Is the death penalty moral? What do religious groups say?

With Arizona’s execution of convicted murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood III on July 23, 2014, the question of the morality of the death penalty has again come to the fore. Some of those who witnessed the execution said Wood took more than 90 minutes to die and was gasping throughout. Others said the inmate seemed to die snoring peacefully.

Most Americans say they support the death penalty. Sixty-one percent view the death penalty as morally acceptable, according to a May 2014 Gallup poll, and only once has that figure dipped below 60 percent in the last 13 years. But that consistency can mask a simmering national debate about the efficacy, morality and even legitimacy of the death penalty — a debate that frequently and increasingly involves religious groups and religious people.

Background

The capital punishment debate has raised many questions about the relationship between pragmatism and moral principle. The issue is complicated when the guilt of the person convicted of the crime is dubious. Since 1973, more than 130 people have been released from death row after being found innocent due to new evidence or technological advances.

Many death penalty opponents base their views on research that indicates the death penalty is ineffective as a deterrent to crime or is racially biased against minorities. Others point to the huge financial burden death penalty cases put on the government, a burden that often limits the quality of lawyers appointed to defend the accused. Yet those who oppose capital punishment on moral reasoning say such considerations should not be foremost and could backfire if subsequent research undermines those arguments.

Proponents of the death penalty say that executing the guilty is a matter of justice, and many cite scripture and religious tradition to bolster their position. They also say citizens have a right to use capital punishment if it protects them against criminals, especially terrorists.

Still, the United States is increasingly seen as a global anomaly. It is one of few industrialized nations that still sanction the death penalty. Some argue that this stance erodes the moral authority of the United States. Only Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and China execute more prisoners, according to Amnesty International.

The death penalty has seen many legal changes through the years: In 1972, in the culmination of a series of rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively barred capital punishment, which was on the books in 40 states. But in 1976, the court ruled that several new statutes were constitutional and that the death penalty itself was constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. That effectively reinstated the use of capital punishment.

From 2002 to 2014, the high court made four significant death penalty rulings. In 2008 it ruled that Kentucky’s lethal injection method is not a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against “cruel and unusual punishment,” and the high court struck down a law that allowed people convicted of raping a child to be executed. In 2005 the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, abolished capital punishment for juvenile offenders. The majority ruled that the death penalty for minors is cruel and unusual punishment, and the decision cited a “national consensus” against the practice. The decision overturned a 1989 ruling that had upheld the death penalty for offenders as young as 16 and 17 years old. In 2002, the high court banned capital punishment for the moderately mentally retarded.

With 515 executions since 1976, Texas eclipses all other states in number of executions — Oklahoma has the second highest number of executions, with 111. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice maintains a website with information on past executions and all those that are scheduled. The site lists the offenders’ crime along with a picture, their race, date of birth and last statement if they have already been executed. It is the most comprehensive archive of executed persons in the country.

Religious opinion

American religious attitudes toward the death penalty are largely formed by the Judeo-Christian ethic, which is based on citations from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, as well as rabbinic and Christian tradition. But religious leaders and adherents can cite Scripture and tradition to back different views.

Here are some of the salient references often cited in the debates:

  • The so-called lex talionis, the “eye for an eye” law of ancient Judaism, is cited by those who support capital punishment.
  • The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is cited by opponents of the death penalty.
  • In Genesis 9:6, God says to Noah: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” This is seen as a justification for the death penalty.
  • The episode in the Gospel of John (Chapter Eight) in which Jesus defends the woman caught in adultery is cited by some Christians as showing that Jesus set aside the death penalty as a justifiable punishment.
  • Christian supporters of capital punishment also cite the words of the Apostle Paul in Chapter 13 of the New Testament Epistle to the Romans, in which he states that the Christians must be subject to secular authorities because “those that exist have been instituted by God.” He also says that authorities justly “bear the sword.”

Jewish tradition generally holds that the death penalty is allowed in principle, but in practice its use is almost never condoned. A famous observation of the 12th-century Jewish sage Maimonides is often invoked in this regard: “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” The main branches of Judaism do differ to some degree in their emphases.

The Quran, and Islamic teaching generally, are seen as allowing the death penalty under certain circumstances. But as in most religious communities, there is some variance on when and whether capital punishment should be used. The variance in views is not, however, considered as diverse as it is in Christianity, for example.

Why it matters

The death penalty debate epitomizes the impact of religion in the public square, encompassing issues of religious belief, interpretation of scripture and justice.

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Other resources

  • “Public Opinion on the Death Penalty”

    Read a September 2011 summary by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life about American public opinion on the death penalty during the last 50 years. The analysis shows large differences in opinions, with blacks and Latinos expressing greater opposition than other Americans.

  • Capital punishment timeline

    For more detailed information on legal developments in the death penalty in America, see a timeline by the Clark County, Ind., prosecuting attorney’s office.

  • PollingReport.com: Crime/Law enforcement/Criminal justice

    Pollingreport.com posts opinion polls about the death penalty among other topics like crime and violence.

  • Death Penalty

    The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has a policy page on death penalty resources.

  • “Death Penalty Assessments”

    See state-by-state reports on statistics and action on death penalty issues from the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project.

National sources

Christian organizations that support the death penalty

  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

    Headquartered in Salt Lake City, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a presence in several countries.

    The church teaches that capital punishment can be an appropriate penalty for murder, but only after a civil trial. Read a church statement.

    Contact: 801-240-1670.
  • National Association of Evangelicals

    The National Association of Evangelicals is an organization that includes 45,000 congregations from 40 member denominations, individual congregations from an additional 27 denominations, and 250 parachurch ministries and educational institutions. Its mission is to gather, strengthen and expand the evangelical community. Galen Carey is vice president for government relations.

    Contact: 202-789-1011.
  • Southern Baptist Convention

    The Southern Baptist Convention, with about 16 million members, is the largest group within the evangelical world, as well as the second-largest faith group in America (behind Catholics).

    Read a 2000 statement and a Baptist Press report on the SBC’s endorsement of the death penalty. Hayes Wicker is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Naples, Fla., and chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention committee that authored a resolution in support of the death penalty.

    Contact: 615-244-2355.

Christian organizations that oppose the death penalty

  • National Council of Churches

    The National Council of Churches is an association of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, evangelical, historic African-American and Living Peace churches that represents more than 30 denominations and 45 million people. It is active in economic justice issues.

     

    The council called for a moratorium on the death penalty.

  • Orthodox Church in America

    The Orthodox Church in America website gives a detailed explanation of the faith. It also lists the 19 self-governing and self-ruling Orthodox churches worldwide, which include the OCA. (The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is directly under the authority of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople in Turkey, and is not administratively related to the Church of Greece.)  Primate of the Orthodox Church in America (historically Russian) is Metropolitan Tikhon, located in Syosset, N.Y. Find local parishes.

  • Presbyterian Church (USA)

    The Presbyterian Church (USA) is the largest Presbyterian body in the United States.

    The church called for a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000. Read a chronology of the PCUSA statements on capital punishment.

  • U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

    The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has raised concerns about a range of freedom of conscience questions related to protection of life issues and supports including conscience provisions in proposed funding bills.

    In March 2005 the conference launched the Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty. The conference’s web page provides a fact sheet, statements from Catholic conferences and officials broken down by state and region, and statements on church teaching about the death penalty from the Vatican. The site also has links to various amicus briefs filed by the Catholic hierarchy.

Jewish organizations

  • Orthodox Union

    The Orthodox Union is the educational and outreach arm of Orthodox Judaism. It is generally considered a Modern Orthodox organization. Among its main concerns is helping Jews keep kosher and strengthening their traditional rituals, practices and holiday observances. It posts a page that allows users to search for Orthodox synagogues by state. Rabbi Steven Weil is senior managing director.

    The group called for a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000 so the fairness of the way it is applied could be reviewed, though it noted that traditional Judaism generally condones the death penalty.

  • United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is an association of 760 Conservative congregations and 1.5 million members in North America. Rabbi Steven Wernick is CEO.

    Conservative Judaism has taken a position that the death penalty should be abolished, for all practical purposes.

Muslim organizations

  • Minaret of Freedom Institute

    The Minaret of Freedom Institute, based in Bethesda, Md., conducts independent scholarly research into issues involving Islam in the U.S. and policy issues affecting Muslim countries. The institute’s emphasis is on Islam, freedom and free markets, and the political and economic implications of Islamic law.

    Read a November 2001 essay in which president and director Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad reflects on Islam and the death penalty, particularly in the American context.

Secular organizations that support the death penalty

  • Criminal Justice Legal Foundation

    The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, based in Sacramento, Calif., is a nonprofit organization whose purpose is “to assure that people who are guilty of committing crimes receive swift and certain punishment in an orderly and constitutional manner.” Michael Rushford is president, and Kent Scheidegger is legal director/general counsel.

    The foundation maintains a page of resources on the death penalty.

  • Justice For All

    Justice For All is a victims’ rights and criminal justice organization that focuses on reducing and prosecuting homicide cases based in Houston. The organization maintains Pro-Death Penalty, a resource site that lists information about victims, and MurderVictims.com.

Secular organizations that oppose the death penalty

  • Campaign to End the Death Penalty

    The Campaign to End the Death Penalty is a Chicago-based group that describes itself as “the only national membership-driven, chapter-based grassroots organization dedicated to the abolition of capital punishment in the United States.”

  • Death Penalty Information Center

    The Death Penalty Information Center opposes capital punishment and tracks recent developments as well as legislation on the death penalty. Richard Dieter is executive director. Contact through Anne Holsinger.

  • Equal Justice USA

    Equal Justice USA is a secular grassroots organization that works to end the death penalty and redirect criminal justice resources toward crime prevention at the community and state levels. The group has a staff member who does outreach to religious conservatives, especially evangelicals. Shari Silberstein is executive director.

  • Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation

    Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation was founded in 1976 as an organization for family members who have a relative who was murdered and who oppose the death penalty. Jack Sullivan Jr. is the executive director.

  • National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

    The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty is a network of more than 100 organizations dedicated to abolishing the death penalty state by state. Diann Rust-Tierney is executive director.

  • Southern Center for Human Rights

    The Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta “provides legal representation to people facing the death penalty, challenges human rights violations in prisons and jails, seeks through litigation and advocacy to improve legal representation for poor people accused of crimes, and advocates for criminal justice system reforms on behalf of those affected by the system in the Southern United States.” The center focuses on issues of discrimination in the application of the death penalty. Media inquiries should be directed to Kathryn Hamoudah.

Individuals

  • Harold W. Attridge

    Harold W. Attridge is Sterling Professor of Divinity at Yale University Divinity School. He is the author of The Bible and the Death Penalty.

  • Heather Beaudoin

    Heather Beaudoin is a national organizer for Equal Justice USA, a grassroots organization that focuses on repealing the death penalty. She handles the organization’s outreach to conservative religious groups and has experience with evangelicals. She is based in Kalamazoo, Mich.

  • James E. Coleman Jr.

    James E. Coleman Jr. is a law professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He chaired the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project from 2001-06.

  • Davison Douglas

    Davison Douglas is a law professor at the College of William & Mary’s Marshall-Wythe School of Law. He is an expert in constitutional law, civil rights law and the relationship between law and religion.

    He wrote “God and the Executioner: The Influence of Western Religion on the Death Penalty” for the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal in 2000. He noted the difference in attitudes between the pulpit and the pew and suggested that the fate of the death penalty in America will probably be decided in the realm of the secular, not the sacred.

  • Herbert H. Haines

    Herbert H. Haines is a sociology professor at the State University of New York, College at Cortland. He studies social movements for criminal justice reform and is the author of Against Capital Punishment: The Anti-Death Penalty Movement in America, 1972-1994.

  • James J. Megivern

    James J. Megivern is an emeritus professor of religion at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. He is an expert on Christian ethics and capital punishment and is author of The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey.

  • Mark Lewis Taylor

    Mark Lewis Taylor is Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. He wrote Religion, Politics and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers and American Empire and The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America. He is a commentator on American culture and politics. He has written articles on hip-hop and religion. His expertise also includes race, U.S. prisons, the death penalty and contemporary anti-war movements.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Stephen P. Garvey

    Stephen P. Garvey is a professor at Cornell Law School in New York who has taught courses on capital punishment and the philosophy of criminal law. He has written numerous articles on the death penalty and represented death row inmates.

  • James S. Liebman

    James S. Liebman is Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Law at Columbia Law School in New York. He specializes in criminal law, ethics and capital punishment.

    Liebman co-wrote the landmark study “A Broken System, Error Rates in Capital Cases 1973-1995.” The report found that 68 percent of all death verdicts imposed and fully reviewed during the 1973-95 study period were reversed by the courts due to serious error. The study was released in 2000.

  • David Masci

    David Masci is a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project in Washington, D.C. Masci previously worked for 14 years as a journalist for Congressional Quarterly.

    He is the author of a December 2007 analysis (updated in 2008) of issues regarding the death penalty in the United States.

  • Erik C. Owens

    Erik C. Owens is associate director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Owens has written widely on religious arguments about the death penalty, and he co-edited the book Religion and the Death Penalty: A Call for Reckoning.

  • Carol Steiker

    Carol Steiker is a professor at Harvard Law School and an expert on the death penalty and criminal law.

In the South

  • John K. Cochran

    John K. Cochran is a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida in Tampa and has written widely on religion and crime.

    A death penalty expert, he wrote the article “Religion, Punitive Justice and Support for the Death Penalty” for Justice Quarterly.

  • Timothy J. Floyd

    Timothy J. Floyd is director of the Law & Public Service Program at Mercer University School of Law in Macon, Ga. He is an expert on the death penalty and served as defense counsel in the first case in the nation under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994. His primary research interest is legal ethics, especially how moral theology applies to the practice of law. He wrote “What’s Going On? Christian Ethics and the Modern American Death Penalty” for the Texas Tech Law Review in 2001.

  • Dan Malone

    Dan Malone is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for various magazines and newspapers in Texas. He has taught classes at Tarleton State University and the University of North Texas. His writing and research interests include the death penalty, immigration and criminal justice. Malone is co-author of America’s Condemned: Death Row Inmates in Their Own Words.

  • Jim Marcus

    Jim Marcus is co-director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Capital Punishment Clinic. The clinic gives students the opportunity to help represent indigent criminal defendants in capital cases.

  • People of Faith Against the Death Penalty

    People of Faith Against the Death Penalty is a nonprofit, interfaith organization based in North Carolina whose mission is to educate and mobilize faith communities, particularly in the South, to act to abolish the death penalty in the United States.

    Contact: 919-933-7567.
  • Helen Prejean

    Sister Helen Prejean is a Roman Catholic nun and author of Dead Man Walking, an account of her ministry with death row inmates in Louisiana’s Angola State Prison that was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 1996. Her most recent book is The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions. Prejean, whose office is in New Orleans, is one of the most popular and outspoken opponents of the death penalty.

  • William P. Quigley

    William P. Quigley is a law professor and director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University New Orleans. He is the author of Ending Poverty as We Know It: Guaranteeing a Right to a Job at a Living Wage.

    Quigley is a public interest lawyer who has represented defendants or convicts in death penalty cases. In 2003 he wrote an open letter to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia responding to Scalia’s criticism of Catholic social justice teaching against the death penalty.

  • Dudley Sharp

    Dudley Sharp of Houston is a death penalty activist who formerly opposed capital punishment but now supports it. He has been interviewed on major television and radio news and opinion programs and included in newspaper articles.

  • Ted A. Smith

    Ted A. Smith is associate professor of preaching and ethics at Emory University in Atlanta. Smith focuses on questions of ethics and justice, such as the death penalty, in a democratic society where the majority may support ethically problematic measures.

In the Midwest

  • Joseph Bottum

    Joseph Bottum is an author based in South Dakota and a former editor of the conservative-leaning interfaith journal First Things. Contact through Random House publicist Katie Moore.

    He argued against the use of capital punishment in an essay titled “Christians and the Death Penalty,” in the journal’s August/September 2005 edition.

  • Joseph L. Hoffmann

    Joseph L. Hoffmann is Harry Pratter Professor of Law at Indiana University-Bloomington. He is an expert on the death penalty and federal criminal law.

  • John C. McAdams

    John C. McAdams is a political scientist at Marquette University in Milwaukee whose research focuses on congressional politics, social class and elections and capital punishment. He has written that he favors capital punishment, even if it doesn’t work as a deterrent.

In the West

  • E. Christian Brugger

    E. Christian Brugger is J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Professor of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. He wrote the essay “Embryos, Clones and Stem Cells” for the New Oxford Review (October 2003).

    He wrote the book Capital Punishment and Roman Catholic Moral Tradition.

  • John D. Carlson

    John D. Carlson is associate professor of religious studies at Arizona State University. His books include, as co-editor, Religion and the Death Penalty: A Call for Reckoning. His work focuses on religion, ethics and politics.

  • Mark A. Costanzo

    Mark A. Costanzo is a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. He is an expert on the death penalty, nonverbal communication, expert testimony and social psychology. He wrote Just Revenge: Costs and Consequences of the Death Penalty.

  • Gregory J. Kuykendall

    Defense lawyer Gregory J. Kuykendall specializes in capital cases and wrote about the politics of death sentencing in Arizona. He is also lead death penalty counsel to the Mexican Foreign Ministry.

  • Franklin E. Zimring

    Franklin E. Zimring is William G. Simon Professor of Law and Wolfen Distinguished Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, Law School. He specializes in issues of criminology, violence and family law.

    He has written books on capital punishment and juvenile violence.

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