The National Association of Evangelicals and the Death Penalty

By Mark Tooley Published on October 21, 2015

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.

As to the special role Shane Claiborne apparently plays on this issue within the NAE, surely it reveals the very sad state of Evangelical discourse, especially on public policy issues. By all accounts Claiborne is a sincere and earnest activist and commentator. But his reflexively left-wing views are typically more bumper sticker than serious reflection. His “more ice cream, fewer bombs” campaign, funded by Ben and Jerry, the progressive ice cream moguls, is typical.

He is a strict pacifist, whose principles preclude all military and police force, which if consistently applied, preclude all government. As part of Christian Peacemaker Teams, he was in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to resist the U.S. intervention. His 2008 book, Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals, likened the American “empire” to the Third Reich. Claiborne professes to be pro-life but has little to say about legally protecting the unborn compared to his intense activism against military action and capital punishment.

Evidently the NAE thinks Claiborne represents the new generation of Evangelicals who should be catered to and even parroted on key issues. Such faddishness supposedly will keep the NAE relevant. But the NAE was truly relevant during its salad days of unapologetic traditional Evangelical witness, during which President Reagan made the NAE globally famous with his “evil empire” speech.

During those days the NAE was not flippantly or even predictably conservative. Its witness, including a lengthy 1980s paper on nuclear weapons, was often nuanced and rooted in serious Christian moral teaching. The NAE’s original 1972 statement on capital punishment was, unlike its latest calculated salvo, very brief but actually theologically insightful, echoing more Thomas Aquinas than Shane Claiborne:

The place of forgiveness and rehabilitation of the criminal must not be minimized by those who are concerned with the administration of justice. However, concern for the criminal should not be confused with proper consideration for justice. Nothing should be done that undermines the value of life itself, or the seriousness of a crime that results in the loss of life.

If no crime is considered serious enough to warrant capital punishment, then the gravity of the most atrocious crime is diminished accordingly. It follows then that the attitude of criminals will be affected. From the biblical perspective, if capital punishment is eliminated, the value of human life is reduced and the respect for life is correspondingly eroded.

The National Association of Evangelicals believes that the ultimate penalty of capital punishment should be retained for premeditated capital crimes.

But who cares about Thomas Aquinas anymore, right?

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