This may not sound like breaking news, especially after Pope Francis’s charismatic call to Congress to abolish the death penalty last month. But here’s why the NAE’s announcement is a big deal. In addition to being distinguished by a personal relationship with Jesus and a high view of Scripture, evangelicals have provided an unwavering political base and a solid theological backbone for the death penalty in America — until now.
The NAE represents some 10 million Christians, one of the largest faith groups in the country — with over 45,000 congregations from nearly 40 different denominations. And it’s pro-death penalty position has not changed since 1973.
While evangelicals have been champions for life on abortion, we’ve been the cheerleaders for death when it comes to execution. Over 85 percent of executions in the last 40 years have been in the Bible belt. As death penalty scholar and death row chaplain Dale Recinella puts it, “The Bible belt has become the death belt.” The death penalty has succeeded in America, not in spite of Christians, but because of us.
The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον and it means “good news.” At the center of this “good news” is a belief that no one is beyond redemption.
We sing songs like “Amazing Grace” that insist on God’s power to save sinners. We have doctrines stating that Jesus died so that we might be spared death. The Scripture we love so much is filled with murderers who were given a second chance — leaders like Moses, David, Saul of Tarsus. The Bible would be much shorter without grace. But for far too long we’ve missed the fact that every time we execute someone we undermine the very message of God’s redeeming love.
We can see this even in recent executions like Kelly Gissendaner who was executed just last month in Georgia. Gissendaner embraced her Christian faith behind bars, earned her theological degree, reconciled with her kids, became an exemplary model of rehabilitation loved deeply by prisoners and guards alike. She shared the good news of God’s love with dozens in prison and had the support of hundreds of pastors and tens of thousands of people, including Pope Francis.
Still, Gissendaner was executed by lethal injection in the state of Georgia by a governor who shares her Christian faith. As Gissendaner died, she sang “Amazing Grace.” Among the last words to come from her lips were: “How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”
With the statement of the NAE, I believe we got one step closer to the end of the death penalty. Grace has a foot in the door of evangelicalism. The new resolution is one small step for the NAE, but it is one giant leap for abolition.
Last year, death sentences hit a 40-year low, and the number of executions were the lowest they’ve been in 20 years. A new Gallup poll shows that opposition for the death penalty is the highest it’s been in 43 years, around the time the NAE wrote its original pro-death statement in 1973. Among those whose support for the death penalty is fading are white evangelicals.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that two of the NAE Board members leading the charge against the death penalty are young Latinos — Gabriel Salguero and Samuel Rodriguez, Jr. — providing promising signs that just as America is changing, so is evangelicalism. Six months ahead of the NAE, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition unanimously passed an unambiguous call for to abolish the death penalty.
But here’s more good news. Recent studies show that the evangelicals who are for the death penalty are aging out. While younger evangelicals may not agree on all the hot topics, such as sexuality, the death penalty is a no-brainer for many. A recent Barna study showed that millennial Christians are overwhelmingly against capital punishment. And they are against it — not in spite of their faith, but because of their faith. They cannot reconcile execution with Jesus who said, “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.” Of Americans as a whole, only 5 percent say they think Jesus supports the death penalty.
While many of us would have loved the NAE to go a little further and issue an unambiguous call to abolish the death penalty, it is remarkable that the resolution names the inherent flaws in the contemporary practice of the death penalty, things like “eyewitness error, coerced confessions, prosecutorial misconduct, racial disparities, incompetent counsel, inadequate instruction to juries, judges who override juries that do not vote for the death penalty and improper sentencing of those who lack the mental capacity to understand their crime.”
So, yes, I am proud of the NAE for affirming those evangelicals among us who are fueled by our faith to abolish the death penalty. I will feel even prouder when we actually end it, especially if evangelicals are on the front lines of this pro-life movement.
A generation from now, I sure hope that a post-death-penalty world looks back and sees Christians standing on the side of life… in the name of the executed and risen Christ.