The death penalty is a hotter issue right now than it has been in 25 years. And much of the debate over the issue is taking place among a group of Americans who just five years ago seemed virtually united on the subject: white evangelical Christians.

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  • America is far more enamored of the death penalty than any of our peer nations. In fact, South Africa, a former human-rights abuser, for years was the only other Western industrialized nation that continued to allow the death penalty, and even South Africans recently revoked it.

    Nonetheless, a larger majority of Americans agree on the death penalty than agree on just about any major issue. Polls consistently show that more than 60 percent of Americans strongly support capital punishment.

    However, recent polls have seen that percentage slip to its lowest level of support in 19 years. That's due in part to some new developments among people who historically have supported the death penalty almost unquestioningly.

    For example, Texas Baptists, not known for their liberal activism, recently appointed a committee to study the death penalty and how it is applied in Texas -- by far the most execution-happy state in the nation.

    Two years ago, when George W. Bush was governor of Texas, many of the evangelicals who would later help elect him president, including Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, criticized Bush for refusing to commute the sentence of convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker.

    Tucker, who experienced a dramatic Christian conversion in prison and later ministered effectively to other imprisoned women, became the unlikely poster child for the anti-death penalty movement. The prominence of Tucker's case led many conservatives, and particularly white evangelical Christians, to consider for the first time the idea that the death penalty may actually be counterproductive in some cases.

    Christianity Today, the flagship publication for American evangelicals, plainly stated its opposition to the death penalty on the heels of the Tucker case. "It seems clear that the death penalty has outlived its usefulness," the editors said. "It has not made the United States a safer country or a more equitable one. The potential of life imprisonment without parole and other protective measures, however, offer better options for the state, which must continue to deal with 20,000 murders each year."

    The renewed debate among evangelicals focuses on two issues: Is the death penalty as currently practiced applied fairly? And, by supporting capital punishment, are evangelicals and the politicians they support violating their pro-life ethic?

    The easier issue

    The first question is by far the easier of the two for most people. Even the death penalty's most ardent proponents admit capital punishment is not being meted out fairly or equitably.

    Illinois Gov. George Ryan -- a Republican who supports capital punishment -- placed an indefinite moratorium on executions in his state a year ago and appointed a high-profile committee to study the death penalty. Ryan took that action after a number of prisoners on Illinois' Death Row were exonerated by new, incontrovertible evidence.

    The exculpatory evidence would have remained buried had crusading journalists and graduate students not taken up where the defendants' state-appointed attorneys left off. Had the fate of those defendants been left to the built-in protections of death-penalty laws, many innocent Illinoisans likely would be dead today rather than free. And Illinois is not the only state where there are questions about the accuracy and fairness of the death penalty's application.

    The recent presidential campaign brought new scrutiny to Texas' assembly-line executions, calling into serious question the state judicial system's fairness. Media investigations uncovered dozens of convicts on Death Row whose state-appointed defense attorneys had been at best underqualified and at worst guilty of serious malpractice.

    But perhaps the most disturbing Texas statistic to come to light in recent years is the disproportionately high number of death sentences given to black Texas defendants compared to white Texas defendants -- higher than the percentage of African-Americans convicted of crimes, which itself is higher than the conviction rate among white Americans.

    In the entire 150-plus-year history of Texas -- one of the country's most populous states and one of the most likely to impose capital punishment -- only twice has a white man been sentenced to death for killing an African-American. The converse has happened hundreds of times.