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The death penalty

Policies of various religious groups

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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:

bulletFundamentalist 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 murders.

bulletThe 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.

Denomination Membership in millions  Position on the death penalty
Roman Catholic Church 60 Near abolitionist 1
Baptist Churches 36 Southern Baptists are retentionist 2; American Baptists are abolitionist 3
Non-religious 23 Mixed.
Methodist Churches 13 United Methodist Church is abolitionist. 4
Pentecostal Churches 10 Mixed. The Assemblies of God have no official stance 5
Lutheran Churches 8 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is abolitionist 6; the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod is retentionist. 7
Eastern Orthodox Churches 5 Abolitionist. 8
Islam 5 The Qur'an supports the death penalty, but there is a strong tradition of mercy within the faith. 9,10
Atheists 5 Mixed. 11
Latter-Day Saints/Mormons 5 No official stance. 5,12
Judaism 4 Mixed; split along liberal and conservative lines.
Presbyterian Churches 4 Abolitionist. 13
Episcopal Church 2 Abolitionist. 14
Reformed Church in America 2 Abolitionist. 15
Jehovah's Witnesses 1.2 No official stance 16
United Church of Christ 1 Abolitionist. 17
Neopagans Perhaps 0.7 Mixed. 18,19

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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.

horizontal rule

Additional information:

bulletGenerally 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. 5

bullet 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

bulletThe Christian Coalition and their successors, Christian Reconstructionists, and large numbers of small conservative denominations and independent churches strongly support the death penalty.

bullet 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.

bullet 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 Conference.

bulletThe 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 person."

"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

References used:

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

  1. "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/
  2. "Resolution No. 5 on capital punishment," Southern Baptist Convention, at: http://www.tnbaptist.org/
  3. "American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.: Resolution on Capital Punishment," at: http://www.deathpenaltyreligious.org/
  4. "United Methodist Church: Capital Punishment," at: http://www.deathpenaltyreligious.org/
  5. Caryle Murphy, : 'Eye for an Eye' Challenges Faithful," Washington Post, 2007-MAY-12, at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/
  6. "A social statement on the death penalty," at: http://www.elca.org/
  7. "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.
  8. "Prominent religious leaders urge Bush to enact a moratorium on federal executions," Citizens for a Moratorium on Federal Executions, 2001?, at: http://federalmoratorium.com/
  9. Estimates of the total population of Muslims vary greatly from about 6 million (by Muslim organizations) to about 3 million (from public opinion polls).
  10. "Shattering ten misconceptions about Islam," at: http://www.usc.edu/
  11. 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/
  12. "Public Issues: Capital Punishment," The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at: http://www.lds.org/
  13. "Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): Continuing opposition to capital punishment," at: http://www.deathpenaltyreligious.org/
  14. "Re: Presbyterians and the death penalty," at: http://venus.soci.niu.edu/ This includes a statement by the Episcopal Church.
  15. "Report of the Commission on Christian Action," at: http://www.rca.org/
  16. George D. Chryssides, "New Light, Conscience and Jehovah´┐Żs Witnesses," Center for Studies on New Religions, 2002-JUN, at: http://www.cesnur.org/
  17. "Civil and human rights," at: http://www.ucc.org/
  18. 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.
  19. 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/
  20. "National church bodies share historic opposition to death," at http://www.wfn.org/
  21. "Capital Punishment," at: http://www.nae.net/
  22. "Section 2267, Catechism of the Catholic Church," United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, at: http://www.usccb.org/
  23. John Paul II, "Evangelium vitae,"  56. at: http://www.vatican.va/

Copyright © 2001 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-JUL-3
Latest update: 2012-AUG-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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