Another Perspective

Churches Debate Troy Davis

Capital punishment again faces much religious opposition -- and renewed support.

By 10.3.11

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Georgia's recent execution of convicted police-killer Troy Davis activated many religious death penalty opponents. But there was significant dissent from the claims that Christianity uniformly opposes capital punishment. The 16 million Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant communion, specifically affirms it. And its most prominent theologian defended it amid the Davis controversy. 

"The death penalty is intended to affirm the value [and] sanctity of every single human life, and thus by the extremity of the penalty to make that visible and apparent to all," declared Louisville-based Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler, who presides over his church's largest seminary. "There is something within us that cries out for the fact that murder must be punished and that the lives of the innocent, in terms of being the victims of these crimes, must indeed be vindicated."

Mohler warned that the "general trend of secularization and moral confusion has undermined the kind of moral and cultural consensus that makes the death penalty make sense." And he observed: "We really do not now have the bedrock shared consensus that every single human life is a life made in the image of God and that every single human life at every stage of development is to be honored and protected and preserved."

As Mohler pointed out in his podcast, Georgia's execution of Davis inflamed thousands of protesters. But the execution on the same day of a far less appealing Texas white supremacist who brutally dragged to death a black man did not arouse the same fury. "It seems that even those who oppose the death penalty outright believe there are some cases that ought to be opposed more than others," Mohler said. Of course, some of Davis' advocates insisted he was actually innocent of gunning down a police officer who was defending a homeless man in a Burger King parking lot amid multiple witnesses, though the courts rejected appeals across 20 years.

"It is precisely because the taking of one human life by another means that the murderer has effectively, morally and theologically, forfeited his own right to live," Mohler explained. "The death penalty is intended to affirm the value [and] sanctity of every single human life, and thus by the extremity of the penalty to make that visible and apparent to all."

The official Southern Baptist stance on capital punishment cites the divine command to Noah after the flood, as recorded in Genesis: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man." Unlike the punishments instituted later under the Mosaic code for the Hebrew theocracy, this command is considered by Southern Baptists and many Christians as still universally binding. They also cite St. Paul's admonition in Romans that government is divinely ordained to "wield the sword" against the wicked.

In a resolution Southern Baptists approved in 2000, they declared they "support the fair and equitable use of capital punishment by civil magistrates as a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death." They also emphasized that the death penalty is right only "when the pursuit of truth and justice result in clear and overwhelming evidence of guilt."

Contrastingly, and speaking for liberal Protestants, the 7.7 million U.S. member United Methodist Church declares that "when governments implement the death penalty then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person's life ends." Emphasizing "reconciliation," the denomination's Social Principles insist: "We oppose the death penalty and urge its elimination from all criminal codes." Methodism has opposed capital punishment since 1956. Similarly other liberal governed denominations such as the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterians have also opposed it since the late 1950's. Although not addressing the Troy Davis case, the National Council of Churches has opposed capital punishment for over 40 years.

The more conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod declares that "that capital punishment is in accord with the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions." Although more liberal now and rarely discussing it, the National Association of Evangelicals still has a 40-year policy noting that "if no crime is considered serious enough to warrant capital punishment, then the gravity of the most atrocious crime is diminished accordingly." It supports the "death penalty for such horrendous crimes as premeditated murder, the killing of a police officer or guard, murder in connection with any other crime, hijacking, skyjacking, or kidnapping where persons are physically harmed in the process."

Roman Catholicism's teaching on capital punishment is more complex but popularly portrayed as uniformly opposed. The late Avery Dulles, an American Cardinal and highly respected teacher, was a key interpreter of his church's stance. "Self-defense of society continues to justify the death penalty," Dulles said in 2002. "One could conceive of a situation where if justice were not done by executing an offender it would throw society into moral confusion," he said. "I don't know whether that requires any more than that it remain on the books, symbolically, that it be there for society to have recourse to." A year earlier, he noted that capital punishment's decline in the West reflected an "evaporation of the sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice, all of which are essential to biblical religion and Catholic faith."

Cardinal Dulles, who died in 2009, wrote that the early church and doctors of the church were "virtually unanimous in their support for capital punishment." He insisted that Roman Catholicism has "never advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty" and there is "no official statement from popes or bishops, whether in the past or in the present, that denies the right of the State to execute offenders at least in certain extreme cases." Dulles observed that Pope John Paul II taught that "as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system," cases mandating execution "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent." He explained that the Pope, with the church's bishops, had concluded that modern states, although rightly authorized to execute the guilty, should mostly avoid it, "if the purposes of punishment can be equally well or better achieved by bloodless means, such as imprisonment."

Dulles perceptively explained that modernity is confused over capital punishment because it wrongly interprets it as the angry popular will enacting vengeance. But historic Christianity has understood capital punishment as the state acting as God's instrument for justice. Absent a few voices like Mohler's, such careful reasoning rooted in Christian tradition is mostly absent in today's' religious debates over the death penalty and likely will remain so.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.