The death penalty
Policies of various religious groups
There are 16 main religious groupings in the U.S. which have over 1 million adherents. This includes 12 Christian faith groups, Islam, Judaism, Atheism;
and persons with no religious affiliation or identification.
Christian groups have taken opposite views on the death penalty:
|Fundamentalist and other Evangelical denominations tend to be
supportive of the death penalty (a.k.a. the retentionist position). Exceptions are
the Mennonites and Amish. Some have pointed out an apparent contradiction here.
Conservative Protestants tend to be pro-life and opposed to
abortion access. Yet they generally favor
capital punishment, which involve the taking of lives. Conservatives
generally defend their position by pointing out that they are opposed to
the taking of innocent human life, like an embryo, fetus, newborn,
child, etc. But a person sitting on death row awaiting execution is not
innocent; they have been found guilty of murder -- often multiple
|The Roman Catholic Church and mainline & liberal denominations tend to be abolitionist
(i.e. opposed to the death penalty).|
Support for capital punishment among the general public is higher that one would expect from the positions of American religious groups. The
membership of the various denominations appear to support capital punishment more than their own faith groups do.
||Membership in millions
|| Position on the death
|Roman Catholic Church
||Near abolitionist 1
||Southern Baptists are retentionist 2; American Baptists are abolitionist 3
||United Methodist Church is abolitionist. 4
||Mixed. The Assemblies of God have no official stance
||Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is abolitionist 6; the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod is
|Eastern Orthodox Churches
||The Qur'an supports the death penalty, but there is a strong
tradition of mercy within the faith. 9,10
||No official stance. 5,12
||Mixed; split along liberal and conservative lines.
|Reformed Church in America
||No official stance 16
|United Church of Christ
What would Jesus do (WWJD)?
As with so many other moral, ethical, and religious topics, the Bible is ambiguous on whether Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ) was a retentionist or an abolitionist:
- Jesus was a retentionist: In Matthew 5:18, Jesus referred to the Mosaic Law as defined in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). He is quoted as saying
"For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled."
In Luke 16:17 he is quoted as saying:
"And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail."
Jots and tittles were very small punctuation marks used in ancient Hebrew.
There were dozens of activities considered worthy of the death penalty in the Old Testament's Mosaic Code, including a woman being a non-virgin when she married, a female who was raped in a city and did not cry out for help, teaching unorthodox religious beliefs, men engaging in some same-gender sexual activities -- which ones are not clear -- and murder. One might assume that Jesus approved of executing people who were found guilty of these "crimes."
- Jesus was an abolitionist: John 8:1-11 describes that while teaching a crowd at the Mount of Olives, the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman to who had been found to have committed adultery. This was a capital offense at the time. They asked whether the sentence required by the Mosaic Law should be carried out and the woman stoned to death. Jesus said that whichever of them is without sin let him cast the first stone at her. They all slinked away, one by one. Jesus told her to go and sin no more.
|Generally speaking, liberal religious groups are abolitionist, while
conservative faith groups are retentionist. Exceptions are The Church of
Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) and the Assemblies of God
which have not taken an official position.
||The National Council of the Churches of Christ (NCC), an umbrella
group of mainline and liberal Christian churches is abolitionist. 20
The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) is retentionist. 21|
|The Christian Coalition and their successors, Christian Reconstructionists,
and large numbers of small conservative denominations and independent churches
strongly support the death penalty.|
||Four small groups: the Mennonites, Amish, Society of Friends (Quakers), and
Unitarian Universalists have historically been among the
most active groups in opposition to the death penalty.|
||The American Friends Service Committee's Criminal Justice Program
maintains a list of
faith and ethical
groups which are opposed to the death penalty They include: American
Baptists, American Ethical Union, American Friends Service Committee, America
Jewish Committee, Amnesty International, The Bruderhof Communities, Central
Conference of American Rabbis, Disciples of Christ, Church of the Brethren,
Church Women United, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,
Fellowship of Reconciliation, Friends Committee on National Legislation,
Friends United Meeting, General Conference of General Baptists, General
Conference of Mennonite Church, Mennonite Church, Moravian Church in America,
YWCA, Orthodox Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), The
Rabbinical Assembly, Reformed Church in America, Reorganized Church, Union of
American Hebrew Congregations, Unitarian Universalist Association, United
Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, and the United States Catholic
|The Roman Catholic Church
accepts capital punishment in some unusual circumstances. Section 2267 of
the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:|
"Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have
been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not
exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way
of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor."
"If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect
people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such
means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the
common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human
"Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state
has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed
an offense incapable of doing harm without definitively taking away from
him the possibility of redeeming himself, the cases in which the
execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if
not practically non-existent'." 22,23
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- "A Good Friday appeal to end the death penalty," United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, at: http://www.nccbuscc.org/ This and many other documents
are linked to "Catholic Social Thought: Online Resources" under
the topic of Capital Punishment, at: http://www.saintmarys.edu/
- "Resolution No. 5 on capital punishment," Southern Baptist
Convention, at: http://www.tnbaptist.org/
- "American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.: Resolution on Capital
Punishment," at: http://www.deathpenaltyreligious.org/
- "United Methodist Church: Capital Punishment," at: http://www.deathpenaltyreligious.org/
- Caryle Murphy, : 'Eye for an Eye' Challenges Faithful," Washington Post,
2007-MAY-12, at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/
- "A social statement on the death penalty," at: http://www.elca.org/
- "Report on Capital Punishment," Commission on Theology and
Church Relations of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. Originally
published in the Lutheran Witness, 1976-MAY-16.
- "Prominent religious leaders urge Bush to enact a moratorium on
federal executions," Citizens for a Moratorium on Federal Executions,
2001?, at: http://federalmoratorium.com/
- Estimates of the total population of Muslims vary greatly from about
6 million (by Muslim organizations) to about 3 million (from public opinion polls).
- "Shattering ten misconceptions about Islam," at: http://www.usc.edu/
- The American Atheists have not taken a position on the death
penalty. However, an essay by its president Ellen Johnson opposing the
death penalty is at: http://www.americanatheist.org/
- "Public Issues: Capital Punishment," The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, at: http://www.lds.org/
- "Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): Continuing opposition to capital
punishment," at: http://www.deathpenaltyreligious.org/
- "Re: Presbyterians and the death penalty," at: http://venus.soci.niu.edu/ This includes a
statement by the Episcopal Church.
- "Report of the Commission on Christian Action," at: http://www.rca.org/
- George D. Chryssides, "New Light, Conscience and Jehovah©s Witnesses,"
Center for Studies on New Religions, 2002-JUN, at: http://www.cesnur.org/
- "Civil and human rights," at: http://www.ucc.org/
- Estimates of the number of Neopagans also vary greatly They are growing at a very
rapid pace. They may well have reached 1 million member by now.
- Wiccans and other Neopagans have a vast range of religious beliefs,
practices, and social beliefs. An essay by a Wiccan opposed to the death
penalty is at: "Wicca and the Death Penalty," at: http://www.homestead.com/
- "National church bodies share historic opposition to death,"
- "Capital Punishment," at: http://www.nae.net/
- "Section 2267, Catechism of the Catholic Church," United States Conference
of Catholic Bishops, at: http://www.usccb.org/
- John Paul II, "Evangelium vitae," 56. at: http://www.vatican.va/
Copyright © 2001 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2001-JUL-3
Latest update: 2012-AUG-14
Author: B.A. Robinson