Most denominations say 'no' to capital punishment; support for death penalty declines

by Gregory Tomlin, |
A news assistant runs past anti-death penalty demonstrators to his co-workers in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, copies of the court's decision in his hand, June 29, 2015. The Supreme Court ruled that a drug used by Oklahoma as part of its lethal injection procedure does not violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, dealing a setback to opponents of the death penalty. A new survey from Gallup shows support for the death penalty falling, but no where near its lowest levels in 1967. | REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) – The majority of Americans still support the death penalty for those convicted of murder, but support for the punishment has declined precipitously since 1994, a new survey from Gallup claims.

According to the survey, about six in 10 Americans (61 percent) still believe capital punishment is acceptable. In 1994, support for the death penalty reached its highest point of 80 percent.

The 61 percent figure is by far not the lowest level of support for capital punishment since Gallup began measuring opinions on the matter. In 1967, support for the sentence dropped to 47 percent, leading to a near cessation of the practice. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in some cases, such as rape, but reinstated it with tighter controls in 1976. Many states, such as California, later banned the penalty, but also allowed it again years later.

The reduction in the number of people who support the death penalty remains high in spite of the fact that the punishment is handed down far less than it once was, Gallup reported.

"In May, Nebraska became the 19th state (along with D.C.) to ban the death penalty, and the seventh state since 2007. Meanwhile, the number of death sentences issued in 2014 was the lowest since the reinstatement of the punishment in 1976, and the number of executions carried out in 2014 was one of the lowest on record," Gallup said.

The decline in support for the death penalty in the U.S. also appears to be occurring independent of calls for its abolition. In September, Pope Francis said in his address before Congress that the "Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of development."

"This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty," the pontiff said.

"I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation."

A large number of American church groups believe the death penalty either no longer works as a deterrent or is simply unchristian. The United Methodist Church, United Churches of Christ, Presbyterian Church (USA), Orthodox Church in America, Evangelical Luther Church in America, Episcopal Church, and American Baptists oppose the death penalty in their official policy statements.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints claims it "regards the question of whether and in what circumstances the state should impose capital punishment as a matter to be decided solely by the prescribed processes of civil law. We neither promote nor oppose capital punishment."

A similar position is taken by the Assemblies of God, who regard capital punishment as a legitimate course of action on the part of the government, but who encourage its use with caution.

"There is room in the church for honest differences of opinion concerning the use of capital punishment. However, all believers should seek to apply biblical principles in reaching their conclusions: the sacredness of human life (of the criminal as well as of the victim), the need of all mankind to repent, and the power of God to transform even the most violent sinners. These truths must be balanced with the obligation of government to protect its citizens, helping them to live quiet and peaceful lives," the statement on capital punishment from the Assemblies of God reads.

Among America's larger denominations, only the Southern Baptist Convention – the nation's largest non-Catholic religious denomination – has an affirmative stance on capital punishment. In 2000 in Florida, messengers to the annual convention passed a resolution acknowledging their "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."

The resolution claimed capital punishment should only be employed when the evidence of guilt was "overwhelming," and be applied as "justly and as fairly as possible without undue delay, without reference to the race, class, or status of the guilty."

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the conservative branch of the Lutheran Church in the U.S., also says it believes capital punishment is acceptable. 

Just as differences exist among religious bodies, they also exists along racial lines and according to political affiliation. Blacks are largely unsupportive of the death penalty (55 percent oppose it), while only 39 percent support it. That is likely because blacks, only 13 percent of the U.S. population, make up 42 percent of the death row inmate population, Gallup said. Sixty-eight percent of whites claim they are in favor of the death penalty.

Among Democrats, 49 percent support the death penalty. Nearly eight in 10 Republicans (82 percent) still support capital punishment.