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December 6, 2016

Intriguing discussion of how religion might have helped save the death penalty in Nebraska

584656d34e0b2.imageThis new local article, headlined "How religion impacted Nebraska’s death penalty vote," discusses the intersection of religious beliefs and support for capital punishment among Cornhuskers. Here are the details:

While the presidential election surprised most people, the results of one Nebraska vote shouldn’t have been a surprise. Nebraska voters resoundingly repealed a bill eliminating the state’s death penalty, with 61.2 percent voting to reinstate the punishment and 38.8 percent hoping to keep it off the books. As Nebraska is a solid Republican state, its death penalty vote matches national statistics. 72 percent of Republicans nationwide support the death penalty, according to a September Pew Research poll.

But for some Nebraskans, the death penalty vote wasn’t a political decision, but a decision based on religious beliefs. Christians are more likely to support capital punishment than other groups, according to the same Pew Research Poll. White evangelical Protestants are most in favor, with 69 percent supporting the death penalty, followed by white mainline Protestants at 60 percent. By a narrow margin, more Catholics oppose the death penalty than support it, at 46 percent to 43 percent.

But these views are contrary to official statements from some Christian leaders. Major religious groups, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church, have published statements opposing the death penalty on religious grounds. This means people often disagree with their denomination’s official statements on the issue.

Allison Johnson, a minister at The Lutheran Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, echoed the anti-death penalty sentiments of the ELCA church she serves on campus. If she’d been registered to vote in Nebraska instead of Wisconsin, Johnson would have voted to retain the bill, she said. “Jesus didn’t overcome systems of violence and injustice by more killing,” she said. “Jesus overcame them by absorbing them and dying himself.”

But the Rev. Jerry Thompson of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church at UNL said the issue is more complicated than that. Thompson has voiced opposition to the death penalty and voted to retain the bill. “I think of those passages where Jesus says, ‘Forgive your enemies, forgive those who have abused you, pray for them,’” Thompson said. “That doesn’t suggest to me putting them to death is part of the Christian way of life.”

But voting to reinstate capital punishment doesn’t make a Christian a hypocrite, he said. “You could hold religious beliefs and still vote in favor of keeping the death penalty,” Thompson said. “I don’t think that one thing necessarily leads to the other.” The complexity of the issue is one reason for the divide among Christians, Thompson said.

Plus, conversation about the death penalty doesn’t crop up much in day-to-day life, said the Rev. Steve Mills of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church. While Mills is against capital punishment, it’s a low priority on his list of things to preach about, he said. “I know the church will speak about [the death penalty], but I don’t think the church has a huge push with it,” Mills said. “I think that’s kind of where it’s not clearly articulated frequently. It just comes up around election time.”

But not all pastors at UNL are against the death penalty on religious grounds. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention are two groups that favor it. Pastor Bill Steinbauer of the University Lutheran Chapel, a Missouri Synod church at UNL, said he rarely discussed capital punishment this fall, although politics was a hot topic. “I think when Christians tend to argue over things, this isn’t one of them,” Steinbauer said. “It’s one more of those things where we can agree to disagree. I don’t see that as being a big, divisive thing.”

He’s against the death penalty for reasons not found in the Bible. “I’m not morally against it; my reasons for being against it are more practical,” he said. “Based on the reading of Scripture, the Bible allows for the government to have capital punishment. But I would also say that it’s somewhat of a case-by-case thing too. If the government is undeniably corrupt and the government is enacting injustice upon people even through the use of the death penalty, no Lutheran pastor would stand up and say, ‘Hey, that’s perfectly OK.’”...

UNL student David Magnuson supports the government’s ability to pass punishment. “You know, it is wrong for someone to kill someone, even in retribution; that’s always wrong, but that doesn’t apply to governments,” Magnuson said. “The government is not a person; it is a higher entity, and its role is to be just through laws.” The senior criminal justice major is active both religiously and politically, serving in UNL’s Reformed University Fellowship youth group and interning for Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson....

Magnuson grew up in a non-denominational church in Texas, a state where he says “every Christian supports the death penalty.” “Here, it is different, and I’ve met people who don’t support it,” Magnuson said. “It’s a very complex issue, and it’s not a good topic. [But] I think the worst crime you can do is kill someone.” Magnuson said he rejects the argument that it’s cheaper to have a criminal spend life in prison. “Just paying for an inmate in prison is such a strain on society,” he said. “You’re paying to keep them alive. I think we should just kill them, and kill them fast. That’s what we do in Texas, and I think it’s great.”

The best argument he’s heard against the death penalty is that it gives inmates time to find God. But he said the death penalty can’t “stop God’s plan.” “It’s not the government’s role to play Jesus; It’s not,” Magnuson said. “That’s people’s role to play Jesus, and obviously, if we were in a perfect world, we wouldn’t deal with this problem.”

December 6, 2016 at 10:42 AM | Permalink


That poll reflects national stats and may not reflect on how religious beliefs affected, if at all, the death penalty vote in Nebraska.

I was very involved in the Nebraska efforts.

The Catholic Church had a non stop effort to support death penalty repeal -- all of which parroted common anti death penalty teachings, easily rebutted.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Dec 7, 2016 8:24:29 AM

Nebraska leans conservative and this will include conservative leaning religious views on the death penalty. Sometimes, conservatives are against the death penalty, but as a whole, more likely to be for it. This will include the religious component.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 7, 2016 10:35:05 AM

Interesting article, but I think it shows the problem with simple surface analysis of polling and demographics. There are three separate issues.

The first is that we all belong to multiple demographic categories -- race, gender, religion (both by denomination and attendance), income, education, union membership, marital status, sexual orientation, etc. While polling can show the breakdown by any of these demographic categories, it takes a deeper dive than the mere surface number to determine whether a category matters. If when you looked at multiple factors (e.g. race, gender, education, and religion), people with similar non-religious demographic factors voted roughly the same regardless of religion, then it would appear that religion was an insignificant factors. On the other hand, if members of the same religion voted roughly the same regardless of their race or gender or education, then it would appear that religion was a significant factor.

The second is that there is a gap between church leadership and church membership. The late Reverend Andrew Greeley (in his role as a sociologist rather than a novelist) did a lot of studies, papers, and books over the year on the gap between the official teachings of religious groups on moral issues and the actual beliefs of the membership of those religious groups. So (using the Catholic Church as an example), while the Catholic Church as part of its pro-life teachings opposes the death penalty, conservative Catholics tend to only accept the part of the pro-life teaching that applies to abortion while liberal Catholics tend to only accept the part of the pro-life teaching that applies to the death penalty.

The third is that the denomination taking an official stand on an issue says little about how that message is communicated to members of the denomination. Particularly in Congregationalist churches, but even in hierarchical churches like the Catholic Church, the local priest or minister determines what is discussed in the weekly sermon. So the fact that the bishop of the diocese or president of the state chapter of a denomination takes a stand does not necessarily mean that the stand is discussed at the local level.

Posted by: tmm | Dec 7, 2016 11:03:31 AM

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