The influential National Association of Evangelicals has softened its position on capital punishment, backing away from an earlier resolution which encouraged the death penalty for crimes such as hijacking and kidnapping.
The new resolution, approved on October 15, reads, "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."
Founded in 1942, the NAE represents more than 45,000 churches from almost 40 different denominations. The organization's previous standing resolution, adopted in 1973, regrets the decline in executions and calls for legislation to make it mandatory for crimes including hijacking, skyjacking and kidnapping which results in physical harm.
"If no crime is considered serious enough to warrant capital punishment, then the gravity of the most atrocious crime is diminished accordingly. It follows then that the attitude of criminals will be affected," the previous resolution explains.
While the new resolution does not specifically call for an end to capital punishment, it identifies certain failures in the system, including "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".
It also addresses the number of wrongful convictions overturned due to DNA evidence, saying: "Despite differing views on capital punishment, evangelicals are united in calling for reform to our criminal justice system."
Although evangelicals believe that "moral revulsion or distaste for the death penalty is not a sufficient reason to oppose it", it acknowledges that "leaders from various parts of the evangelical family have made a biblical and theological case either against the death penalty or against its continued use in a society where biblical standards of justice are difficult to reach."
Referring to the standard set by the Mosaic law, it says: "The contemporary American system is unlikely to reach such standards of evidence, and given the utter seriousness of capital crimes, the alarming frequency of post-conviction exonerations leads to calls for radical reform."
The resolution concludes, "Because of the fallibility of human systems, documented wrongful convictions, and our desire that God's grace, Christian hope, and life in Christ be advanced, a growing number of evangelicals now call for government entities to shift their resources away from pursuing the death penalty and to opt for life in prison without parole as the ultimate sanction. They argue that such a move would allow time for the exoneration of the wrongfully convicted, avoid the tragic error of wrongful execution, and advance a higher sense of justice."
In a statement emailed to the Gospel Herald, Heather Beaudoin, the Director of Evangelical Outreach for Equal Justice USA and a National Coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, praised the NAE's shift regarding capital punishment.
"Clearly we are seeing growing concerns among the NAE leadership about problems with the death penalty. These concerns mirror what I have been hearing when I talk to Christians across the country. More of them are questioning their support for the death penalty as they learn about its mistakes and bias. I am overjoyed that the NAE has taken so much leadership in fostering this dialog."
A new survey from Gallup found that the majority of Americans (61 percent) still support the death penalty for those convicted of murder, but support for the punishment has declined precipitously since 1994 (80 percent).
However, a report from Christian Examiner notes that a large number of American church groups believe the death penalty either no longer works as a deterrent or is simply unchristian. The United Methodist Church, United Churches of Christ,Presbyterian Church (USA), Orthodox Church in America, Evangelical Luther Church in America,Episcopal Church, and American Baptists oppose the death penalty in their official policy statements.