the equivalent of a child in the womb. Seeing them as equivalent is willful perversity.

    By the way, your sociology stinks, sister.

  2. Oh those wacky conservative Christians; they’ve decided to join the mainliner liberals. We’ve were campaigning to end the death penalty long before John Paul II issued his encyclical. Now if they would only stop discounting our vision of God’s call to ministry in other areas of social justice.

  3. The man on Death Row must be given a choice: Repent, or go to your doom.

    If he repents and accepts that Jesus died for his sins, then he is redeemed and must be set free. It is a violation of the Free Exercise clause to keep someone imprisoned if he believes he is forgiven and washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.

    This is the Christian way to do things.

  4. Art, how are you going to tell someone their sociology stinks when your justification for the death penalty is “this is the way we’ve always done it”. If you’re saavy enough to know the word “sociology”, you should know your reasoning is decidedly un-sociological. As a matter of fact, the literature totally supports the author’s claim that the death penalty does nothing to deter crime. What exactly are you saying is wrong here?

  5. Are you nuts, then every criminal would just claim theyve repented and go out and do it again.

  6. i would not get rid of the death penalty, but it should be used in extreme cases where the convict killed doing acts of terror to communities like mass killings. 9-11 attacks, Oklahoma City bombing, serial killing indiscriminately should be determine before the death penalty is used. for you normal murderer on death row prison for life should be the norm.

  7. How long will it be when, in the interest of Biblical proportionality of punishment befitting a crime, will life in prison without possibility of parole will be considered “cruel and unusual?” After all, unless the criminal is of particular notoriety, e.g. a Sirhan Sirhan, a Squeaky Fromme or a John Hinckley, most guilty of Murder 1 are released within ten years of conviction or after parole appeals have been exhausted.

    Let us consider the societal cost of housing convicted violent felons for life too, we already incarcerate a higher percentage of our population than any other western country.

    Finally, while no one here would argue that the death penalty provides comfort to the victim’s family, it does provide some closure and removes the threat of this person ever debasing the public again. It is primarily, in my opinion, that the lack of certitude of capital punishment being carried out in a reasonable and timely manner that its deterrence effect has lost some of its…

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