A public debate on capital punishment.
Further religious and moral considerations.
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:
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).
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.
John Carr, of the U.S. Catholic Conference, explained his church's opposition to the death
Nathan 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:
||Race played little if any role in whether people charged with a
federal capital crime would face the death penalty.
||Whites charged with a capital crime were twice as likely as minorities
to plea bargain to a lesser charge, thus avoiding the death penalty.
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:
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.
"The poor are rigidly prosecuted but poorly defended...capital 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
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
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."
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,
"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
Duke said that:
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
"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,"
"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."
"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:
||What the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) says: |
Various passages in the Bible support
capital punishment and give the state the power to end a person's
||Conflicting 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
The 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.
||What do U.S. states and the rest of the world do?|
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
As 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.
||U.S. Public opinion polls:|
||They consistently show that most adults prefer to retain rather than
abandon capital punishment if they are required to choose between only
these two alternatives.
Polls 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.
A transcript is available at the PewForum.org web site at:
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
Originally written: 2001-JUL-3
Latest update: 2012-AUG-14
Author: B.A. Robinson