Nebraska is showing the most visible signs of a change in thinking by Christians and conservatives on the death penalty, and Catholics are helping to lead the way. For many, the catalyst has been a simple question: “If I value life, how can I support taking a life when the death penalty doesn’t make us any safer?”
In response, more are embracing a consistent life ethic.
Three times in the past month, the Nebraska Legislature voted for a bill to repeal capital punishment and replace it with life without parole. The governor has promised to veto the legislation, and an override vote is looming. Many of the Christian lawmakers made it clear they cast their votes against the death penalty, in part, to promote a whole life ethic.
The leader of the group is Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, a Catholic who put his personal reasons for opposing capital punishment into one easily understood phrase.
“I am pro-life,” he said.
Coash and his colleagues are also interested in enacting public policies based on facts, as well as on faith. They have studied capital punishment in detail and have determined it does nothing to contribute to our safety.
They’re concerned about the 153 people released from death row for wrongful convictions and the death penalty’s disproportionate impact on communities of color, the poor, and those with intellectual disabilities.
“Is the death penalty truly effective as a deterrent?” Coash asked.
“There’s absolutely no evidence that we’ve seen that the death penalty acts as a deterrent.”
Nebraska conservative Christian politicians are not operating in a vacuum. This year in Kansas, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and South Dakota, their counterparts sponsored bills to repeal capital punishment. In South Dakota, a Republican state representative who is an evangelical pastor changed his mind on the death penalty and sponsored the bill to repeal it. Conservatives in red states such as Tennessee, North Carolina, and Montana, as well as Nebraska, have formed groups to question the death penalty.
According to a recent poll, roughly half of voters in Nebraska support replacing the death penalty with an alternative such as life in prison. That aligns with polling of Americans nationwide. For a growing number of Christians, opposition to the death penalty remains fundamentally grounded to one issue — their commitment to promoting a culture of life.
“We must all be careful to temper our natural outrage against violent crime with a recognition of the dignity of all people, even the guilty,” the Catholic bishops of Nebraska said in a joint statement on March 17.
Catholics will remember that the seeds for what is happening today were planted 20 years ago with “Evangelium Vitae,” Pope John Paul II’s encyclical expressing the church’s position on the sanctity of human life.
Interestingly, evangelicals in Nebraska and elsewhere are joining Catholics in re-evaluating their support for capital punishment. For example, the Rev. William Thornton told the Nebraska Legislature’s judiciary committee:
“I’d like to say that as a Christ follower who believes that Christ died for all, that no person is beyond redemption, that I believe we should never advocate cutting someone’s life short and thereby guaranteeing no chance for them to experience redemption.”
Nothing demonstrates this change more emphatically than the stand against capital punishment taken recently by a nationwide group of evangelicals. On March 27, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition passed a resolution calling for abolition of the death penalty.
“This is a biblical commitment,” said the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the association, at a news conference held during the organization’s annual meeting in Orlando, Fla.
New voices, Christian and conservative, are increasingly making themselves heard in America’s death penalty debate. They are coming to the conclusion that ending the death penalty will help them adhere more closely to their faith and be more consistent in their beliefs, while helping our society better value life and promote justice.