July 13, 2015

Some major U.S. religious groups differ from their members on the death penalty

When the Nebraska Legislature voted in May to ban the death penalty in the state – overriding the governor’s veto – supporters of the ban shared some of the credit with religious leaders who had spoken out on the issue, including several Catholic bishops. In fact, many large religious groups have taken positions in opposition to the death penalty even though that stance is sometimes at odds with the opinions of their adherents.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the death penalty is acceptable if it is “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives.” In recent years, however, both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Pope Francis have spoken firmly against capital punishment.

Where Religious Groups Stand on the Death PenaltyThey are not the only religious leaders to take this position; when it comes to the official teachings of large U.S. religious groups, opposition to the death penalty is more common than support for capital punishment. This is in contrast with public opinion: A majority of U.S. adults (56%) still favor the death penalty, although support has been dropping in recent years.

There also is a disparity between religious groups’ positions and the views of their adherents, particularly among mainline Protestants. Two-thirds of white mainline Protestants (66%) favor the death penalty, but several of the biggest mainline churches are against it. This includes the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the American Baptist Churches USA, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and many others.

Roughly half of U.S. Catholics (53%) – including a majority of white Catholics (63%) – also favor the death penalty, in contrast with church leaders’ stance.

Seven-in-ten white evangelical Protestants in the U.S. (71%) support the death penalty, a position held by many of their churches. Two of the largest U.S. evangelical denominations – the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod – teach that the death penalty is acceptable. The Assemblies of God, a major Pentecostal denomination, does not have an official stance on the issue, although the church’s website cites a “common interpretation that the Old Testament sanctions capital punishment.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon church) also does not take an official position on the death penalty. Neither does the National Baptist Convention, the largest historically black Protestant denomination, although most black Protestants (58%) oppose the death penalty (in contrast with the U.S. public overall).

Indeed, there is a significant racial divide when it comes to views on the death penalty, with blacks and Latinos more likely than whites to oppose it. The National Latino Evangelical Coalition recently came out against the death penalty.

Among non-Christian faiths, teachings on the death penalty vary. The Reform and Conservative Jewish movements have advocated against the death penalty, while the Orthodox Union has called for a moratorium. Similarly, Buddhism is generally against capital punishment, although there is no official policy.

Hinduism also does not have a clear stance on the issue. In Islam, the death penalty is widely seen as acceptable (based on the Quran), and Islamic courts in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran routinely hand down death sentences. Some U.S. Muslim groups, however, have spoken out against the death penalty; for example, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has called for a moratorium.

Religiously unaffiliated Americans – atheists, agnostics and those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” – are split on the death penalty, with 48% in favor and 45% opposed.

Topics: Religion and Society, Religion and Government, Death Penalty, Religious Beliefs and Practices, Catholics and Catholicism, Mormons and Mormonism, Muslims and Islam, Jews and Judaism, Hindus and Hinduism

  1. Photo of Michael Lipka

    is a senior editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Brian Herman2 years ago

    There is no representation of the Orthodox Christian churches.

  2. Dudley Sharp2 years ago

    The differences are quite stark.

    Pope Benedict XIV: “If to save us the Son of God had to suffer and die crucified, it certainly was not because of a cruel design of the heavenly Father. The cause of it is the gravity of the sickness of which he must cure us: an evil so serious and deadly that it will require all of his blood. In fact, it is with his death and resurrection that Jesus defeated sin and death, reestablishing the lordship of God.” (“It Is Not ‘Optional’ for Christians to Take Up the Cross”, 8/31/2008) zenit.org/article-23515?l=english

    Then, there is this:

    Saint (& Pope) Pius V, “The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder.” “The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent” (1566).

    Pope Pius XII: “When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live.” 9/14/52.

    “Moral/ethical Death Penalty Support: Modern Catholic Scholars”

  3. Joe Cogan2 years ago

    It baffles me how any denomination of Christianity could support the death penalty when their founder was unjustly executed.

    1. Dudley Sharp2 years ago

      Joe, I meant the above to be a reply to your post.

    2. Martin Birnbaum2 years ago

      Was Jesus “unjustly” executed? Wasn’t he convicted of blasphemy? And didn’t the Catholic Inquisition burn countless victims for lesser ‘crimes’ like not believing that Jesus was the son of God? And isn’t death the penalty for blasphemy in some Muslim nations today?

      1. Joe Goes2 years ago

        And just how effective is it to acquiesce to an enemy like ISIS? Tell me the likelihood that Christianity will continue to exist in a world of religious extremists who avow to wipe Western religions out, if Christian leaders continue on the path of appeasing, apologizing, and self-loathing, and allowing radical Islamic extremists to step on them.
        “The greatest obstacle to being heroic is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one’s self a fool; the truest heroism is to resist the doubt; and the profoundest wisdom, to know when it ought to be resisted, and when it be obeyed.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne

    3. Joe Goes2 years ago

      So now we shall analogize Jesus Christ with the likes Jeffrey Dahmer or Adolph Hitler? Turn the other cheek, and invite Charlie Manson over for dinner. I’m not sure whose life you’re trying to salvage, but I am certain that society would suffer for it. Is that the desired effect?

  4. Linda Grady2 years ago

    Should it be news that people of color in the U.S. (i.e. Blacks and Latinos) are more likely to be opposed to the death penalty than White people? This article should have included the statistics on the numbers of Blacks and Latinos executed compared with the number of Whites executed and compared to their respective percentages of total U.S. population. This article did not even raise the question of why religious leaders may believe what they do. Oh, and religious leaders are supposed to “lead. “. That doesn’t always mean that their flocks follow- often the contrary.

    1. Dudley Sharp2 years ago


      White murderers are twice as likely to be executed, as are black murderers.

      Population counts are irrelevant.

      Look at race and ethnicity. in the context of committing murders, not population counts.

      For example:

      For the White–Black comparisons, the Black level is 12.7 times greater than the White level for homicide, 15.6 times greater for robbery, 6.7 times greater for rape, and 4.5 times greater for aggravated assault.

      For the Hispanic- White comparison, the Hispanic level is 4.0 times greater than the White level for homicide, 3.8 times greater for robbery, 2.8 times greater for rape, and 2.3 times greater for aggravated assault.

      For the Hispanic–Black comparison, the Black level is 3.1 times greater than the Hispanic level for homicide, 4.1 times greater for robbery, 2.4 times greater for rape, and 1.9 times greater for aggravated assault.


  5. Dudley Sharp2 years ago

    All Catholics may support the death penalty.

    “3. . . . if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.” From “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles”, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, from a memorandum sent by Cardinal Ratzinger to Cardinal McCarrick, made public in the first week of July 2004.

    Ratzinger is now is Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Ratzinger was, then, the Cardinal-Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, appointed by Saint/Pope John Paul II.

  6. Stephen Watkins2 years ago

    I was in jail once in my life,

    If I was faced with life in jail and death . . . . . . I sincerely believe that I would take death! It would be time to move on.

    1. Martin Birnbaum2 years ago

      I too was in jail once, briefly and unlawfully. A judge threw me in for contempt of court near the end of a trial (I was a prosecuting district attorney) because I wouldn’t give him my cell-phone number. It was a terrible experience, though I was later vindicated: he had no legal right to my number. I would not have chosen death even if prison would have been long-term; and I think it’s very difficult to predict how we would behave until put to the test. Although I favor physician assisted suicide, and am at an age in which I have given it much thought, I don’t know whether I myself would avail myself of the option.

  7. Tom2 years ago

    Quakers generally oppose the death penalty. I couldn’t tell you if all three branches officially oppose, but I know that most Quakers consider opposition to the death penalty as an essential element to the Peace/Pacifism Testimony.

    1. Dudley Sharp2 years ago

      It may be an essential element, but there is no biblical foundation for it.

      In fact, the only official Quaker bible has the most definitive pro death penalty translation of the well known Genesis 9:5-6 passage:

      the 1764 Quaker Bible

      5 And I will certainly require the Blood of your Lives, and that from the Paw of any Beast: from the Hand likewise of Man, even of any one’s Brother, will I require the Life of a Man.

      6 He that sheds Man’s Blood, shall have his own shed by Man; because in the Likeness of God he made Mankind.