A national network of 3,000 Latino evangelical churches is throwing its weight behind a ban on the death penalty. The announcement came two days after Pope Francis made his strongest statement yet against capital punishment.
“After prayer, reflection, and dialog with anti-death penalty organizations like Equal Justice USA, we felt compelled to add our voice to this important issue,” said Gabriel Salguero, president of National Latino Evangelical Coalition (NaLEC) and lead pastor at Lamb’s Church in New York. The announcement was made in Orlando, where NaLEC leadership voted in favor of a capital punishment repeal.
“As Christ followers, we are called to work toward justice for all. And as Latinos, we know too well that justice is not always even-handed. The death penalty is plagued by racial and economic disparities and risks executing an innocent person. Human beings are fallible and there is no room for fallibility in matters of life and death.” NaLEC said it is the first national association of evangelical congregations to take a position in favor of death penalty repeal.
Repeal of the death penalty is near the top of the agenda for key global religious leaders. On March 20, Pope Francis met at the Vatican with Frederico Mayor, the head of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, and released a letter to the ICDP. “The death penalty goes against the right to life and the dignity of a human being. The death penalty does not bring justice to the victims but it promotes vengeance,” Francis said.
Capital punishment is legal in 32 states. The 2014 Pew survey on the death penalty found that public support for the death penalty has been in slow decline during the past 20 years. The Gallup Poll found support for the death penalty peaked in 1994 with 80 percent public backing.
Hispanics and African Americans (Catholic and Protestant) are the most opposed to capital punishment. White evangelical Protestants are the greatest supporters of it with 67 percent of those surveyed by Pew favoring capital punishment. In early February, Rasmussen Reports released a new survey showing that 57 percent of American adults favor the death penalty.
But advocacy groups are having success at the state level in banning the death penalty. Equal Justice USA, based in Brooklyn, New York, has been influential in banning the death penalty in New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, and Maryland. “The faith community has been a critical force in the movement to repeal the death penalty,” said Heather Beaudoin, who directs evangelical outreach for EJUSA.
“One exception has been the evangelical community, but that is changing along with the larger national trend away from the capital punishment. We have found a real eagerness among evangelicals to take another look at this issue.”
Much of this eagerness may be among younger Christians. A 2014 Barna survey on the death penalty found that 23 percent of millennials (born 1980-2000) who described themselves as Christian agreed with the statement, “The government should have the option to execute the worst criminals.”
In 1972, the National Association of Evangelicals approved a resolution favoring limited use of the death penalty after conviction for “horrendous” crimes, including killing a police officer, hijacking, or kidnapping. During the 1970s, the United States had very high homicide rates, peaking at 10.2 murders per 100,000 population. The 2013 rate is 4.5, the lowest homicide rate since 1957. In years past, proponents of the death penalty said it had a deterrent effect on homicide. But in 2012, the National Research Council said studies showing a deterrent effect were "fundamentally flawed."
So far in 2015, there have been 10 executions carried out. Since 1976, there have been 1,404 executions in total with 1999 having the greatest number--98.