While the new resolution, which is now the standing policy of the NAE, does not reverse its earlier position, it acknowledges evangelicals who oppose the death penalty.
A growing number of evangelicals are calling for government resources to be shifted away from the death penalty, NAE President Leith Anderson said Monday.
The change is an indication that we live in a different time than in 1973, Anderson said. At that time, the same year the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, there was a fear that the court could restrict or outlaw the death penalty, he said.
“That was before a lot of things like DNA evidence and other issues came into the discussion,” Anderson said. “It was time for an update and time for a change.”
A sizable majority of white evangelical Protestants (71 percent) support the death penalty, according to a March 2015 survey from the Pew Research Center. That support, however, has dropped some from 77 percent in 2011. Overall, the 2015 survey suggests 56 percent of Americans support the death penalty, a drop from 78 percent in 1996.
Evangelicals have served as an important constituency for some political leaders. And as an umbrella group for many evangelical denominations, the NAE can serve as a barometer for where evangelicals stand on some issues.
When President Ronald Reagan first used his famous phrase “evil empire” to refer to the Soviet Union, he made it during his address to the NAE in 1983. The NAE’s board of about 100 evangelicals includes a mix of leaders from denominations, ministries, colleges and publishers.
The change, while not a reversal in position, is significant, said Shane Claiborne, an activist in Philadelphia.
“What it shows is that there is not a consensus to be pro-capital punishment,” Claiborne said. “That’s a big deal.”
The death penalty has been part of public policy because of Christians, not in spite of them, Claiborne said.
“For evangelicals, one of the core tenets of our faith is that no one is beyond redemption,” Claiborne said. “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?”
Anderson said that the NAE’s new resolution reflects several years of discussion and tweaking of the statement, though the final vote from the board was not a debate.
“Every time there’s a trial or an execution, the discussion comes back again,” he said. Anderson declined to provide his personal view on the death penalty.
Earlier resolutions focused exclusively on arguments for the death penalty. Some evangelicals who support the death penalty often cite examples of the death penalty being used in the Bible and some say the death penalty provides a deterrent to violent crime. Some who oppose cite Jesus’ example as a peacemaker and point to wrongful convictions and inequality.
A reversal on the issue to oppose the death penalty completely would probably not fly among many of the members of denominations that sit under the NAE. The Assemblies of God, the largest denominations within the NAE’s umbrella, states that opinion among their members is “mixed” but that more people associated with the denomination favor it for certain types of crimes. George Wood, the superintendent of the Assemblies of God, could not be reached for comment Monday.
In 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant body in the United States and not part of the NAE, issued a resolution in support of the fair and equitable use of capital punishment.
Other religious traditions are less likely than evangelicals to support the death penalty. According to the most recent Pew survey, 66 percent of white mainline Protestants and 63 percent of white Catholics favor the death penalty. However, those who do not identify with a religious tradition are more divided, with 48 percent favoring the death penalty.
Millennial evangelicals and non-white evangelicals are driving an anti-death penalty message, said Samuel Rodriguez, who leads the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. As Catholics and evangelicals work together on abortion-related issues, many evangelicals have been influenced by Catholic teaching, which opposes the death penalty, he said.
“This is coming from very conservative evangelicals who are staunchly pro-life,” Rodriguez said. “They don’t see it as a liberal issue.”
Pew finds a significant racial divide on attitudes toward the death penalty, with blacks and Latinos more likely than whites to oppose it. Earlier this year, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition came out against the death penalty.
There is also a generational divide. A 2014 poll by the Barna Group found that Christian support for the death penalty is on the decline, especially among young adults. Of those polled, 42 percent of self-identified Christians in the baby-boomer generation indicated support while only 32 percent of self-identified Christian millennials said the same thing.