New Position of National Association of Evangelicals Shows Cracks in Death Penalty Support

Recognizing that "a growing number of evangelicals now call" for a shift away from the death penalty, the National Association of Evangelicals - an umbrella group for congregations representing millions of evangelical Christians in the United States - has backed away from its prior strong support for capital punishment. A newly adopted NAE resolution states, "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. We affirm the conscientious commitment of both streams of Christian ethical thought." The resolution says "Nonpartisan studies of the death penalty have identified systemic problems in the United States" and expresses concerns about "the alarming frequency of post-conviction exonerations." Previously, the NAE had been entirely supportive of the death penalty. Shane Claiborne, an evangelical Christian author and activist, called the NAE's change, "a big deal," saying, "For evangelicals, one of the core tenets of our faith is that no one is beyond redemption. The death penalty raises one of the most fundamental questions for evangelicals: Do we have the right to rob someone of the possibility of redemption?" According to a Pew Research Center poll from March 2015, white evangelical Protestants were more supportive of the death penalty than any other group, with 71% in favor, although support had dropped 6 percentage points since 2011. 

The resolution raised concerns about innocence, saying, "Realizing the limitations of our system and the morally disastrous nature of any error, some jurisdictions have either abolished or placed a moratorium on the death penalty, choosing instead the sentence of life imprisonment without parole and bringing both executions and death sentences to a record low." It concluded by calling for broad criminal justice reforms: "Despite differing views on capital punishment, evangelicals are united in calling for reform to our criminal justice system. Such reform should improve public safety, provide restitution to victims, rehabilitate and restore offenders, and eliminate racial and socio-economic inequities in law enforcement, prosecution and sentencing of defendants." Samuel Rodriguez, the head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said millennials and non-white evangelicals are causing the decline in support. A 2014 Barna Group poll found that millennial Christians were 10 points less supportive of capital punishment than baby boomer Christians. Earlier this year, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition adopted a resolution calling for abolition of the death penalty.

("Resolution: Capital Punishment," National Association of Evangelicals, 2015; S. Pulliam Bailey, "The National Association of Evangelicals has changed its position on the death penalty," The Washington Post, October 19, 2015; "Interview: 'We must include our restorative gospel to those incarcerated,'” Evangelical Focus, October 22, 2015.) See New Voices and Religion.