Why Would Christians Oppose Capital Punishment but be Silent on Abortion?

By Mark Tooley Published on April 2, 2015

An Hispanic Evangelical group has been heralded as the “first national association of evangelicals” to oppose capital punishment. The National Latino Evangelical Coalition professes to have 3,000 member congregations.

β€œThe gospel calls us to speak out for life, and our unanimous decision today to call for the end of capital punishment is part of that commitment,” NLEC’s leader explained in a Religion News Service account, which reported the National Association of Evangelicals may also be considering a new stance against the death penalty.

As I reported several years ago, NLEC was founded in 2010 to advocate for issues mainly if not exclusively on the political left while avoiding social issues like abortion and marriage associated with traditional Evangelical political witness. Its website indicates no policy stance on abortion.

So evidently, for NLEC, to “speak out for life” does not include protecting the unborn, although it does include protecting convicted murderers.

Meanwhile, not long after the declaration, another statement from several hundred clerics and religious activists was unveiled against capital punishment.

“All who reverence the sanctity of human life, created in the image of God, must never remain silent when firing squads, lethal injections, electric chairs and other instruments of death are viewed as morally acceptable,” their pronouncement asserted, pivoting off Holy Week, citing “Christ’s suffering and death on the cross.”

In a somewhat ideologically loaded explanation, the clerics and activists surmised that in “many ways, capital punishment is the rotten fruit of a culture that is sown with the seeds of poverty, inequality, racism and indifference to life.” It might have been appropriate to include here as examples of that indifference both abortion and growing acceptance of euthanasia, but of course these topics are not mentioned.

Of 400 signatures, there a few mostly retired Catholic bishops, liberal Catholic social justice activists like Sister Simone Campbell of Nuns on the Bus, and hundreds of not well known Mainline Protestant clergy. The most recognizable natables on the list are liberal Evangelicals or post-Evangelicals like Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, David Gushee, Richard Cizik, Tony Jones, Shane Claiborne, Greg Boyd, and Brian Zahnd. Other than Sider, few could be called doctrinally robust. And besides Sider, few are strongly pro-life, in terms of favoring legal protections for the unborn, as they favor legal protections for convicted murderers.

This dogmatic rejection of capital punishment under any circumstances by these religionists is notable for several reasons. Opposing legalized abortion remains discomfiting for any clerics seeking accommodation with secular culture. Many Evangelical elites in particular have gone virtually silent on abortion because it’s a hot button issue creating culture conflict with the media and other secular elites. Opposing capital punishment, in contrast, breaks ranks with traditional religious conservatives and implicitly aligns with secular elites.

Of more doctrinal concern is that historic Christianity has long adopted opposite positions on capital punishment and abortion, affirming the former and rejecting the latter. Even now Catholic teaching acknowledges, as it always has, the legitimacy of capital punishment in some cases, while recent popes have urged alternatives. But rejecting the death penalty is not, like opposing abortion, binding doctrine for Catholicism.

These recent statements against capital punishment by primarily Protestants seem blithely uninterested in historic Christian teaching about it. Almost no major Christian tradition disputed the death penalty until the mid or late 20th century, and even then, it was almost exclusively liberal Protestants who were moving away from or rejecting Christian orthodoxy altogether.

It’s a supreme spiritual vanity to assume that present day liberal church thought is morally superior to universal Christian teaching across millennia. Are we really that much wiser and more virtuous today?

The adamance against capital punishment and ambiguity about abortion, which protects the guilty while condemning the innocent, reflects a larger modern rejection of moral accountability. Executing murderers starkly illustrates the consequences of evil. Protecting the unborn limits sexual freedom. Neither of course is culturally welcome in post modernity, which is defined by rejection of moral limits and judgment.

There’s another important point. The Scriptures and much of Christian tradition define the state as primarily punitive. Government is chiefly ordained to deter and punish the wicked. No approximate just society is possible without the civil order only possible by rulers who wield the sword through police and military functions.

Much of Christianity today is profoundly uncomfortable with the state’s punitive responsibilities, which potentially restrict self autonomy. So instead much of Christian political witness obsesses over the much more desirable therapeutic or entitlement functions that modernity or postmodernity assigned to the state. In this preferred vision, government provides health care, raises children, protects the environment, regulates the economy, establishes wage rates, redistributes income, offers free advanced education, institutes gender and racial quotas, disburses safety and dietary guidance, mandates exercise, finances contraception and abortions, affirms sexual orientations, encourages new gender identities and pays for sex change operations.

Christian dogmatism against capital punishment and ambiguity about abortion reflects, in part, a rejection of the traditional vocation for the state, as divinely ordained, in favor of the state as partner and counselor for unlimited self-autonomy, unlinked to the wider moral universe, in service to the empowered individual.

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