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Why US evangelicals are changing their position on the death penalty

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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

(Read caption) Visitors wait in line to watch arguments for a death penalty case at the US Supreme Court building in Washington, last week.

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As the death penalty continues to lose favor with Americans, the National Association of Evangelicals has adjusted its position on the practice.

Since the early 1970s, the NAE has supported capital punishment as a deterrent to criminals. But on Monday, the organization – which represents more than 45,000 churches from almost 40 different denominations, serving millions of Americans – passed a resolution that acknowledges growing opposition and differing views on death penalty.

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"Evangelical Christians differ in their beliefs about capital punishment, often citing strong biblical and theological reasons either for the just character of the death penalty in extreme cases or for the sacredness of all life, including the lives of those who perpetrate serious crimes and yet have the potential for repentance and reformation," the resolution states. "We affirm the conscientious commitment of both streams of Christian ethical thought."

NAE President Leith Anderson said in a press release, "A growing number of evangelicals call for government resources to be shifted away from the death penalty."

This shows that Evangelicals have no pro-capital punishment "consensus," said activist Shane Claiborne to the Washington Post. "That’s a big deal."

White evangelical support for the death penalty has waned recent years, from 77 percent in 2011 down to 71 percent in 2014, according to a March survey from the Pew Research Center.

At the same time, 66 percent of white mainline Protestants and 63 percent of white Catholics favor the death penalty.

Overall, the survey shows American support for the death penalty has dropped from 78 percent in 1996 to 56 percent in 2014.

Public debate on the topic has grown in the wake of several botched executions. In June, the US Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma’s use of a controversial drug for lethal injection, saying the sedative used in the lethal injection cocktail does not violate the US Constitution's 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

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As The Christian Science Monitor reported in May, there has been a steady drop in executions across the states in the last two decades in response to declining rates of violent crime and a growing reliance on sentences for life in prison without the possibility of parole. “New death sentences in the US reached their lowest level in 40 years, the start of the death penalty’s modern era,” the Death Penalty Information Center reported at the end of last year. “The number of executions has declined in 11 of the past 15 years.”

Nebraska recently ended capital punishment by legislative vote, becoming the first Republican-controlled state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty. 

During his recent visit to the US, Pope Francis denounced the death penalty before Congress and called for a ban on capital punishment worldwide. He urged authorities to stop the execution of Kelly Gissendaner, sentenced to death for her role in the February 1997 slaying of her husband.

Despite the Pope's pleas, Ms. Gissendaner died by lethal injection on Sept. 30, becoming the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years.