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.

    More than Illinois and Texas are involved. Since 1976, the year the U.S. Supreme Court reasserted the right of states to impose the death penalty, more than 87 people sentenced to death in this country have been exonerated. That's 87 people who, had their cases not undergone further scrutiny, would have died unjustly at the hands of the state.

    Consistently pro-life

    But is capital punishment truly just in the first place? For most Americans, that's the more difficult part of the death-penalty debate, and it is the part with which evangelicals are now grappling.

    There have always been a few evangelical Protestants who oppose the death penalty purely on principle. But lately they have been joined by a few prominent evangelical scholars who are raising questions about a previously unquestioned position.

    Conservative ethicist David Gushee, who teaches at Union University in Tennessee, recently issued a call for evangelicals to take a closer look at the "seamless garment" philosophy long espoused in Catholic teaching. This philosophical framework, also known as the "consistent life ethic," calls Christians to protect and enhance human life not only prior to birth but until natural death as well.

    For Catholics, this means opposing both abortion and the death penalty. However, it also means caring about human life in all its expressions and stages. Among Catholics, this belief often has produced a more activist social conscience regarding poverty and justice issues than it has among evangelical Protestants.

    Evangelicals can't point to an equally strong track record on justice issues when making their pro-life arguments. As a result, their frequent support for the death penalty is often interpreted by the wider culture - and by many Catholics - as hypocritical.

    Death-penalty proponents often appeal to the Old Testament, which prescribes the death penalty for a number of offenses. "Why should the death penalty all of a sudden become immoral in God's eyes?" they ask. But few of them would suggest we reinstate the death penalty for other acts labeled by Old Testament law as punishable by death, such as adultery and disrespecting one's parents.

    One new approach is called "restorative justice," which applies Christian principles of reconciliation and restoration to the justice system. Proponents of restorative justice distinguish it from "retributive justice," or punishment for punishment's sake.

    A biblical view of justice must include restoration, not just punishment, says Charles Johnson, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Lubbock, Texas. Johnson has written on capital punishment in the Bible. "Punishment is a portion, a piece of a larger goal of restoration, which is putting people back in a right relationship with the community."

    But not many Christians are getting involved in the criminal-justice debate, considering it "off-limits," Johnson says. "They think, 'Let's let the lawyers and politicians figure this out.'"

    All Pro
    Some of these new conservative Christian voices are saying that a pro-life ethic is inconsistent if Christians aren't pro-all-life. Christians who voice a strong desire to protect babies in the womb should demonstrate an equally strong desire to make those babies' lives - or the lives of the adults into which they will grow - better once they are outside the womb. And caring for the souls of both the wrongly accused and the rightly convicted involves more than blind support of a system that metes out an unevenly applied justice motivated more by desire for vengeance than a desire to restore.

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