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Religious Tolerance logo

The death penalty; executing people for committing murder.

Part 1 of 3:
Status, public opinion polls,
& developments during 2015

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2015-MAR: Current level of support/opposition for the death penalty in the U.S.:

The Pew Research Center conducted a 5 day public opinion poll starting on 2015-MAR-25. Subjects were asked whether they approved or opposed a sentence of death for those found guilty of murder. 1 Results were:

  • A majority of U.S. adults continue to support the death penalty for individuals convicted of murder.
    • Support has declined from 78% in 1995 to 56% in 2015, at a rate slightly in excess of 1 percentage point per year.

    • Opposition to the death penalty has more than doubled, from 18% in 1995 to 38% in 2015. This has changed at a rate of 1 percentage point per year.

    • If these trends continue, most adults would be against the death penalty about 2027.

  • As one would expect, there is a wide gap between the opinions of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans on this matter:
    • The 2015 poll found that support of the death penalty by Republicans was 77%, a drop of 10 percentage points from 1995.

    • If this trend continues, a majority of Republicans should switch to opposition of executions or "don't know" circa the late 2060's.

    • Support by Independents was 57%, a drop of 22 percentage points since 1995. If this trend continues, most should either oppose executions or have no opinion circa 2018.

    • Support by Democrats was 40%, a drop of 31 percentage points since 1995. They reached 50% support back in in 2010.

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  • Additional findings are that:
    • A larger percentage of men than women favor the death penalty.

    • 68% of whites favor the death penalty, compared to only 40% of blacks.

    • 65% of adults who have completed some or all four years of high school education favor executions, compared with 53% of college graduates.

    • 67% of Protestants favor the death penalty compared to 57% of NOTAs (Not affiliated with any religion). Even though the Roman Catholic Church is the most powerful religious voice opposing the death penalty, fully 59% of Roman Catholics support executions.

  • On the topic of racial inequality in how the death penalty is applied, Pew Research reports that:

    "Fully 77% of blacks say minorities are more likely than whites to receive the death penalty for similar crimes. Whites are evenly divided: 46% say minorities are disproportionately sentenced to death, while an identical percentage sees no racial disparities.

    More than twice as many Democrats (70%) as Republicans (31%) say minorities are more likely than whites to receive the death penalty for similar crimes."

However, when a public opinion survey simply asks the public whether they support or oppose the death penalty, the results may obscure reality. Some would argue that a better poll design would be to ask whether those interviewed prefer sentences for convicted murderers of either life without parole or the death penalty. Quinnipiac University conducted such a poll in 2013 and again in 2015. Results were:

  • In 2013, 48% preferred the death penalty while 43% preferred a sentence of life without parole, and 9% were undecided or didn't answer.

  • In 2015, results were exactly reversed, with 48% preferring a life without parole sentence, and 43% preferred the death penalty. A plurality of the public favors an end to the death penalty if a life sentence without parole was the other option.

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Reasons why people support of the death penalty:

Common beliefs expressed by many evangelical Christians and other supporters of the death penalty over the past four decades have been:

  • Deterrent effect: The fear of being arrested, found guilty, jailed and eventually executed may cause potential murderers to refrain from committing homicide. Executing perpetrators might thus act as a deterrent to murder, and would decrease the homicide rate. That would result in fewer innocent persons dying.

    Unfortunately, there is no consensus among researchers on whether the death penalty:
    • Lowers the homicide rate because it acts as a deterrent, or

    • Has no statistically significant effect on the homicide rate. or

    • Actually increases the homicide rate, because executions by the state is viewed by the public as cheapen the value of human life.

  • Biblical justification: The Bible lists many events that called for imposition of the death penalty.
    • In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) it was invoked -- sometimes by God and sometimes by the state -- for many other activities that are no longer considered crimes such as: masturbation, looking the wrong way, touching a religious object, worshiping a god other than Yahweh, a stranger entering the Jewish temple, proselytizing, attempting to communicate with the dead, killing or injuring people through the use of evil curses, incest, temple prostitution, bestiality, pre-marital sex, adultery, and in some cases, being a rape victim. It was also applied to persons convicted of murder. Thus it can be argued from Bible passages that the death penalty today is justified for the most serious crimes.

    • In the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) the death penalty was applied, either by God or the state, for lying about church donations, blasphemy, and for many other crimes mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. It continued to be applied to persons convicted of murder, and thus many Christians today believe that the death penalty continues to be justified in modern times.

  • Mistakes: Some believe that there is little or no probability that an innocent person might be executed by the state if a death penalty sentence is given. Others feel that the possibility exists that an innocent person may be executed.

  • Most Republicans are heavily opposed to abortion access, because they believe that an abortion murders a human person, no matter what the stage in pregnancy. Yet they are heavily supportive of the death penalty, which definitely commits judicial murders of a human adult. Many Republicans explain this apparent conflict by stressing that an embryo or fetus who is killed during an abortion is an innocent life, whereas an adult on death row has been convicted of murder and thus is not innocent.

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2015-MAR: Latino evangelical Christians call for an end to capital punishment:

The leadership of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition (NaLEC) urged their three thousand member congregations to work toward an end of the death penalty througout the U.S. President Gabriel Salguero said:

"As Christ followers, we are called to work toward justice for all. And as Latinos, we know too well that justice is not always even-handed. ... The truth is that a fallen system does not mete out justice with equanimity. The gospel calls us to speak out for life, and our unanimous decision today to call for the end of capital punishment is part of that commitment. 2

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2015-OCT: The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) move towards abandoning promotion of the death penalty:

Over four decades ago, during 1973, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) passed a resolution in favor of retaining the death penalty for what they referred to as "horrendous crimes." 3 Their resolution stated:

"If no crime is considered serious enough to warrant capital punishment, then the gravity of the most atrocious crime is diminished accordingly. We call upon Congress and state legislatures to enact legislation which will direct the death penalty for such horrendous crimes as premeditated murder, the killing of a police officer or guard, murder in connection with any other crime, hijacking, skyjacking, or kidnapping where persons are physically harmed in the process."

Curiously, they did not recommend that the death penalty be applied to perpetrators of mass murders. Starting in the mid-2000's, the F.B.I. had defined mass murder as a single attack at the same general time and location, that results in the death of four or more victims, not including the perpetrator. 4 During 2013, they lowered their definition three victims. 4 An article in the Washington Post on 2015-DEC-03 indicated that there were 355 mass shootings up to that date in 2015. 5 A number of other news sources later indicated that there were going to be more mass shootings than days during 2015. 6 However, most of the mass shootings did not result in mass murder, because some of four or more people who were shot did not die.

The Death Penalty Information Center maintains a list of persons who had been sentenced to be executed and were later either:

  • "... acquitted of all charges related to the crime that placed them on death row, or

  • Had all charges related to the crime that placed them on death row dismissed, or

  • Been granted a complete pardon based on evidence of innocence,

between 1973 and 2015-OCT. On the latter date, the list contained 156 names. Additional names will be added as they are discovered. 7

On 2015-OCT-15 , the Board of Directors of the NAE issued a resolution about capital punishment. 7 It states, in part, that 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 ... We affirm the conscientious commitment of both streams of Christian ethical thought. ... We affirm with the Apostle Paul that governments are called to administer justice to protect citizens and preserve the common good. As citizens of the United States, we are grateful for the degree of public safety most Americans experience and the rules of due process embodied, if imperfectly implemented, in our legal system." 8

NAE President Leith Anderson issued a press release, stating that:

"A growing number of evangelicals call for government resources to be shifted away from the death penalty. Our statement allows for their advocacy and for the advocacy of those of goodwill who support capital punishment in limited circumstances as a valid exercise of the state and as a deterrent to crime." 8

Heather Beaudoin, a national coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, reacted to the resolution. She issued a statement saying:

"Clearly we are seeing growing concerns among the NAE leadership about problems with the death penalty. These concerns mirror what I have been hearing when I talk to Christians across the country. More of them are questioning their support for the death penalty as they learn about its mistakes and bias. I am overjoyed that the NAE has taken so much leadership in fostering this dialog." 9

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This list continues in the next essay.

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References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Less Support for Death Penalty, Especially Among Democrats," Pew Research Center, 2015-APR-16, at: http://www.people-press.org/
  2. Jonathan Merritt, "Latino evangelicals call for end to death penalty. Will others follow?" Religion News Service, 2015-MAR-27, at: http://www.jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/
  3. Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, "Evangelicals Now Officially Divided on Death Penalty," Christianity Today. 2015-OCT-19. at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/
  4. Mark Follman, "How Many Mass Shootings Are There, Really?," The New York Times, 2015-DEC-03, at: http://www.nytimes.com/
  5. Christopher Ingraham, "The San Bernardino shooting is the second mass shooting today and the 355th this year," The Washington Post, 2015-DEC-02, at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/
  6. Sharon LaFraniere, et al., "How Often Do Mass Shootings Occur? On Average, Every Day, Records Show," New York Times, 2015=DEC-02, at: http://www.nytimes.com/
  7. "The Innocence List,"Death Penalty Information Center, 2015-OCT-12, at: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/
  8. Billy Hallowell, "Evangelicals Just Announced Big Death-Penalty Policy Shift That Could Change the Way Christians Address Capital Punishment," The Blaze, 2015-OCT-20, at: http://www.theblaze.com/
  9. Lea Barkoukis, "National Association of Evangelicals Changes Longstanding Position on Death Penalty," Townhall.com, 2015-OCT-25, at: http://townhall.com/

Copyright © 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
First posted: 2016-JAN-15
Last updated: 2016-JAN-16
Author: B.A. Robinson
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