September 23, 2011

Public Opinion on the Death Penalty

A 2010 Pew Research Center survey found that most Americans (62%) continue to express support for the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, while 30% oppose it. This is nearly identical to the level of support in 2007 but somewhat lower than earlier in the 2000s and especially the 1990s. In 1996, 78% favored the death penalty and just 18% were opposed. A Gallup analysis of longer-term trends (back to the 1930s) shows that support for capital punishment peaked in the 1990s.

death-penalty-2011-1

Support for the death penalty is lower among Democrats than independents or Republicans, but even among Democrats, half (50%) are in favor of it.

death-penalty-2011-2

There are relatively modest differences  in support across religious groups, with majorities of white evangelicals (74%), white mainline Protestants (71%) and white Catholics (68%) favoring capital punishment. But less than half of black Protestants (37%) and Hispanic Catholics (43%) favor the death penalty.

About one-in-five Americans (19%) with an opinion about the death penalty say that religion is the most important influence on their thinking about the issue. A comparable number (22%) cite their education as most important. Slightly fewer cite the media or personal experience (15% each). Just 7% say the views of friends or family are the most important influence.

death-penalty-2011-3

Death penalty opponents are more apt to cite religion as the top influence on their views than are death penalty supporters. About one-third (32%) of those who oppose capital punishment cite religion, compared with 13% among those who favor it. Black Protestants (35% cite religion) and white evangelicals (31%) were the religious groups most apt to cite religion’s influence. (The 2010 survey shows that Black Protestants and white evangelicals are also among the groups who are most likely to identify religion as the biggest influence on their views about the environment, abortion and same-sex marriage). Fewer white mainline Protestants (14%) and Catholics (17%) cite religion as the biggest influence, though among opponents of the death penalty, 31% of Catholics cite religion as the top influence.

Most regular churchgoers do not report hearing about the death penalty from their clergy; just 24% say that their clergy speak out about the issue. Among Catholics, roughly one-third of regular churchgoers (32%) say they hear about the death penalty from their clergy. Despite their own low levels of support for the death penalty, black Protestants are no more likely than the average churchgoer to report that their clergy speak out on the issue.

For more details on the survey methodology, question wording and overall findings, see the full report, Few Say Religion Shapes Immigration, Environment Views.

In this research package

An Impassioned Debate
An overview of the death penalty in America.

The Death Penalty and the Supreme Court
An analysis of the arguments before the Supreme Court in Baze v. Rees.

Public Opinion on the Death Penalty
Americans continue to support the death penalty.

Religious Groups’ Official Positions on the Death Penalty
A breakdown of 16 major religious groups’ views on the death penalty.

Death Penalty Timeline
A timeline of important court cases and legal milestones since 1972.