Thou Shalt Not Kill

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Christians are drifting away in their support of the death penalty.


Conservative religious groups, representing an enormous constituency and wielding obvious political clout, may be the power that turns the tide of public opinion decisively against the death penalty. Strong support for capital punishment among Christian conservatives has long led an uneasy coexistence with ideals of life, love and tolerance, but until recently this hypocrisy stood unquestioned in the public arena. In the past couple of years, however, Catholic leaders have firmly established the Church's opposition to the death penalty, while leaders of the fundamentalist Christian community have experienced a dramatic turnaround in their stance on the issue. With the support of these leaders comes the possibility that one day soon the majority of Americans may actively oppose the death penalty.

The 1998 execution of Karla Faye Tucker, who became a born-again Christian while in prison, shattered faith in capital punishment in the right-wing evangelical community. Led by Pat Robertson, Christian conservatives had called for clemency in Tucker's case, citing her religious conversion as a reason for mercy. When their efforts failed and Tucker was executed, Robertson was horrified, denouncing the "animal vengeance" corrupting American society. Soon after Tucker's execution, the leading evangelical publication Christianity Today ran an editorial with the revolutionary headline "Evangelical Instincts Against Her Execution Were Right, But Not Because She Was a Christian." Criticizing capital punishment as discriminatory and vengeful, the editors concluded that "the death penalty has outlived its usefulness." To the delight of abolitionist groups, Robertson went even further this past April when he voiced his support for a general moratorium on the death penalty. This move, coming from a man who as recently as 1988 called capital punishment "a necessary corrective to violent crime," highlights just how radically discussion of the issue has evolved among Christian fundamentalists.

Catholics received a similar wake-up call in January of 1999, when the Pope made his opposition to the death penalty a public focus of his visit to the United States. In a speech in St. Louis, he used the strongest language against the death penalty he has ever used in this country, stressing that "the new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life…in every situation." He also made a dramatic (and successful) appeal to Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan to spare the life of death-row inmate Darrell Mease. The Pope's zeal, and his willingness to use his position to push his political views, underscore the potential influence of religious organizations on policy. While it is too soon to tell what impact recent events will have on the religious right, the Pope's speech spurred Catholics to assume an increasingly activist role. A few months after the Pope's visit, Massachusetts bishops fiercely denounced legislation that would have restored the death penalty in their state. Bernard Cardinal Law testified against the bill before the Massachusetts legislature and warned at a press conference that for a Catholic to support the death penalty would be "wrong, morally evil and a sin." Similar legislation had failed to pass by only one vote in 1997, but this time it failed by a seven-vote margin. Newspaper accounts noted a change in the public mood from two years earlier, citing the "moral authority" of Law's intensive lobbying as a possible reason for the change.

Growing political activism among Catholics and evangelical Christians builds on a strong tradition of religious anti-death-penalty activism. The national coalition Religious Organizing Against the Death Penalty Project provides an impressive array of educational materials for use in religious communities; it also sponsors conferences and demonstrations all over the country. Its conference in November 1999 was the largest gathering of abolitionist groups in the history of the movement. It focused in part on organizing techniques for religious communities. ROADP is supported by numerous grassroots religious abolitionist groups, among them People of Faith Against the Death Penalty in North Carolina. PFADP has organized more than sixty protests over the past two years and has persuaded three cities and one county in North Carolina to pass moratorium resolutions. Its moratorium campaign is linked to the larger Moratorium 2000 petition movement, led by Sr. Helen Prejean and the faith-based Quixote Center. This past fall, California People of Faith Working Against the Death Penalty held its annual "Weekend of Faith in Action," in which religious congregations across California spend two days organizing their local communities to take action against capital punishment.

Religious groups add energy and accessibility to a movement that not long ago seemed too radical to appeal to the American mainstream. If Catholics and fundamentalists follow their leadership in crusading against the death penalty, public sentiment may bring abolitionism back into fashion. Let's hope religious conservatives win this battle in their war for the American soul.

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