(RNS) In 1983, a broadcaster from New Hampshire asked President Ronald Reagan about accusations that he had moved away from the principles that got him elected.
His response is now legendary: “I have always figured that a half a loaf is better than none, and I know that in the democratic process you’re not going to always get everything you want.”
What Reagan knew about political change, the National Association of Evangelicals knows about religious change. Which is why on Thursday (Oct. 15), the NAE’s board of directors officially inched away from the organization’s pro-death penalty position by approving what one might call a half-a-loaf resolution on the death penalty.
“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,” the resolution states. “We affirm the conscientious commitment of both streams of Christian ethical thought.”
As America’s largest coalition of evangelical Christians, the NAE represents more than 10 million Americans, 45,000 congregations and almost 40 different denominations.
Publicly acknowledging disagreement on a matter isn’t exactly visionary. But it is a step in the right direction.
Before now, the organization’s standing resolution on the matter supported capital punishment as a deterrent for violent criminals and called on lawmakers to reinstate it in places where it had been outlawed.
Support for capital punishment among Americans has fallen from a high of 78 percent in the mid-’90s to 55 percent in 2013. While evangelicals are more approving of the death penalty than is the general public, their support has also waned in recent years. Only 5 percent of Americans — including 10 of practicing Christians — believe Jesus would support the government’s ability to execute criminals.
The NAE passed its resolution on capital punishment in 1973, but we’ve learned much about the matter in the last 40 years. Studies show that the death penalty does not deter criminals. They also demonstrate that capital punishment is inefficient — costing millions more dollars than life imprisonment — and discriminatory, with striking disparities among racial minorities and the poor.
We also know that the innocent are often coerced to confess or wrongfully convicted — at least 150 people were freed from death row since the NAE’s last resolution.
During the same period, the views of many Christians began changing alongside those of other Americans. Younger Christians became focused on social justice, which led to a generational shift.
Some evangelical scholars concluded that the New Testament does not support the death penalty as they once assumed. And a coalition of Latino evangelicals called for the abolition of the death penalty in March of this year. There were already rumors at that time that the NAE was considering a shift, too.
NAE’s president, Leith Anderson, said that the board began considering the issue about five years ago and that there were no dissenting votes among the board. He declined to note his personal views on the death penalty. In addition to the impact on churches, Anderson said that the resolution may impact the NAE’s political advocacy.
“What we are now able to do is to present a cross-section of evangelical views,” he said. “When issues come up, we will speak up and say that there are inequities in terms of race and class and ZIP codes.”
Anderson added that while the statement reflects real and growing differences among evangelicals, it also hints at their similarities.
“Evangelicals who endorse the death penalty value life — particularly the life of the victim or the potential victim,” Anderson said. “Those who would abolish it are focused on life as well, acknowledging that everyone is made in God’s image. While there are differences, some of the theology and assumptions are the same.”
One of the strongest evangelical voices calling for abolition of the death penalty is Shane Claiborne, author of the forthcoming book “Executing Grace: Why It Is Time to Put the Death Penalty to Death.” He said that during the deliberation process, he communicated with board members who were opposed to capital punishment. While Claiborne hoped the NAE would call for abolition, he also celebrates the current resolution.
“Someone that is not familiar with evangelicalism might read (the NAE’s resolution) and think they didn’t do anything,” Claiborne said. “But the fact that they had a passionately pro-death penalty stance for 40 years and now are saying that they are not united on this is significant.”
Claiborne is right. The death penalty has survived in America, in part, because of evangelicals’ strong support. Evangelicals have often followed, rather than led, on issues of justice and equality in America. The death penalty is irreparably marred by improper sentencing, the possibility of wrongful conviction, racial bias, socio-economic discrimination and financial waste. Any movement by the NAE away from support of the death penalty is worthy of praise.
Some death penalty opponents may see the NAE’s new position as moving an inch where a mile is needed. I’ll take the half a loaf and thank God for it.
(Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service.)