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Is the death penalty in line with biblical teaching?
Is the death penalty in line with biblical teaching? That's a theological question that is increasingly dividing American Christians, particularly evangelicals. - photo by Billy Hallowell
Is the death penalty in line with biblical teaching? That's a theological question that is increasingly dividing American Christians, particularly evangelicals.

It's no secret that some prominent evangelical voices have become more vocal about their opposition of late. Among them is the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

Rodriguez, who said in 2014 that he was conflicted on the issue, now fervently opposes capital punishment, telling Deseret News this week, "As a Christian committed to the sanctity of life, I am vehemently opposed to the death penalty."

The pastor said he considers himself a conservative Christian, believing his stance on the matter "reflects an undisputed continuum" when it comes to observing the sanctity and value of life.

"Supporting the death penalty and being pro-life, in my opinion, creates nothing less than a theological and a moral conflict," he said. "If we are pro-life, we must be pro-life from the moment of conception to the moment we leave this planet."

It's a perspective that Rodriguez adopted after extensively exploring cases where there was "ambiguity ... regarding the culpability of death row inmates."

Rodriguez's statements come amid reports that conservative Hispanic evangelical groups are now more vocally opposing the death penalty. The Rev. Gabriel Salguero, founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, for instance, recently cited studies pointing to inequality when it comes to the death penalty.

"The needle has moved for Latinos and evangelicals," Salguero told Fox News Latino. "Botched executions and advancements in DNA science have awakened us to a moral response."

Christian author Shane Claiborne agrees. The activist released a new book this summer detailing his opposition to the death penalty titled, "In Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Its Killing Us."

"(The death penalty) opens up a whole lot of other important issues like race and economic inequity and how the death penalty is applied even things like the role of government," Claiborne said in a recent interview with Relevant Magazine. "How much do we trust our government with an irreversible power over life and death, considering our history of slavery and racial injustice in our country?"

The evangelical divide

But the views held by evangelicals like Rodriguez and Salguero are seemingly still in the minority, as polls show the majority of evangelicals still support capital punishment, though the tides might be shifting.

The Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of white evangelical Protestants expressed support for the death penalty in 2015. That proportion was down from 77 percent in 2011. Among white mainline Protestants, the proportion decreased from 73 percent in 2011 to 66 percent in 2015.

Support among black Protestants also decreased slightly from 40 percent to 37 percent during the same time period. Polling has also shown that Millennial evangelicals are much less supportive of capital punishment as well.

The proof of changing tides, though, goes beyond explorations of public opinion. In October 2015, The National Association of Evangelicals, an organization that represents 45,000 churches across 40 denominations, adopted a resolution that softened its once-staunch support for the death penalty.

The new-found language represents both sides of the capital punishment debate, acknowledging that evangelicals hold divergent views on the matter.

"Evangelical Christians differ in their beliefs about capital punishment, often citing strong biblical and theological reasons either for the just character of the death penalty in extreme cases or for the sacredness of all life, including the lives of those who perpetrate serious crimes and yet have the potential for repentance and reformation," the statement reads, in part. "We affirm the conscientious commitment of both streams of Christian ethical thought."

The text notes that evangelicals can find agreement more generally in calling for criminal justice reform, but that increased debate over capital punishment has come amid cases of "documented wrongful convictions."

As a result, the NAE noted that a growing number of evangelicals are now calling for the government to shift resources toward life in prison without parole rather than toward sustaining and carrying out capital punishment.

Still, the resolution makes it clear that many in the movement still support the death penalty, seeing it as a path toward justice and healing and a crime deterrent.

Death penalty support

Influential evangelical leader R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, penned an op-ed for CNN in 2014 in which he proclaimed that Christians should support the death penalty.

"In the simplest form, the Bible condemns murder and calls for the death of the murderer," Mohler wrote. "The one who intentionally takes life by murder forfeits the right to his own life."

But he also said there is a high biblical benchmark when it comes to capital murder, saying murder charges were required to be backed by eyewitnesses and unjust punishment must be avoided at all costs.

While he said the Bible "envisions a society in which capital punishment for murder is sometimes necessary," he wrote it "should be exceedingly rare." Mohler called for a just society in which the death penalty operates in a fair manner, condemning economic and racial injustices that often plague the system.

Christian website has also tackled the death penalty issue, imploring Christians not to patently reject capital punishment, while also not rejoicing over it when it is exercised.

"It is unbiblical to claim that God opposes the death penalty in all instances," the web portal explains. "Christians should never rejoice when the death penalty is employed, but at the same time, Christians should not fight against the governments right to execute the perpetrators of the most evil of crimes."

Respectful disagreement

It's clear the debate has increased in recent years, but despite disagreement within the evangelical ranks, NAE President Leith Anderson said in a statement to Deseret News that both sides attempt to approach the divide with respect.

"Any differences among evangelicals over the death penalty are increasingly addressed with respect of each others' views and discussion of biblical teaching," he said. "This doesn't mean that all will agree in the foreseeable future but that the issue is open for thoughtful discussion."

It should be noted that NAE's middle-ground approach to the capital punishment issue paints a starkly different picture from the 1972 statement that the organization previously adopted one that indicated support for the death penalty; and a 1973 resolution that affirmed the strongly worded sentiment.

"If no crime is considered serious enough to warrant capital punishment, then the gravity of the most atrocious crime is diminished accordingly," the statement read, going on to say that criminals' attitudes would be affected if it were ceased. "From the biblical perspective, if capital punishment is eliminated, the value of human life is reduced and the respect for life is correspondingly eroded."

Against this historical backdrop, Rodriguez predicts there will be a "great shift" in the next 20 years in which the majority of evangelicals no longer support capital punishment, bringing the movement in line with what he believes to be the proper biblical and moral understanding.

While some would point to biblical commandments to back their support for capital punishment, Rodriguez said traditional evangelical support has everything to do with political influence.

"Historical evangelical support for the death penalty emerges not out of a theological imperative, but more out of a political worldview," he said. "It is consistent with a law and order sort of political, civil modus operandi."

Rodriguez said he wants to be sure "criminals are punished," he also said he believes in restorative justice, if and when possible. If such a prospect is not possible, he believes permanent detainment behind bars is most prudent.
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