A new resolution from a group of evangelicals could suggest a shift in attitudes among some conservative Christians who have long held strong support for the death penalty.
The board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals approved a resolution that changes its 1973 resolution that favored the death penalty, the group announced on Monday.
While the new resolution, which is now the standing policy of the NAE, does not reverse its earlier position, it acknowledges evangelicals who oppose the death penalty.
A growing number of evangelicals are calling for government resources to be shifted away from the death penalty, NAE President Leith Anderson said Monday.
The change is an indication that we live in a different time than in 1973, Anderson said. At that time, the same year the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, there was a fear that the Court could restrict or outlaw the death penalty, he said.
“That was before a lot of things like DNA evidence and other issues came into the discussion,” Anderson said. “It was time for an update and time for a change.”
A sizable majority of white evangelical Protestants (71 percent) support the death penalty, according to a March 2015 survey from the Pew Research Center. That support, however, has dropped some from 77 percent in 2011. Overall, the 2015 survey suggests 56 percent of Americans support the death penalty, a drop from 78 percent in 1996.
Evangelicals have served as an important constituency for some political leaders. And as an umbrella group for many evangelical denominations, the NAE can serve as a barometer for where evangelicals stand on some issues.
Source: The Washington Post, Sarah P. Bailey, October 19, 2015
Most denominations say 'no' to capital punishment; support for death penalty declines
According to the survey, about 6 in 10 Americans (61 %) still believe capital punishment is acceptable. In 1994, support for the death penalty reached its highest point of 80 %.
The 61 % figure is by far not the lowest level of support for capital punishment since Gallup began measuring opinions on the matter. In 1967, support for the sentence dropped to 47 %, leading to a near cessation of the practice. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in some cases, such as rape, but reinstated it with tighter controls in 1976. Many states, such as California, later banned the penalty, but also allowed it again years later.
The reduction in the number of people who support the death penalty remains high in spite of the fact that the punishment is handed down far less than it once was, Gallup reported.
"In May, Nebraska became the 19th state (along with D.C.) to ban the death penalty, and the seventh state since 2007. Meanwhile, the number of death sentences issued in 2014 was the lowest since the reinstatement of the punishment in 1976, and the number of executions carried out in 2014 was one of the lowest on record," Gallup said.
The decline in support for the death penalty in the U.S. also appears to be occurring independent of calls for its abolition. In September, Pope Francis said in his address before Congress that the "Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of development."
"This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty," the pontiff said.
"I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation."
A large number of American church groups believe the death penalty either no longer works as a deterrent or is simply unchristian. The United Methodist Church, United Churches of Christ, Presbyterian Church (USA), Orthodox Church in America, Evangelical Luther Church in America, Episcopal Church, and American Baptists oppose the death penalty in their official policy statements.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints claims it "regards the question of whether and in what circumstances the state should impose capital punishment as a matter to be decided solely by the prescribed processes of civil law. We neither promote nor oppose capital punishment."
A similar position is taken by the Assemblies of God, who regard capital punishment as a legitimate course of action on the part of the government, but who encourage its use with caution.
"There is room in the church for honest differences of opinion concerning the use of capital punishment. However, all believers should seek to apply biblical principles in reaching their conclusions: the sacredness of human life (of the criminal as well as of the victim), the need of all mankind to repent, and the power of God to transform even the most violent sinners. These truths must be balanced with the obligation of government to protect its citizens, helping them to live quiet and peaceful lives," the statement on capital punishment from the Assemblies of God reads.
Among America's larger denominations, only the Southern Baptist Convention - the nation's largest non-Catholic religious denomination - has an affirmative stance on capital punishment. In 2000 in Florida, messengers to the annual convention passed a resolution acknowledging their "support the fair and equitable use of capital punishment by civil magistrates as a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death."
The resolution claimed capital punishment should only be employed when the evidence of guilt was "overwhelming," and be applied as "justly and as fairly as possible without undue delay, without reference to the race, class, or status of the guilty."
The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the conservative branch of the Lutheran Church in the U.S., also says it believes capital punishment is acceptable.
Just as differences exist among religious bodies, they also exists along racial lines and according to political affiliation. Blacks are largely unsupportive of the death penalty (55 % oppose it), while only 39 % support it. That is likely because blacks, only 13 % of the U.S. population, make up 42 % of the death row inmate population, Gallup said. 68 % of whites claim they are in favor of the death penalty.
Among Democrats, 49 % support the death penalty. Nearly 8 in 10 Republicans (82 %) still support capital punishment.
Source: Christian Examiner, October 19, 2015
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