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Religious Tolerance logo

Death penalty

A public debate on capital punishment.
Further religious and moral considerations

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A public debate on capital punishment:

During 2001-JUN, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life sponsored a public debate on the theology and morality of capital punishment. 1,2 Although the debate happened over a decade ago, the basic arguments are unchanged today.

Present were two representatives from each side of the issue:

bullet Barrett Duke, a supporter of capital punishment, was vice president for research at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

bullet Longtime abolitionist and civil-rights leader, Joseph Lowery, was chairman of the Black Leadership Forum and a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

bulletJohn Carr, of the U.S. Catholic Conference, explained his church's opposition to the death penalty.

bulletNathan Diament, of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America supports the death penalty, although Jews generally are split along liberal / conservative lines.

The debate followed shortly after the execution of two high-profile inmates on death row:  Timothy McVeigh on JUN-11, and Juan Raul Garza on JUN-19. These were the first prisoners in four decades to be executed by the federal government. It also followed a report issued by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. The report confirmed his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee that "... there is no evidence of racial bias in the administration of the federal death penalty." The report showed that:

bulletRace played little if any role in whether people charged with a federal capital crime would face the death penalty.

bulletWhites charged with a capital crime were twice as likely as minorities to plea bargain to a lesser charge, thus avoiding the death penalty.

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Debating in opposition to capital punishment:

Joseph Lowery said:

"The death penalty is a matter of place and race, inequity and iniquity...Where the execution of Jesus Christ is most deplored in the South, the execution of human beings is most employed."

He compared the "Bible Belt to the killing belt." He referred to the United States:

"as the leader of the free world. But I don't know who we are leading. Who's following us? Iran, Iraq, Libya, China. Nobody in the European Union is following us in the death penalty. Turkey held out, but recently they did away with it."

Lowery said supporters of the death penalty use the same arguments as those who once defended slavery. He said:

"And the Bible was used to justify that as well. The state does not have the right to kill, to take a human life; the state does not have a right to enslave. It has the power, but the Bible addresses that. It says 'Not by power, nor by might, but by my spirit, says the Lord.' "

He noted that during the past century:

"eight out of ten persons executed in the South were African-American. In Georgia, where I live, black males constitute 15 percent of the population but 50 percent of those who are on death row."

His point is easy to misunderstand. He refers to 15% of the population of Georgia being black males. That is about 30% of the total population is black. But they are over-represented on death row: 30% of the general population makes up 50% of the population of death row.

He continued:

"The poor are rigidly prosecuted but poorly punishment is for people who have no capital...Poor defendants are represented by lawyers who are paid meager fees and spend an average of two days on the case. ... Most of the major religious bodies in this country -- Methodist, American Baptist, National Baptist, all except for Southern Baptist -- oppose the death penalty. ...It's interesting to me that killing [supposedly] damages the image of God when it's done by a person, but it doesn't damage it when it's done by the state... [The death penalty] extends the cycle of violence; it affirms killing as an acceptable means of resolving social problems."

John Carr explained that the Catholic church believes that the state has the:

"... right to execute people, but other ways have evolved to protect society, specifically the penal system, and that the state ought to forego the right to execute people and protect society in other ways."

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Debating in support of capital punishment:

Nathan Diament noted that there is no consensus on this issue among Jews. He said if one had to:

"... sum up the position of my organization as the umbrella group for orthodox synagogues around the country in a pithy sound bite, I would say, we're not abolitionists, but we are for a moratorium."

According to the Associated Baptist Press:

"Barrett Duke, acknowledging that the state has undoubtedly convicted innocent people and that the death penalty has problems related to race and economics, said he opposes a moratorium while problems are studied."

His concern about a moratorium is that many of its supporters:

"... see it as simply the first step to the abolition of capital punishment, not a real effort to try to change the system." [The SBC's prime concern is] that someone who is innocent might be executed. We are not oblivious to that accusation...If there is not clear and overwhelming evidence of guilt, then capital punishment should not be sought, should not be practiced...such a possibility is less likely today than it has ever been. There are more secure ways of determining guilt than there have ever been. It is the state's responsibility to protect the image of God, in which we are created. Referring to a resolution at their year 2000 assembly Duke said: "Southern Baptists did decide to speak on this issue, so we need to show up and take the heat wherever we get invited to do that."

The resolution approved at the SBC's year 2000 assembly says, in part, that:

"God authorized capital punishment for murder after the Noahic Flood, validating its legitimacy in human society...[messengers (delegates of the SBC)] support the fair and equitable use of capital punishment by civil magistrates as a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death."

Duke said that:

"... historically Southern Baptists have supported capital punishment in our rank and file. There were some attempts in the late '60s to have Southern Baptists actually go on record opposed to capital punishment...Southern Baptist rank and file rejected that as an option. ... [Support for the death penalty] is a biblical position. And we do believe that the Bible continues to be relevant for life today."

Commenting on the race and economic issues, he said:

"To us, they are real issues, and we call for a study, and we call for change in the way this is done so that there is not racial or economic inequity in the system. However, we do acknowledge that the state has the right to execute those who have violated certain laws."

Question-and-answer session after the debate:

On the subject of executing mentally ill persons, Duke said:

"There is a point at which we must say that a person is not mentally competent to really have been able to understand the consequences of his actions, and that that should be taken into consideration. And in some of those, there are certain circumstances capital punishment would not be appropriate."

Referring to Lowery's comparison of  the '"Bible Belt to the killing belt," Duke said:

"there are more evangelicals in the South, in terms of percentage, who attempt to apply the biblical teachings to life. And their conclusion, then, when they do that is that capital punishment is an appropriate response, under certain circumstances, for a civil government."

Lowery countered:

"You interpret the Bible to conform to Southern mores. The same argument was used to justify slavery. That's why they dehumanized black folk, so they could enslave them. And there were a lot of biblical arguments for that. It is the section of the country that is the most armed. The Bible Belt is the belt with the gun in the holster...We've lost reverence for life. And you don't protect society by making killers of all of us because one of us kills."

Additional religious and moral considerations:

Additional points are:

bulletWhat the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) says:
bulletVarious passages in the Bible support capital punishment and give the state the power to end a person's life.

bulletConflicting with the above is a passage in Genesis 4:11-15. Cain, guilty of murdering his brother, was penalized by being made "a fugitive and a vagabond." But God protected Cain's life by placing a curse on anyone who killed him.

bulletThe Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) required the death penalty for over dozen "crimes" in addition to murder: teaching the wrong religion, being an unbeliever and wandering into the temple, working on Saturday, being disrespectful towards one's parents, etc. Almost all democracies have abandoned capital punishment entirely. The U.S. has abandoned the death penalty for all of the grounds listed in the Bible, except for murder.

bulletWhat do U.S. states and the rest of the world do?
bullet Since 1990, Texas and Virginia have joined Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen in the execution of child murderers -- -- a person who committed the crime while under the age of 18. Yemen has since discontinued the practice.

bulletAs of 2001-MAR, twenty five states in the U.S. allow persons who are mentally ill or mentally disadvantaged to be sentenced to death. They are the only democratic jurisdictions in the world to do so. A very few dictatorships also allow this practice.  Between 1976 and 2000-NOV, at least 35 mentally disadvantaged individuals were executed in the U.S.

bulletU.S. Public opinion polls:
bulletThey consistently show that most adults prefer to retain rather than abandon capital punishment if they are required to choose between only these two alternatives.

bulletPolls consistently show that most adults prefer alternatives to the death penalty, when that is given as an option.


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

  1. A transcript is available at the web site at:
  2. Kenny Byrd, "Southern Baptist, civil-rights leader spar on ethics of death penalty," Associated Baptist Press, 2001-JUN-21. See:

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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