Death Penalty: Shifting Times

Death Penalty: Shifting Times January 20, 2014

From Jon Merritt:

(RNS) One day after the state of Ohio executed a man for murder (Jan. 16), a new poll shows younger Christians are not as supportive of the death penalty as older members of their faith.

When asked if they agreed that “the government should have the option to execute the worst criminals,” 42 percent of self-identified Christian boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, said “yes.” Only 32 percent of self-identified Christian millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, said the same thing.

The poll conducted by Barna Group this past summer and released to Religion News Service Friday, surveyed 1,000 American adults and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

It showed an even sharper difference in support for the death penalty among “practicing Christians,” which Barna defined as those who say faith is very important to their lives and have attended church at least once in the last month. Nearly half of practicing Christian boomers support the government’s right to execute the worst criminals, while only 23 percent of practicing Christian millennials do.

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  • Something happened to some of us Boomers along the way. I have no statistics, but I would guess that in, say, 1970, Boomers would have been even more opposed to the death penalty than Millennials are today. That may not be true, but it certainly seemed that way at the time. The Anabaptist streak I acquired somewhere along the way refuses to agree with exercise of lethal force by the government.

  • Andrew Dowling

    It doesn’t act as a deterrent, the endless appeals process costs the public coffers millions, there are numerous examples of people getting executed in which the evidence was shoddy at best, as well as mentally disabled people getting put to death, and it doesn’t really gel with any of what Jesus taught. So that altogether I don’t see any reason why we should still have the death penalty. And yes, if someone killed my child I’d want to kill them too (personally, not have it be done by a 3rd party); but the state shouldn’t sanction all of the things I’d want to do in life.

  • Jeremy B.

    I wonder how much of it has to do with the culture war and the marrying of American Christianity to conservative politics.

  • Yes, I have been wondering what percentage of Boomers ended up in churches “married to conservative politics.”

  • Tom F.

    I think the shift is definitely happening, but I would guess most polling going back would find something close to a generational gap. I wonder if having kids makes a difference?

  • attytjj466

    Truth is the death penalty is already quite rarely utilized even in the states that have it, relative to the number of inmates convicted of crimes. Fewer and fewer crimes even qualify for the death penalty. Probably the thing it it most used for now is in plea bargain negotiations to avoid costly trials. In the most horrific homicides, the finding that the perps are quite mentally ill (legally) or the fact that they kill themselves or achieve the same result in a gun fight with law enforcement (Sandy Hook) reduces the instances where it might be used even more.

    Given that, and the fact that appeals delay death sentances seemingly forever, and a justice system that is far from perfect, the trend away from the death penalty makes sense.

  • Phil Miller

    I would say that has a lot to do with it.

    It’s funny, though, one of the few times I ever remember anything actually being said on the pro side of the death penalty was in an African American congregation. There was guest speaker, and he essentially said something like if you murdered someone, you yourself deserved the electric chair. The thing that got me was there seemed to be a good number of “amens” to that… I was really surprised by it.

  • Larry S

    I’m thinking that as us Boomers have aged we’ve become more aware of evil and, thus are less idealistic then we were as youngsters

  • That is no doubt true as well. Even though I still oppose the death penalty, I am certainly more aware of evil. Indeed, greater awareness of evil within the justice system itself is a secondary reason that I am still opposed to the death penalty, but I can see how greater awareness of evil could work the other way around too.

  • Patrick

    Is there a biblical case for it though? Should we be against it or for it? Just asking. Does the NT teach us to drop that idea somewhere or does it advance the idea?

    It was first mentioned before Jews existed, mentioned with Jews and at what point do we post Christ believers assume it says, ” this is no longer a mandate of mine for My people”?

    Everyone here knows of Romans 13. While I wouldn’t take that passage to support the penalty by itself, that along with the previous stuff is fairly convincing.

    So, how do we arrive at firm conclusions against it? We always had even in the Torah the mandate to love our neighbors.

  • I am not taking time to check all the details, but I think I can give an off the top of the head answer that will be close enough.

    In Romans 13, Paul was saying that Christians should respect the role of government in establishing order. He mentioned capital punishment as a tool that pagan governments used toward that end, and said that Christians who obeyed the laws should not fear receiving such a penalty. At the time he was writing this letter, in the early days of Nero, who initially was an improvement over Claudius, this was mostly true, but, of course, Nero became a terribly destructive tyrant not much later.

    By Revelation 13 (and the rest of Revelation), presumably in the time of Domitian, the Roman government was seen as an arm of Satan and his two beasts (goverment and civic religion), excercising capital punishment in the oppression of Christians. But Rome would be forced to drink and get staggeringly drunk on the blood of the martyrs, and it would be discovered that Jesus, even as the martyrs were being slain, was trampling out a vintage of the grapes of wrath that would ultimately bring Rome down. In the end, the Lamb that was slain and his faithful martyr/witnesses win and enter heaven and then the new heaven and new earth where they will share the divine reign. They are not to worry about taking vengeance on earth because they are assured that they win in the end.

    Nowhere in the New Testament are Christians specifically called to exercise coercive power, which is revealed to be a power that corrupts. I don’t want to push this too far into the question as to the degree to which Christians can participate in the armed services and in police forces. The New Testament does not clearly address that question, and it appears to be left to individual discernment regarding the specific circumstances. Jesus and the apostles certainly ministered to soldiers and officers with policing functions.

    Our mission as Christians is primarily a ministry of redemptive love and peacemaking, and, in my view, that is where our focus should stay. We can live in an imperfect world which operates by other values and other rules because we know that the One we follow has conquered by love, and that his victory will ultimately be evident.

    It is not my job to make all things right in the world, but is hard to favor capital punishment for one my Lord longs to redeem.

  • Steve Robinson

    I’m a “boomer” who was adamantly anti-war/death penalty in the 60’s and have recently changed to pro-death penalty even in the face of my current tradition’s general anti-death penalty stance (American version of Eastern Orthodox). Forgive the self-promo, but I did an 8 part series on my change of thinking on the death penalty at “Steve the Builder” (listen to them in order and to all of them if you can stand it, they do craft a systematic argument). My sense of the millenials is they are pretty much like we old hippies were in the 60’s and 70’s because my kids are millenials.