Only 5 percent of Americans believe that Jesus would support government’s ability to execute the worst criminals. Two percent of Catholics, 8 percent of Protestants, and 10 percent of practicing Christians said their faith’s founder would offer his support.
The Barna poll revealed that 42% of Christian Baby Boomers believe the government should have the right to execute the worst criminals (whatever Jesus might think).
But pose the same question to Christian millennials (roughly those between 18 and 30) and only 32% give an affirmative answer.
Things get really interesting when the death penalty question is posed to Christians who are particularly serious about their faith. The Barna study
“showed an even sharper difference in support for the death penalty among “practicing Christians,” which Barna defined as those who say faith is very important to their lives and have attended church at least once in the last month. Nearly half of practicing Christian boomers support the government’s right to execute the worst criminals, while only 23 percent of practicing Christian millennials do.”
Did you catch that?
When you ask boomers about the death penalty, religious devotion increases support for the death penalty by ten points (give or take); but devout millennials are ten point less likely to support the death penalty than the nominally religious members of their cohort.
This cartoon from the pen of Ronald Giles first appeared in the London Daily Express in 1956, but it was reprised in the Edmonton Journal a decade later when the death penalty debate was white hot. John Diefenbaker, Canadian Prime Minister and leader of the Canadian Conservative Party, introduced the practice of commuting every death sentence in 1962, but the debate raged throughout the 1960s and capital punishment, in theory if not in practice, survived in Canada until 1976. (Diefenbaker and Tommy Douglas, incidentally, are both Saskatchewan Baptists who made it big in Canadian politics.)
Public opinion on the death penalty, in Canada and elsewhere, can fluctuate wildly over time. Only 18% of the Canadian population favored capital punishment immediately after WW2, but support for the grisly institution gradually increased from that point on.
The strongest argument in favor of the death penalty was that it could save the lives of police officers and prison guards by providing a deterrent.
But, as this story on NPR’s Morning Edition makes clear, responsibility for carrying out capital sentences falls primarily on the shoulders of prison officials, often with dreadful consequences. Dr. Jay Chapman, the man who originated the drug cocktail used for executions in most states, explains that his formula was commonly used by veterinarians to put down animals. But veterinarians know what they are doing and most of the people involved in your typical execution do not. Trained medical personnel generally refuse to participate in executions for moral reasons so prison staff get stuck with the dirty work. In most cases, the NPR piece suggests, these good people are radically unprepared, technically and emotionally, for the burden.
“This is not normal behavior for right-minded humans to engage in,” says Steve Martin, who participated in several executions in Texas in the 1980s. His job was to man the phones in case of a reprieve. He says the whole process is emotionally crippling.
The irony is that a barbaric practice designed to protect prison guards has become a source of nightmares and psychic distress for prison personnel. Last weeks botched execution in Oklahoma was more common than is commonly assumed.
Which brings me back to the cartoon at the top of the page. Ronald Giles is suggesting that support for the death penalty is driven by a crude form of blood lust personified by the Grandma who would love to see everybody hang.
Madame Defarge, a Dickens creation from A Tale of Two Cities, had good reason to resent the French aristocracy, but her lust for revenge trumped her humanity. The Daily Express cartoonist was saying the phenomenon might be universal. If we want to support prison guards, we should end the death penalty immediately. Are you a death penalty supporter? Then I urge you to listen to this wonderful piece of radio journalism.
In 1977, death row inmate Gary Mark Gilmore chose to be executed by a firing squad. Gilmore was strapped to a chair at the Utah State Prison, and five officers shot him.
The media circus that ensued prompted a group of lawmakers in nearby Oklahoma to wonder if there might be a better way to handle executions. They approached Dr. Jay Chapman, the state medical examiner at the time, who proposed using three drugs, based loosely on anesthesia procedures at the time: one drug to knock out the inmates, one to relax or paralyze them, and a final drug that would stop their hearts. (more…)
Roger Olson is Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology and Ethicsat Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He believes that capital punishment cannot be squared with the mind of Christ. I agree. What about you? AGB
Every ethicist chooses one particular social issue on which to focus — at least for a time. Unfortunately, too few have focused on capital punishment for a sufficiently sustained time to bring about a sea change in public opinion.
By Roger Olson
To this day, the majority of Americans favor capital punishment for certain crimes, in spite of — or perhaps because of — the almost overwhelming negative judgment about it on the parts of intellectuals and writers.
I believe Christian churches of all kinds ought to do more to oppose capital punishment. It ought to be a matter of status confessionis, as apartheid was declared by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, helping to lead to its downfall in South Africa. (more…)