2016-06-30
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.

But there is evidence that the rank and file, too, are questioning their faith in the death penalty. "I was raised in a Christian household which believed in the death penalty," writes Beliefnet member catch22, a self-described evangelical, on a discussion board. "Since then I have changed my mind, as have both of my parents. They changed their mind after their Sunday School class did a month-long Bible study."

The death-penalty debate is going on all across the conservative end of the Christian spectrum. Since his success in convincing late Missouri governor Mel Carnahan (a Baptist) to commute the sentence of a death-row prisoner during the pontiff's 1999 visit to St. Louis, Pope John Paul II has stepped up his opposition to the death penalty, pleading for the life of every American on death row--including McVeigh. Traditionalist Catholics, for whom following the pope is a given, have slowly begun changed their minds on the subject. (For the arguments of one of those who hasn't, click here.)

American bishops, and lay Catholics, have welcomed the pope's voice on the subject; Indianapolis archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein has been one of the most vocal critics of the federal government's execution of McVeigh. "Like no other," the archbishop wrote in April, "the McVeigh case tests the mettle of the emerging Catholic view about the inappropriateness of capital punishment."

Sharon Biegalski, 56, a piano teacher from Rockville, Md., and a Catholic, says her change of mind was a long time coming. Her husband is pro-death penalty, as are her parents. "I teetered until I really started thinking about abortion and was really convinced it was wrong," she said. "I thought, 'What's the difference between them?' With capital punishment, you're dying prematurely. God's plan might be for you to come to grips with what you've done."

Historically suspicious of Rome, many evangelicals have come to respect John Paul II for his stance on abortion, his anti-communism, and his alarm at what he calls the "culture of death." At first, that phrase was understood to apply only to abortion and euthanasia. But in 1995, John Paul took a stand against capital punishment in an encyclical called Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).

Lately, the Vatican's extension of pro-life ideas to capital punishment has begun to have its effect on evangelical thinkers. David Gushee, an evangelical ethicist at Union University in Tennessee, recently called on Protestants to embrace what the pope has been pushing for years: the "consistent life ethic," which Gushee called "the best single statement of Christian moral vision." He said evangelicals must close a gap in their moral vision by rejecting the death penalty, along with abortion.

If Roman Catholics have provided food for thought, the emotional fuel for evangelicals' conversion came with the execution of Texas inmate Karla Faye Tucker. Tucker had been convicted of pickaxing a couple to death in Houston in the 1970s, but by the time she had exhausted her legal appeals, she had metamorphosed into a born-again Christian--and an articulate and pretty one at that, with long, dark hair and luminous brown eyes.

"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

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

  • Terre Haute Rakes in Cash: Making a killing off McVeigh
  • 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
  • Terre Haute Rakes in Cash: Making a killing off McVeigh
  • 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
  • Terre Haute Rakes in Cash: Making a killing off McVeigh
  • Where Is McVeigh Going? Discuss.
  • Bible verses about capital punishment

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

    On the eve of her 1998 execution, Jerry Falwell joined Pat Robertson in a stunning appeal to then Gov. George W. Bush to commute her sentence. Later, Robertson said in a speech that her execution had the "air of unseemly vengeance."

    Soon after, an editorial in Christianity Today, the flagship publication for evangelicals, said the death penalty had "outlived its usefulness." Later, John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, the Christian-right advocacy group that sponsored Paula Jones' lawsuit against President Clinton, came out against the death penalty. In April of this year, the General Baptist Convention of Texas called for a two-year moratorium on executions there. (It should be noted, however, that the larger Southern Baptist Convention last summer renewed its support of capital punishment.)

    It was about the time of Tucker's execution that Johnson started hashing out his feelings about the death penalty over lunches with a law professor in his congregation. "He would outline in such breadth and depth how unfairly the death penalty was applied," Johnson says.

    For evangelicals, the Bible--more than the pope or rational analysis--determines spiritual convictions. Johnson began studying the Bible's relevant passages more and more, and concluded that God commands people to value life--every life--as precious. "Humans are creations of God, and what God has made is not in our power to destroy in an intentional, civically ordered kind of way," he said.

    Berg, for one, doesn't believe the evangelicals' shift on capital punishment will mean the practice will be repealed anytime soon. But he does see similarities with earlier religious movements favoring temperance and civil rights, and he's ready to be surprised. "In the 1950s, if someone had said that in 20 years Congress would pass a federal law outlawing racial discrimination by every business in the country, people probably wouldn't have believed it."



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