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Poll: Younger Christians less supportive of the death penalty


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(RNS) One day after the state of Ohio executed a man for murder (Jan. 16), a new poll shows younger Christians are not as supportive of the death penalty as older members of their faith.

Graphic courtesy Barna Group

Graphic courtesy of Barna Group

This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

When asked if they agreed that “the government should have the option to execute the worst criminals,” 42 percent of self-identified Christian boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, said “yes.” Only 32 percent of self-identified Christian millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, said the same thing.

The poll conducted by Barna Group this past summer and released to Religion News Service Friday, surveyed 1,000 American adults and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

It showed an even sharper difference in support for the death penalty among “practicing Christians,” which Barna defined as those who say faith is very important to their lives and have attended church at least once in the last month. Nearly half of practicing Christian boomers support the government’s right to execute the worst criminals, while only 23 percent of practicing Christian millennials do.

Other polling organizations such as Gallup, show similar generational trends among Americans in general.

Heather Beaudoin, national organizer for Equal Justice USA, a national organization working to reform the criminal justice system, said the Barna research confirms what she sees: a growing desire among younger Christians to abolish the death penalty.

“The question for them is no longer ‘Is it right or wrong?’” said Beaudoin. “They are seeing how it is actually functioning in our country — the race issues, the risk of executing the innocent, the fact that if you can afford an attorney you’ll probably not end up on death row — and they are changing their minds.”

Roxanne Stone, vice president for publishing at Barna, said capital punishment may increasingly be seen as a human rights or social justice issue.

“This parallels a growing trend in the pro-life conversation among Christians to include torture and the death penalty as well as abortion,” Stone said. “For many younger Christians, the death penalty is not a political dividing point but a human rights issue.”

And what of that age-old question, “What would Jesus do?”

According to the Barna study, only 5 percent of Americans believe that Jesus would support government’s ability to execute the worst criminals. Two percent of Catholics, 8 percent of Protestants, and 10 percent of practicing Christians said their faith’s founder would offer his support.

“People use Jesus as their ideal and what they aspire to,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. “But in practical day-to-day living they know they will fall short and be less than ideal. They might think that the ideal is to turn the other cheek or not throw the first stone, but they do. They are more pragmatic.”

Comparatively lower support for the death penalty among young Christians stands in sharp contrast to the way conservative Christian leaders like Ralph Reed, Gary Bauer, and Jerry Falwell backed state executions in the 1990s.

“Certain things come to a moment and then become accepted all of a sudden very quickly,” Dieter says. “From apartheid to women’s rights, we’ve seen this throughout history. I think we’re coming to a moment on this issue now that will lead to the death penalty being outlawed in the United States and around the world.”

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The post Poll: Younger Christians less supportive of the death penalty appeared first on Religion News Service.

Jonathan Merritt
Jonathan Merritthttp://www.jonathanmerritt.com
Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and has published more than 1000 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Atlantic, and National Journal. He is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn.

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10 years ago

I just see this as one more indicator of our society turning away from God’s revealed truth, accepting what He says over our own opinions, and turning to emotionally based arguments from those who don’t value God’s truth. It has run across the board, in every moral issue. What we can’t control is God’s response, and I believe we are seeing that in the collapse of our country, morally, spiritually, financially and militarily, which is our ability to protect ourselves from other hostile world powers. That we don’t even think it’s necessary is another mind boggling reality and indicator of our spiritual blindness.

10 years ago

Dennis, what I get from this article is that it’s the practical arguments, not the emotional ones, that this younger generation cites as persuading them to an anti-death-penalty position. For instance, that it doesn’t seem to be deterring crime, and that it isn’t applied in a consistent way.
I come down on the same side as the majority in those polls – I can’t reconcile state executions with my faith OR reason.

10 years ago

Charlie, what’s practical about having a repeat murderer back out on the street doing it again, and don’t say that hasn’t happened. The arguments are usually emotion based and led by someone with a friend or relative scheduled to receive the death penalty. I can understand their pain and anguish, but that doesn’t cancel out the extreme pain felt by the victim as they were dying, or their family’s.

10 years ago

And I’d add that it isn’t a deterrent because it isn’t applied correctly, appeal after appeal, and yes, not consistent because our justice system is just as screwed up as the rest of our government. I believe no death penalty will be worse yet. Solomon said in Eccles. 8:11, “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil.” We can’t have it both ways.

Liv Larson Andrews
10 years ago

Biblical faith and human reason both support ending the practice of capital punishment. This research makes me hopeful. Perhaps some of these Christians will wish to become active in states where the death penalty continues to be used, like Washington.

Dennis, you recognize that the justice system is screwed up, and I agree. We kill people for crimes they did not commit all the time. The work of Sister Helen Prejean is amazing in this department. I highly recommend her book The Death of Innocents.

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