By Allan Turner
Even as evangelical Protestants remain the most fervent religious supporters of the death penalty, the nation's largest evangelical association has softened its view, admitting that coerced confessions, racial disparities, incompetent counsel and other factors can lead to "morally disastrous" error.
While the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 45,000 American churches, stepped back from a 1972 position that "the ultimate penalty of capital punishment should be retained for premeditated capital crimes," it stopped short of calling for a death penalty moratorium or abolition.
"Evangelical Christians differ in their beliefs about capital punishment, often citing strong biblical and theological reasons either for the just character of the death penalty in extreme cases or for the sacredness of all life," the group's resolution, adopted earlier this month, contends. "We affirm the conscientious commitment of both streams of ethical thought."
A September 2014 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 59 percent of white evangelical Protestants believed a death sentence was preferable to life without parole for killers.
Forty-four percent of all Americans in the poll favored a death sentence over life without parole.
While white evangelicals stand steadfast in favor of capital punishment, minority Protestants increasingly are supporting to non-lethal alternatives. Only one-fourth of black Protestants and 24 percent of Hispanic Protestants participating in the poll voiced support for the death penalty.
The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, has frequently spoken against the death penalty, and, earlier this year, the New York-based National Latino Evangelical Coalition, formally called for the penalty's abolition.
In its new policy statement, the white evangelical association argued that 258 wrongfully convicted people have been exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence in the first decade of the new century.
"As evangelicals, we believe that moral revulsion or distaste for the death penalty is not sufficient reason to oppose it," the group wrote. Still, it said, "The alarming frequency of post-conviction exonerations leads to calls for radical reform."
Other evangelicals, the resolution noted, continue to believe the death penalty is warranted "in limited circumstances as a legitimate exercise of the state's responsibility to administer justice."
Despite differing views on the death penalty, the resolutions said, "evangelicals are united in calling for reform to our criminal justice system. Such reform should improve public safety, provide restitution to victims, rehabilitate and restore offenders and eliminate racial and socio-economic inequities in law enforcement, prosecution and the sentencing of defendants."
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