Evangelicals and the Death Penalty

Evangelicals and the Death Penalty January 23, 2014

Anthony Santoro’s Exile and Embrace: Contemporary Religious Discourse on the Death Penalty features one of the more arresting book covers I’ve seen in recent years. A pierced and bloody Jesus sits in an electric chair, wearing a crown of thorns and a waistcloth.

The photo is of a wax sculpture by Paul Fryer, who offers this explanation:

Just as the cross was the preferred method of execution in the Roman Empire at the time of Christ, the electric chair was the prevalent method in 20th-century America. If the technology had existed then He would probably have been electrocuted. Had that been the case, millions of people around the world would now be wearing miniature gold and silver electric chairs on chains around their necks.

Santoro’s book is timely. Although solid majorities of Americans continue to support capital punishment, its future seems more fragile than it did two decades ago. Slowly, “abolitionists” have gained some ground in recent years, eliminating the death penalty in states such as New York and Maryland. Even so, Santoro (who is a colleague of mine this year) observes that in 2010 the United States “ranked fifth in number of known executions, behind China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen.”

Santoro’s focus on religion is also welcome. Historians and other scholars have written a great deal about how various religious groups have responded to issues such as homosexuality and feminism (and some work about evangelical prison ministries), but there are relatively few studies about how American churches or their members have engaged the subject of capital punishment. Nevertheless, Christians have long taken active stances on both sides of the issue. Santoro notes that in nineteenth-century debates over capital punishment (a number of states abolished the death penalty around the middle of the 1800s), the “most prominent partisans on each side … tended to be clergy.”

I find Santoro’s book praiseworthy on two accounts. First, he focuses on Virginia, likely to become a battleground on the issue. Santoro includes a detailed description of Virginia’s death row (in the summer “a combination sensory deprivation chamber and oven,” according to one observer), and he introduces victims, murderers, and their respective advocates.

Santoro also casts a broad net in terms of religious data, discussing Catholics, evangelicals, and liberal Protestants. Needless to say, Christians in Virginia, like those elsewhere in the country, disagree vigorously about capital punishment. Santoro writes, “These differences essentially break down to two related questions: How is the Bible to be read and understood, and what is the relationship between the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and those contained in the Old Testament?” Santoro did field work at Virginia churches, attending Bible studies and discussions on the topic of the death penalty, in the process giving his book added credence.

Perhaps some of my colleagues or our readers could let us know whether there is a good volume (or at least article) on the historical intersection of religion and the death penalty in the United States. There’s a book by Harry Potter (not the wizard) on the subject in Britain (Hanging in Judgment).

Last week, Ohio executed Dennis McGuire, who raped and murdered Joy Stewart in 1989. Because European manufacturers blocked the sale of pentobarbital for use in executions, Ohio used a new combinations of drugs which took far longer than average to kill McGuire. “He started making all these horrible, horrible noises, and at that point, that’s when I covered my eyes and my ears,” said McGuire’s daughter. Naturally, a statement on behalf of Stewart’s family observed that the executed killer received far more humane treatment than did his victim.

From my vantage point there are no persuasive reasons for the retention of the death penalty. Certainly, it satisfies a basic and very understandable desire for justice and vengeance, but justice in at least nearly all instances can be served in other ways. It is frankly hard to know whether the death penalty deters crimes, but my sense is that there is no conclusive evidence that it does. What is clear is that the death penalty leads human beings into — at least in too many instances — unnecessary legal and moral quagmires.

That the Hebrew scriptures command the death penalty for a fair number of offenses is hardly a compelling reason for Christians to support capital punishment as it exists today. Do we really want the execution of false prophets? The New Testament suggests (Romans 13) that governments have the authority to act as “agents of [God’s] wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” That doesn’t explicitly sanction the death penalty, but I imagine wrath might involve death. Still, even if Scripture assigns governments the right to impose the ultimate penalty, it does not mean that it is wise for them to do so or for Christians to support its imposition.

As a matter for reflection, the death penalty resembles abortion. The more thought and examination it receives (especially where the gory details are concerned), the less palatable it seems. Data suggests that many young evangelicals are changing their minds about homosexuality and gay marriage, but not about abortion. I couldn’t locate survey data on young evangelicals and the death penalty, but evangelicals as a whole are disproportionately supportive (this may have as much to do with geography and other political factors as religion and theology per se). Nevertheless, if young evangelicals move in a abolitionist direction on capital punishment, it could spell the end for the second incarnation of death row in the United States. I hope Exile and Embrace will prompt some evangelicals to rethink their support for an institution we could live better without.

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  • Trent Henderson

    For someone I admire from a distance and respect the work thereof, I find the comparison between the death penalty and abortion morally irresponsible and logically disconnected at best. In what realm should an accused, tried, and convicted offender be compared to an un-accused baby in the womb? (if you argue imago dei, please remember that part of that image is moral responsibility) And as to the “gory details,” I don’t know of any state calling for execution by dismemberment and vacuum or by snipping of a spinal cord with surgical tools sans anesthesia. You can argue on the basis of crime prevention or lack thereof, you can argue on the biblical texts, but to compare it to abortion makes you wrong, sir. You are wrong.

  • You imagine that God’s wrath might involve death? The New Testament suggests that government has the authority to punish the wrongdoer in Romans 13? What does the word “sword” suggest?

    But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

    Let’s not overlook that Jesus confirmed Pilate’s authority to take his life, and that Pilate’s authority “came from above.”

  • Scott Christensen

    “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). What might be the theological principle behind this verse?

  • John Turner

    My point, probably not made carefully enough, was simply that they are both things that become harder to support the more intimately one examines them. I could be wrong about that as well, but I wasn’t attempting to make the two issues morally equivalent.

  • John Turner

    I should have more fully discussed the passage. I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek about “imagine.”

    My response, though, is that I don’t trust governments to adjudicate matters of life and death.

  • Trent Henderson

    It is a humble opinion, but I think the MUCH better comparison to make your point would be Advanced Interrogation and Capital Punishment. There are moral equivalents there which can be examined and cast aside or kept. But one might be able to make the case for CP on a biblical basis. However, there is no biblical basis for the abortion issue. And that fundamental place is where, I think, the comparison breaks down.

  • Heather

    Thank you so much for this piece, John! I am a young Evangelical working to end the death penalty. In this work, I have found countless others like me who no longer support the death penalty and call for its end. In fact, there was a poll recently done that displays this: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/18/christians-death-penalty-_n_4622902.html

  • John Turner

    Thanks, Heather. I hadn’t seen that recent poll.

  • eagles.metal

    I am an evangelical believer in Christ, and I support the death penalty…in principle. The Bible makes it perfectly fine for the state to take the life of gross offender. However, my opposition to the death penalty stems from its application. It is disproportionately given to African-Americans. It is disproportionately given to poorer defendants. It is given to innocent men. If it cannot be applied equally and fairly, regardless of race or social economic class, and if it cannot be 100% certain of the guilt of its offender, then it cannot be applied. Too many innocent people have been exonerated (thankfully before execution). If we can’t get that right, in every case, then we have no business applying an irrevocable punishment.

  • I agree that it is a tragedy that anyone is wrongfully convicted, especially someone sentenced to death. But it’s too easy just to say get rid of the death penalty. Sometimes a jail sentence ends up being a death sentence anyway, either physically or spiritually. The underlying problem of wrongful conviction needs to be directly addressed. A better solution is something like the Innocence Project, which seeks to actually clear the innocent, not just prevent their death.

  • Gefra

    “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” St. John 8:7. Our Lord set a very high bar for executions.

  • elvischannel

    There are two morally supportable arguments in comparing the death penalty and abortion. One is that because human perfection is not possible, there will always be innocents among the accused, tried, and convicted. They would be as innocent as any unborn child deliberately deprived of life. The second is that we are not to judge one life of greater value than another. You may disagree with either or both arguments, but please remember that they come from a morally responsible place.

  • I don’t much like the death penalty either. But then I think putting humans in cages can be an even worse treatment. I really don’t know what the best answer is to violent criminals. We surely do have a bunch of them to deal with. How can Sweden be actually closing prisons from disuse?

    Sweden closes four prisons as number of inmates plummets theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/11/sweden-closes-prisons-number-inmates-plummets

  • So if the Bible isn’t merely suggesting, and strict adherence to the most literal exegesis is the interpretive tool of the day, when are you going to sell all your possessions and give the proceeds to the poor?

    A strictly literal interpretation always gets abandoned with various subterfuges on this verse, which demonstrates how much they’re worth.

  • Gefra

    John 8:7. “When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

    Our Lord Jesus set a very high standard for capital punishment.

    Att: Moderator: Is there a problem with my post? This is the second attempt.

  • The Bible is literature, man. No one seriously thinks that “sword” has nothing to do with death. What else could it possibly mean?

  • Jesus also spoke against government rule.

    Rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. ~Jesus

  • I really don’t feel like playing hopscotch with the Bible.

  • Trent Henderson

    Elvis, I don’t particularly like playing the “what if?” game, but I’ll jump in here to show the moral nonequivalence. If a man is standing over a body with a bloody knife, has motive for murder, and then confesses and, on that evidence, is tried and convicted and sentenced to death, you’re going to tell me that’s the moral equivalent of the dissection of a child in the womb while the child is still living? Furthermore, I don’t recall anyone in the discussion arguing for the broad use of the death penalty or the celebration of its misapplication – who wants innocent people convicted of anything? Lastly, I think if you survey the latest data, you’ll find that death penalty cases are significantly more accurate because of DNA testing, etc., so the chances are much lower of a wrongful conviction. So you are comparing apples to oranges in this little case study and therefore once again I argue that there is no “morally responsible place” from which an argument like this comes. Second, I do absolutely judge one life of greater value than another as do most. If a person breaks into my house to do my family harm, I judge my family’s life of greater value than the intruder’s life and act accordingly, maybe even inflicting significant harm or death precisely because of that judgment. I think it’s a nice thought not to judge one life greater value than another, but the real life application belies a differently held belief.

  • One must play “hopscotch” to make Jesus into an RWA, i.e., right wing authoritarian (or a progressive leftist for that matter.)

    The Authoritarians | Bob Altemeyer, University of Manitoba

  • elvischannel

    It doesn’t matter if the chance of an innocent being executed is slim. The point is that it happens, and if only one innocent is ever wrongly executed, that one life lost is the same as the life of an innocent unborn lost. To mourn for one is no different from mourning the other. As for your valuing one life more than another, I can’t disagree with that. I also value some lives more than others. We all do. The problem is that we all use different measures in making that judgment and not always morally responsible ones. That’s why we don’t entrust those who make life and death decisions like physicians and firefighters to pick and choose whom to save. We expect them to value every life equal in the emergency room or the burning building. We–I hope I’m including you–expect a physician to value the life of an unborn child the same as that of its mother–unless you believe in the real life application of abortionists.

  • Y. A. Warren

    If Jesus had been against the death penalty, wouldn’t he have taken the thieves who were rendering “unto Caesar the things that were Caesar’s” off their respective crosses? Didn’t Jesus prescribe death by strangulation and drowning (millstone tied around the neck and thrown into the sea) for harming of the naive and vulnerable (like children)?

    I advocate for caging those who act like predatory animals and offering them access to methods of suicide as an alternative to isolation. I have known several people who accepted that they were unable to stop harming others and committed suicide. I see that as an act of moral nobility.

  • J_Bob

    Not explicitly, but Mary was called mother of God, when she was about two weeks pregnant. Not will be, but at the present.

  • BT

    I’m constantly amazed that the same people who claim that government can’t be trusted with their money and the economy have no problem at all saying that government can be trusted to take a life.

    Where’s the logic in that?

  • gimpi1

    I don’t know how familiar you are with Sweden, Brian, but from what I have seen, their social-support network makes crime much less likely by removing much of the economic desperation and despair we see here. You may not like their “cradle to grave” assistance, but, when I look around the world, I can certainly make the case that it cuts down on crime. Violent crime rates are lower in virtually every western European country, in Japan, in Canada. All have much more generous social supports. When you look at countries with higher crime-rates such as Mexico, you generally see less assistance offered.

    The rule of thumb appears to be; the less economic hardship you permit in your society, the lower your overall level of violence and crime. There are trade-offs, for sure. You lose some competitiveness. You pay higher taxes. Some people feel you make people less responsible. But crime goes down. I don’t think that’s debatable.

  • gimpi1

    The problem with the Innocence Project is that they don’t always get to every case in time. How many innocent people have been executed because their case didn’t catch someone’s attention? There’s just no way to know.

    I, personally, don’t support the death-penalty, largely because it’s irreversible. If you wrongfully imprison someone, you have a chance to correct your error, make amends. If you wrongfully execute someone, well, they and you are out of luck. We know we have executed innocent people. We will continue to do so, as long as we permit executions.

  • gimpi1

    No one thinks giving all your wealth to the poor has any other meaning, either. You ignored Brian’s question. Why?

  • Life is full of mistakes that take innocent lives. We don’t stop driving because innocent people get killed, and we don’t
    fire hospital personnel when they make honest mistakes that cost lives. So why should we use that reason to end the death penalty?

  • You and Brian are confused by what is to be taken literally and what is to be understood from a literary standpoint. I never pretend to take everything literally. The sword is a metaphor with an obvious literary connotation. Many of the sayings of Jesus are gross exaggerations (hyperbole) to get you to see the underlying principle. If you are looking for a single, consistent literal principle to be applied to understanding the Bible, it will never make sense. It’s literature, man.

  • The whole Bible is literature, much of it Hebrew mythology, and thus must all be taken from a literary standpoint. Nonetheless, Jesus several teachings about hierarchy, wealth, and accumulation are clear, and point away from your apology of authoritarianism.

  • gimpi1

    The trouble I see with your analogy is that the mistakes in our justice system are often willful mistakes. We know that we have biases, that things like race, class and appearance color our judgement. We know that the amount of money an accused person has to spend greatly influences the outcome of a trial. We know that we have executed innocent people, sometimes as a mistake, sometimes for political reasons. We often don’t much care, if the innocent person is “other” and somehow frightening to the majority of people. We don’t do this ‘justice’ thing very well. We know that.

    I think a better hospital analogy would be if a doctor knew a patient had an allergy to penicillin and gave them a shot of penicillin to treat a minor infection. Then, after the patient died, the doctor said, “Hey penicillin works great for most people. It’s the treatment of choice for this infection. If it didn’t work for him that’s his problem, not mine.” Willful ignorance. Deliberate decisions that we know will cause harm.

    We know we execute the innocent. We know we often don’t care. Refusing to see that and accept that we have to change how we do things in the face of it is, in my opinion. wrong.

  • gimpi1

    Actually, I do understand it as literature. I frankly don’t regard it as anything else. If the Bible is just literature, may I ask why do you think it’s references to a sword should be society-shaping, while “sell all you have and give to the poor” is metaphor? Or did I misunderstand you?

  • I think you don’t understand what I mean by literature. When you say “just” literature, you mean a collection of tales and sayings. Am I correct in this? When I use the word literature, I mean that the text is in the form of literature, that is, it uses various literary devices to communicate to the reader. Literature can be fiction, but it can also be historical or biographical. But even good fictional literature communicates truth at some level.

    Metaphor is just one rhetorical device that is used in literature, but there are a variety of rhetorical techniques that literature can use. The sword reference is clearly metaphor, while the “sell all you have” is not metaphor. It doesn’t stand for something else. It’s an example of hyperbole, an exaggeration that gets your attention to examine your attitude toward material things. Someone could sell everything and be poor and still have an attachment to the things he used to have, or the things that other people have. Jesus used hyperbole all the time. For example, he said it is easier for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Yet their were a few rich followers of Jesus.

    Anyway, that’s why I think it is folly to compare two verses in the Bible on the same basis. You have to know the context and also be familiar with the speaker’s way of communicating.

  • I know, the justice system sucks. I’ve been on the wrong end of a vindictive, frivolous lawsuit. Those kinds of things need serious reform. There is a difference between honestly admitting that things need reform, and simply giving up on the possibility of reform. Capital cases get attention, and that is a good thing. They cause us to examine whether the justice system is working to a higher degree than putting someone in prison for a long, long time.

    Now, where there is willful ignorance, there is hope for reform. We don’t normally allow doctors to treat people nonchalantly ignoring risks. My point is that some risks are by nature unavoidable. There will always be mistakes, some of them by negligence. Drunk drivers kill people, greedy pharmaceutical companies kill people. Even though people are wrongfully killed, we continue to work for better reforms, rather than give up on driving potentially lethal cars or dispensing potentially lethal drugs.

  • gimpi1

    OK, thanks for the follow up.

    If I may presume a few more questions; how do you know your interpretation is the correct one? If there’s one thing I know about Christianity it’s that every verb, sub-clause and phrase is subject to interpretation, and there are almost as many interpretations as there are Christians. Could you be wrong? Could somebody else be right? Where do you get your interpretation, and your belief in it?

  • gimpi1

    Well, to me that’s a fundamental point of disagreement. We may still drive, but if one out of every four car-trips ended in an accident, we would find another way to get around. If one in every six visits to the doctor killed someone, we’d find a different way to heal.

    When the Innocence Project started investigating cases, they found almost half of the cases they looked into were innocent. That’s staggering. Admittedly, the cases had already been winnowed to find those best suited to investigation, to but it’s still indicates a horrific problem. Public defenders are cash-and-time-strapped and shell-shocked. Prosecutors want convictions to build careers. Police take umbrage at having their investigations questioned. There’s nothing new in any of this. These are the reasons we stopped capital punishment years ago.

    I think this indicates that we as a society can’t be trusted with this power. LIfe imprisonment is cheaper, and if a mistake is made, there is a chance to correct it. It also appears to work, since we’re virtually the only first-world country to embrace the death penalty. Countries without it have lower crime-rates. To use the car analogy, if auto-transit was this prone to error, I’d take the bus.

  • That is what makes Christianity daunting. The Bible is big, it’s often ambiguous, written from many differing points of view and times. It’s why I distrust using proof-texts. You can’t prove anything, really, from the Bible. You can only persuade and be persuaded. But when you say that there are as many interpretations as there are Christians, you give the impression that there is no center of agreement, but just a random scattering of thought. That’s just not true. There is a historical pattern to the convergence and divergence of interpretation that makes sense. We see the same kind of patterns in government, philosophy, and all the humanities.

    I study the Bible systematically. That is, I learned to recognize a hierarchy of ideas that are logically connected and can be rationally communicated. But as to why I accept the Bible as true divine communication to man through the human agency of literature, it is because does exactly what it claims it does. It gradually reveals over the span of centuries (around 1400 BC to 70 AD) a series of lessons, if you will, about our most important spiritual need, which is this thing called righteousness, being internally “right” as a human. That’s what I want for myself, and it’s clearly what motivates everyone psychologically. And secondarily, the provenance and consistency of its manuscripts is better than any other ancient text.

  • If it is true that half of the people on death row are innocent, then I agree, we should have a moratorium on the death penalty until we can make the necessary reforms. Can you post a link to the information you cited?

  • gimpi1

    I’ll try to, but it will be a while, most likely Wednesday. I’m on deadline, and things just went off the rails.

  • gimpi1

    OK, here’s what I have:


    Note, these aren’t all death-row cases, and as I said in my post, the cases examined are pre-winnowed to be more likely to have issues. However, of the cases they choose to take on, about 35% have resulted in exoneration or new trials as I read it. Another 10% or so have issues, but due to some police departments allowing the destruction of evidence after a conviction, these cases are harder. Many are still pending.

    About 70% of exonerations are because of DNA evidence that either was not admitted at trial, or because the technology was not available at the time of trial. The vast majority of cases overturned have concerned faulty eye-witness identification, and have involved people of color. Quite a few prosecutors object to cases being overturned because of DNA evidence, and some even try to exclude DNA evidence that would prove innocence, because the law has not caught up with the technology, and they are not obligated to acknowledge it.

    People with no resources to spend on their defense are most likely to be falsely convicted. Public-defenders offices don’t have the resources to investigate or access DNA evidence. They generally assume guilt of the accused and try to cut a plea-deal, because it’s the fastest and cheapest way to settle cases.

    People who insist on their innocence and demand a trial are often subject to punitive sentencing, for instance a prosecutor will offer to take the death-penalty off the table in exchange for a guilty-plea.

    Several states have put moratoriums on capitol punishment due to these issues, just as you suggest. However, I have my doubts about fixing anything.

    The whole system has, in my opinion, become a mess of special interests, bias, and political manipulation. The thing is, I don’t know if we can reform it. The current situation evolved out of reforms undertaken in the 1980s to fix what were regarded as overly lenient sentencing and too much concern about the rights of the accused. Any reform will lead us back to that, and then we’ll have backlash. It’s what we do.

    I’m not a member of your faith, but I really see this as an example of the inherent flaws in humanity. We (many of us) are biased against people not like us. We make snap judgments. We act out of fear. We often don’t try too hard to understand that which does not affect us personally. That means we will not be just. If we can’t be trusted to be just, I believe we should not use, as part of our justice system, a punishment that we can’t reverse. We can’t fix dead.

  • gimpi1

    Thanks again.

    My experience is different, however. I have known Christians who believe most Old Testament law is in force, and Christians who believe none of it is. I have read Christians who believe in almost total subjugation of women, (according to some I have read, women shouldn’t be able to vote, live independently, choose their own spouses, choose not to marry, serve on juries or in the military or even drive). Most of the Christians I know personally believe in gender-equality, mostly. Some refer to “servant-leadership” for husbands, but don’t insist on total submission. Some Christians are the driving force behind the move for marriage-equity, some are the driving force against it. Some want an expanded social-welfare net, some want all social-welfare aid abolished, even public schools. This is nothing new. Christians were the driving force both for and against abolition and the civil rights movement.

    I guess we just have different experiences. I live in Seattle, a notably unchurched place, and I work in high-tec, a notably unchurched profession. My husband is a geologist, also a notably unchurched avocation. That’s part of why I lurk on Patheos, faith is something I don’t fully understand. I appreciate your attempts to explain yours.