Religious Conservatives and the Death Penalty

William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1, December 2000

31 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2001

See all articles by Thomas C. Berg

Thomas C. Berg

University of St. Thomas, St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN - School of Law


Conventional wisdom says that conservative Christians -- evangelical Protestants and traditionalist Roman Catholics -- are the strongest supporters of capital punishment in America, just as they take the strongest "conservative" positions on other controversial social issues such as abortion and homosexuality. But survey results suggest that white conservative Christians do not support the death penalty at a significantly higher rate than other white Americans, and that one group of conservative Christians, traditionalist Catholics, supports it substantially less. In addition, recent events, such as the questioning of the death penalty by many conservatives and the efforts of the Rev. Pat Robertson to prevent an execution in Texas, have made it worthwhile to consider whether religious conservatives might be turned against the death penalty in any significant numbers.

This essay examines the theological and social attitudes toward the death penalty of both traditionalist Catholics and evangelical Protestants. With respect to Catholicism, it particularly discusses the teachings of the Pope against the death penalty in the recent encyclical Evangelium Vitae, and the extent to which such teaching will be viewed as authoritative by traditionalist Catholics. With respect to evangelical Protestantism, the essay examines several factors: their attitude toward the Bible and the passages in it that endorse capital punishment, their theological attitudes concerning repentance and remorse, their affinity for "common sense" policy arguments, and others.

The essay concludes that (1) in order for religious conservatives to be turned against the death penalty in significant numbers, they will largely have to be convinced by the same practical arguments that might convince other Americans, such as the poor quality of capital defense representation and the risk of convicting the innocent; but that (2) evangelical Protestants might be also be turned in lesser numbers against execution by certain theological arguments and social developments, including, for example, (a) an emphasis on the possibility of religious conversion by inmates and (b) an increase in evangelicals' contact with and understanding of African Americans (who oppose the death penalty in much larger numbers) and of prison inmates (through, for example, religious ministries to prisoners).

Note: This is a description of the article and not the actual abstract.

Suggested Citation

Berg, Thomas Charles, Religious Conservatives and the Death Penalty. William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1, December 2000, Available at SSRN: or

Thomas Charles Berg (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas, St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN - School of Law ( email )

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Minneapolis, MN 55403-2015
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