April 30, 2001
The Death Penalty and (Un)Conventional Wisdom
-- Martin E. Marty
The forthcoming execution of Timothy McVeigh has agitated the nation and, within it and not least of all, its religious communities. We will skip comment on the event and go straight to the background of the religious debate.
"Everyone knows" that while religious opposition to this practice has been steadily growing, the strongest, clearest voices in defense of the death penalty come from two sets of conservatives: Roman Catholic traditionalists and Protestant evangelicals. But if law professor Thomas C. Berg is correct, then what "everyone knows" is incorrect, or not entirely correct.
Friend Berg has been teaching law at Samford University in Alabama, an institution with Southern Baptist connections, and he is moving to the new law school at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, an institution with Catholic connections. So he is at home with the two camps mentioned above, and he is not a hostile witness.
In a recent article entitled "Religious Conservatives and the Death Penalty," Berg finds -- contrary to what "everyone knows" -- that these two religious populations actually blend into the larger public. In other words, the percentages of death-penalty proponents and opponents in these religious groups match up closely with the percentages in the public at large. Catholic traditionalists and Protestant evangelicals more or less mirror American attitudes toward capital punishment.
Berg does detect movement, however. Increasing numbers of conservatives are coming to oppose the death penalty, and they are doing so on ecclesiastical and theological grounds. Berg finds it easy to chronicle the Catholic story. The conservatives had paid little attention to lay law professors, theologians, and ethicists, and even to Catholic bishops, who all hold strong reservations about or emphatically object to capital punishment. But documentable change came when Pope John Paul II himself began a crusade against the practice.
Evangelicals? Their case, they say, has to be biblical. But Berg finds that more and more evangelicals have discovered that neither side can sway the other on the basis of selective proof-texting of ambiguous or chancy texts (for example, Genesis 9:6 or John 8:1-11). That discovery leads them open to change.
Along come people like Pat Robertson, who begins to express severe reservations about the death penalty (or at least about specific applications of it). Other evangelicals have started asking raising questions about how executions cut short the time and opportunities for repentance and grace. Give them credit for moving more and more away from merely emotional responses, from misreadings of biblical texts, and into theological zones, implies Berg.
Editor's note: Thomas C. Berg's article "Religious Conservatives and the Death Penalty" appears in the December 2000 issue of the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal.