June 6, 2001

Death Penalty Cases Stir Debate, Uncover Religious Differences

The scheduled executions of U.S. federal prisoners for the first time in nearly four decades, as well as the recent Supreme Court decision overturning the death sentence of a mentally retarded prisoner, have once again brought debate over capital punishment into the American public square. In light of recent events, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life convened a panel of religious perspectives on the death penalty, highlighting the variety of differing opinions and theological foundations on the issue.

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E.J. Dionne, Co-Chair of the Forum and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, moderated the event, noting that while “it is impossible to say that there is any religious consensus on the death penalty,” religious beliefs are closely tied to personal and public opinion on the subject. A survey recently released by the Forum and the Pew Research Center on the People and the Press found that among opponents of the death penalty, 42% cited their religious beliefs as the strongest influence on forming their position. “Reconsideration of this issue is very much going on in religious communities,” said Dionne.

This point was made clear by the panelists involved in the discussion. John Carr, representing the U.S. Catholic Conference said that “the Catholic understanding of the moral issues” involved with the death penalty “has evolved over time.” Carr said that while “the State has a right to protect society,” “changing realities in the criminal justice system” have caused the Church to question the fairness of capital punishment and ultimately to oppose its use.

In a similar vein, Nathan Diament of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America noted that Talmudic “teachings about this component of the justice system are absolutely critical” and that the Union generally supports use of capital punishment. He added, however, that because “sufficient questions have been raised” about the application of the death penalty, they have recently endorsed a moratorium on executions.

In contrast, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution last year endorsing capital punishment while not formally addressing the issue of a moratorium. Barrett Duke, of the Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, explained that “as Southern Baptists, we believe all are conceived with a right to life, but some forfeit that right by their own actions.” Duke cited passages from Genesis and Romans as part of the teaching that forms the Convention’s stance on the death penalty.

Taking a different theological view, Reverend Joseph Lowery, Co-Founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, expressed his opposition to all applications of the death penalty, noting that “forgiveness and redemption are tools of the community of faith.”

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life serves as a both a town hall and a clearinghouse of information, providing independent research, new polling information, balanced analysis, and referrals to experts in the field. In addition, the Forum provides a place to draw together many perspectives for fruitful exchange of ideas. The Forum is nonpartisan and does not take policy positions. It is supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts through a grant to Georgetown University.

Read a transcript of the event