Religion and Support for Capital Punishment: Contrasting Leaders and Laity

In recent months significant attention was paid to the execution of Troy Davis – attention due in large part to the unclear nature of the evidence for his crime.

There were a number of reasons why this case piqued my interest, and one of them was that numerous appeals were made on behalf of Mr. Davis from leading national Christian figures such as former president Jimmy Carter, Rev. Al Sharpton, and Sister Helen Prejean. In addition Pope Benedict XVI, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu also sent in appeals on his behalf. I wondered whether their voices were reflective of the people from the same pews and denominations.

My statistical intuition told me that that could hardly be the case in view of a recent report from the Gallup Organization, one of the most established polling firms in the country.

They showed that Americans support for the death penalty in the case of murder has dropped to 61%. But if we pay closer attention to this trend data, we can see that this support is still higher than the figures seen from 1957 to 1972, the period of the most memorable accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement. Since most Americans affiliate as Christians, most American Christians in recent decades support the death penalty today.

But I wanted to be certain of this, considering that there is a wide array of Christian perspectives on the death penalty and capital punishment. Using data from the 2010 General Social Survey , one of the leading and most reliable surveys in the nation, we can examine whether there really are differences among Christians on how they view the death penalty, and whether certain Christian groups reflect the voices of public leaders from their same traditions. American religion is a complicated business. A few years ago, me and fellow blogger Mark Regnerus , along with a few other colleagues, published a classification system of contemporary American religious traditions or RELTRAD that offered a way to understand religious differences in American culture while being historically and (to some extent) theologically sensitive in very broad terms. The system includes a few major Christian categories to which I will pay most attention: Evangelical Protestants, Black Protestants, Mainline Protestants, and Catholics. As noted earlier, “Black Protestant” here refers to affiliating with a denomination that is associated with the historical Black Churches in America. One can be a black American and be an evangelical or mainline or Black Protestant or Catholic in the RELTRAD classification system.

So what do we find when we analyze death penalty view by RELTRAD?

Looking solely at the Christian groups, Evangelical Protestants show the lowest opposition to the death penalty at 23 percent, followed by Mainline Protestants at 28 percent, Catholics at 37 percent, and Black Protestants at 45 percent. So if Carter, Sharpton, and Prejean voice official or semi-official views from their respective religious traditions (Evangelical, Black Protestant, and Catholic), we can see here that most affiliates in their traditions don’t agree with them. Notably, even if we look only at the “church-going” crowd (a shorthand way to describe anyone who attends church at least twice a month or more), there are no differences in the overall pattern.

What do we make of this incongruity? While none of the three religious leaders I mentioned are expert theologians, they aren’t uneducated or non-practicing representatives of their faith traditions either. Why is there such limited Christian opposition for capital punishment when various Christian leaders have voiced it?

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  • Jerry,

    This is a very interesting piece. As sociologists of religion, we know that people do not follow all the teachings of their religious leaders (see Brad’s blog entry on religious incongruence). Given that, why is it surprising religious leaders’ opinions on the death penalty differ from most people of their religious traditions?

    I think the more important question to ask is: What are the reasons most people support the death penalty? What are the reasons most religious leaders oppose it?

    With regards to the second question, in issues of crimes like murder, religious leaders call for both justice and mercy. Lifelong imprisonment serves the needs of justice and opposing the death penalty satisfies the demands of mercy. One of the most prominent Catholic theologians of the 20th century, Cardinal Avery Dulles, wrote this theological reflection on Catholic doctrine and capital punishment in 2001:

    He basically concludes that, in modern societies, the death penalty should not be imposed when “punishment can be equally well or better achieved by bloodless means, such as imprisonment.”

    So, despite these arguments from religious leaders, why do most people continue to favor the death penalty? My UNC colleague Ashely Lucas writes on the families of prisoners, theater in prisons, and knows many anti-death penalty activists. I recently asked her why the death penalty is so popular. She basically said that people are afraid of crime, and are told that the death penalty will make them safer. In many states like California, jurors must choose between life in prison with the possibility of parole and the death penalty. In other words, they cannot give a sentence of life in prison without parole, so they give the death penalty. The political system sets up unfair choices.

    So, to answer your question, perhaps the incongruence between religious leaders and most Christians in the US is driven by fear of crime and inflamed by political rhetoric.


    • Jerry Park

      Thanks Margarita, yes the religious incongruence issue is an important one. Maybe we shouldn’t privilege religious consistency over other factors that work in a person’s mind: their views about crime, their racial experiences, the local context in which the death penalty.

  • Neil


    Thank you for the informative post. If I can respond with two uninformed comments and (worse) a speculation:

    1. As you note, according to Gallup, the percent of those opposed to the death penalty has more than doubled since the late 1980s and early 1990s, and support for capital punishment has fallen to a 39-year low. It would be interesting to know if the Christian support for capital punishment has remained stable or also declined.

    This would be most interesting to know for Catholics. In 1995, Pope John Paul II, in Evangelium Vitae, said that executions should only be carried out in “rare, if not practically non-existent” cases of “absolute necessity.” In 1999, in St. Louis, he suggested that the death penalty was “cruel and unnecessary.” Although American bishops had earlier said that the use of the death penalty was not justified in the United States (e.g., Cardinal Bernardin), this papal disapproval seemed like a development.

    Has American Catholic support for the death penalty declined or remain stable since the early 1990s? If it has remained stable, even in the aftermath of Evangelium Vitae, there is a serious incongruity between the views of Catholic religious leaders and their coreligionists. But, if American Catholic opinion has diverged from mainline Protestant opinion during the last fifteen years, there might be some level of congruity. (The mainline churches, if I remember correctly, simply reiterated their longstanding opposition to the death penalty.)

    2. I wonder what you make of a few older articles by Harold G. Grasmick, et al, that suggested that “evangelical/fundamentalist Protestants” (their category) tend to make fundamental attribution errors. They are “preoccupied with individuals’ ‘character’ because character is a manifestation of salvation status” and see “behavior as a consequence of characteristics of the actor.” Therefore, they support more punitive action because of their “religious conviction that crimes are committed by people with weak, sinful characters.”

    3. I recall reading an article by the law professor Donald Beschle that, following Girard, suggested that the death penalty was a “symbolic sacrifice,” bringing about peace by uniting the fractured community around a common enemy. Beschle used this idea to explain some rather strange things about the death penalty – the condemned prisoner whose death will repair the community suddenly becomes someone privileged and enjoys a special last meal, he is not allowed to commit suicide but must be executed, and he will remain an object of fascination afterwards. This is speculative, but might certain Christian believers be taken in by the religiosity of the death penalty?

    • Jerry Park

      Neil, thanks for your comments. Your point about evangelical/fundamentalist views on individual character is an important one. It makes me pause as I think about the curious relationship this suggests. People who prefer to be exclusively accountable for their actions typically resist state intervention. But if this is the case, why would these same people support the state execution of those accused of personal immorality? And if this is the logic of evangelical/fundamentalists is this a reflection of your third point? Is it a subconscious need to re-enact the Christian narrative of the death of Christ? Well I’m no psychologist, so I’ll stop the speculation.

  • Patrick

    Perhaps the question should be why do religious leaders now oppose the death penalty? It was universally supported for many centuries by Christian denominations. In fact, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant denominations have, I believe, actually performed executions themselves, have they not? And there are plenty of theologians and Christian leaders who support the death penalty. But like most conservatives they are not out demonstrating or making pronouncements. Also you equivocate. The first three names you mention are not Christian leaders of denominations. But later you wonder why Christians-in-the-pews differ from their “leaders” in this area. You need to look at the actual leadership and theologians of each group. Only Roman Catholics seem to have a significant divergence. And even there, I am sure you will find plenty of RC scholars who see no conflict with their faith and capital punishment.

    • Jerry Park

      Patrick, thanks for the comments. If you have suggested readings on the history of Christian views on capital punishment, please send them along! If your point reflects the historical record, the question you raise is very helpful and does indeed turn the question around. And yes, with the exception of the pope, the other public figures are not direct leaders of denominations; they were selected as representations of particular Christian views that are in the public square, and are meant to build conversation.

  • What I have found in 14 years as executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty is that it is much easier now to ask religious leaders to act on this issue than it was in the 1990s.

    More than 3,500 religious leaders endorsed a letter for clemency for Troy Davis (, far more religious leaders than have are known to have signed any clemency letter in modern American history, perhaps ever.

    People interested in pledging to work to repeal the death penalty because it violates their moral and theological views may so pledge at

    • Jerry Park

      Thanks for your comments Stephen!