The National Association of Evangelicals and the Death Penalty

Most Americans favor the death penalty, but are churches supposed to chase public opinion?

“Presumably church bodies should address moral issues through the lens of historic Christian thought, reflecting with the whole church, past and present, and not striving to align with transitory secular trends. But there’s little theology in the NAE’s new resolution.”

 

The National Association of Evangelicals has excited anti-death penalty activists by abandoning its previous unequivocal support for capital punishment in favor of citing Evangelicals on both sides. A recent poll says 71% of white Evangelicals, who comprise the vast majority of NAE’s constituency, support capital punishment, the strongest margin in any major religious group.

“We affirm the conscientious commitment of both streams of Christian ethical thought,” the recent NAE resolution declared. NAE chief Leith Anderson reported the board’s vote, reputedly after 5 years of discussion within NAE, was unanimous. Although claiming NAE can now “present a cross-section of evangelical views,” clearly NAE’s drift and intent is towards critique of capital punishment. Anderson predicted:  “When issues come up, we will speak up and say that there are inequities in terms of race and class and ZIP codes.”

Pacifist Evangelical Left activist Shane Claiborne, who told liberal Evangelical columnist Jonathan Merritt he conferred with NAE board members during their otherwise closed deliberation, hailed their action in a Washington Post column as “one step closer to the end of the death penalty … one small step for the NAE, but it is one giant leap for abolition.” Merritt himself was also enthusiastic: “The NAE’s capital punishment resolution is a hopeful sign that evangelicals are catching up to the rest of America.”

But “catching up” to what? Most Americans favor the death penalty, but even if they did not, are churches supposed to chase public opinion? If so, to what end?

Presumably church bodies should address moral issues through the lens of historic Christian thought, reflecting with the whole church, past and present, and not striving to align with transitory secular trends. But there’s little theology in the NAE’s new resolution, which instead focuses on differences of opinion in their constituency, while implicitly inclining toward the supposedly “growing number” on the liberal side.

It presents none of the traditional Christian arguments for capital punishment, as taught by early church fathers, Thomas Aquinas, the Reformers and virtually every stream of major Christian thought, including even the original Anabaptists, who didn’t dispute the state’s vocation for lethal force. Capital punishment is embedded in the Catholic Church’s catechism, and though recent popes have discouraged resort to it, the core teaching cannot be renounced.

Shouldn’t the NAE have seriously interacted with historic Christian teaching on an important ethical issue before jumping in a new direction for “catching up to the rest of America,” or at least that part of more liberal America whose approval is important to some Evangelical elites? Or does the NAE prefer to join the habit of liberal mainline Protestants to jettison traditional teachings by votes among select elites in vain pursuit of wider social approval?

As to the NAE’s particular process for voting out capital punishment, which Anderson described as unanimous among its about 100 member board, it is only the latest chapter in the NAE’s ongoing leftward shift. Typically NAE’s self selecting executive committee chooses the issue du jour, often encouraged by an outside left-wing philanthropy, and presenting the new political stance to the full board for rubber stamping, during closed meetings, with members prohibited from sharing deliberations with others (except apparently their confidante Shane Claiborne), and with dissent discouraged and sometimes even punished with ouster. Then the NAE unveils the new liberal stance to the media as a claimed dramatic shift for ostensibly millions of Evangelicals, only a fraction of whom have even heard of the NAE, much less know that it speaks on their behalf.

NAE has followed this pattern in recent years on environmental issues, immigration, enhanced interrogation (“torture”) and nuclear weapons. Revealingly, while the NAE somewhat carefully affirmed both sides on the issue of capital punishment, with a special wink to opponents, it did not affirm multiple perspectives on these other political topics. Evidently NAE prefers to speak more ex cathedra on nuclear deterrence and U.S. immigration policy, while more modestly on the death penalty, at least until its internal consensus can mature some more.

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