Charles Johnson grew up around guns and hunting in Kentucky, and as a Southern Baptist minister he was accustomed to telling his parishioners about standing in judgment before the Lord. He was, in short, a standard-issue American conservative, and he had views on the death penalty to match. Until, that is, he moved to Texas. "There are dozens of executions in this state every year," says Johnson, who has lived in Lubbock for the past 12 years. "It's two or three a week.

"This experience really awakened me to the issue of capital punishment," Johnson, 44, says from his office at Second Baptist Church. "And that started to work on my heart, on my spirit."

Less than a decade ago, Johnson would have been a maverick. But today, evangelical Protestants, the most reliably pro-death penalty groups in the world's most pro-death penalty democracy, are at a turning point in their thinking. Sobered by the 1998 execution of Karla Faye Tucker, a born-again Christian, and swayed more recently by the unlikely influence of the Vatican, American evangelicals are looking anew at what some call "that other pro-life issue." On Monday, as they pray for the soul of Timothy McVeigh, many evangelicals who have vocally supported capital punishment may be asking themselves, "What have we done?"

To be sure, there is still plenty of support among conservative Christians for the death penalty. Leaders like Jerry Falwell, Charles Colson, and Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, say it is biblically acceptable, and the McVeigh affair has only convinced some of the necessity for capital punishment.

In recent years, overall public attitudes on the death penalty have been shifting. According to Gallup polls, nationwide support for the death penalty has fallen--from 80% in 1994 to 66% of Americans in 2000.

Most studies still show a high level of support among conservative Christians. But Samford University law professor Thomas Berg, who has studied the data, says the figures should be looked at in the context of other moral issues. He points out that capital punishment is the only subject on which evangelicals are in line with other Americans. "Evangelicals will go to the mat on gay rights and abortion," Berg said in an interview. "But I don't see the death penalty being the same kind of central issue for them. I see the support as softer and more open to being affected by events."

John Green, a religion and politics expert at the University of Akron, has been watching this sea change for the last few years. "It's a spinoff of thinking about the culture war," he says. "A lot of theologians want to justify being against abortion. And the more they read, the more they think maybe these beliefs apply to the death penalty."

Most of the rethinking, says Green, is coming from scholars and Christian leaders--not people in the pews. "There's an enormous amount of foment, a lot of self-examination. There's a big debate going on among evangelicals that you wouldn't have had a few years ago."

The Ultimate Punishment

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  • Where Is McVeigh Going? Discuss.
  • Bible verses about capital punishment

  • Death Penalty Opponents' Worst Nightmare
    How McVeigh has changed the debate
  • The Ultimate Punishment

  • The Pope vs. Paragraph 2266: A Catholic defends the death penalty