The survey of 518 Protestant pastors, conducted by Phoenix-based Ellison Research, showed that pastors support the death penalty 72 percent to 28 percent. Only about 15 percent of pastors feel strongly that the death penalty should be abolished.
But a wide middle--about 37 percent--do not have strong feelings one way or the other about the death penalty. That figure shows how complicated the issue can be in terms of morality, justice and theology, said Ron Sellers, who conducted the survey.
"Over one-third of all ministers didn't strongly support or oppose the death penalty," Sellers said. "It may be that the death penalty isn't a clear-cut issue for many ministers, who may be struggling over conflicting feelings of the need for justice and punishment on one hand, and the call to mercy and support for life on the other hand."
The survey also found a difference between pastors in liberal and conservative churches. Pastors in churches affiliated with the National Council of Churches -- the more liberal end of the spectrum -- supported the end of the death penalty 56 percent to 44 percent. Those in churches affiliated with the more conservative National Association of Evangelicals supported the use of the death penalty 88 percent to 12 percent.
Opinion on the use of physician-assisted suicide was more uniform, with only 17 percent of pastors supporting laws to allow physician-assisted suicide, and 83 percent opposing them. The practice found more support from NCC-affiliated pastors, with 33 percent supporting the use of physician-assisted suicide, while 92 percent of evangelicals opposed it.
The survey, conducted in May and June, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.