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New Position of National Association of Evangelicals Shows Cracks in Death Penalty Support

Recognizing that "a growing number of evangelicals now call" for a shift away from the death penalty, the National Association of Evangelicals - an umbrella group for congregations representing millions of evangelical Christians in the United States - has backed away from its prior strong support for capital punishment. A newly adopted NAE resolution states, "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. We affirm the conscientious commitment of both streams of Christian ethical thought." The resolution says "Nonpartisan studies of the death penalty have identified systemic problems in the United States" and expresses concerns about "the alarming frequency of post-conviction exonerations." Previously, the NAE had been entirely supportive of the death penalty. Shane Claiborne, an evangelical Christian author and activist, called the NAE's change, "a big deal," saying, "For evangelicals, one of the core tenets of our faith is that no one is beyond redemption. The death penalty raises one of the most fundamental questions for evangelicals: Do we have the right to rob someone of the possibility of redemption?" According to a Pew Research Center poll from March 2015, white evangelical Protestants were more supportive of the death penalty than any other group, with 71% in favor, although support had dropped 6 percentage points since 2011. 


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NEW VOICES: Newt Gingrich "More Open" to Death Penalty Repeal After Pope's Speech

Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich said he is "more open" to the abolition of the death penalty after hearing Pope Francis' address to Congress. Gingrich, who converted to Catholicism several years ago, said he was "very impressed" with Pope Francis' comments. In an appearance on HuffPost Live, Gingrich highlighted the work he has done on criminal justice reform, saying, "I very deeply believe we need to profoundly rethink what we've done over the past 25 years in criminal justice." With regards to the death penalty, he raised particular concerns about innocence: "You do want to be careful not to execute somebody who you find later on, as we've found, to be innocent." Openness to the idea of abolition represents a significant change in Gingrich's stance on the issue, as he was House Speaker when Congress passed the law (known as the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA)) limiting the availability of federal judicial review of death sentences imposed in the state courts and once advocated a mandatory death penalty for drug smugglers.


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In Address to Congress, Pope Francis Calls for Abolition of Death Penalty

In an historic address before a joint session of the United States Congress, Pope Francis called for the abolition of capital punishment. Linking to the broader theme of protecting human life and dignity, he said, "This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes." He commended the United States bishops for their commitment to abolition. He went on to say, "Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation." This was the first time a pope had addressed the U.S. Congress. Pope Francis has made several previous statements against the death penalty, including an address to the International Association on Penal Law and a letter to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty.


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Pope Francis Calls Death Penalty Inappropriate "No Matter How Serious the Crime"

In a letter to the President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, Pope Francis expressed the Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty, calling it "inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed." He continued, "It is an offence against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God's plan for man and society, and his merciful justice, and impedes the penalty from fulfilling any just objective. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance." He acknowledged society's need to protect itself from aggressors, but said, "When the death penalty is applied, it is not for a current act of aggression, but rather for an act committed in the past. It is also applied to persons whose current ability to cause harm is not current, as it has been neutralized -- they are already deprived of their liberty." He also addressed questions of methods of execution, saying, “There is discussion in some quarters about the method of killing, as if it were possible to find ways of 'getting it right'. … But there is no humane way of killing another person.” The pope had previously offered remarks in opposition to the death penalty when he spoke to the International Association on Penal Law in October 2014.


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EDITORIALS: Four National Catholic Journals Urge End to Capital Punishment

In an unusual joint editorial on March 5, four national Catholic publications called for an end to the death penalty in the U.S. The editors of America, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter, and Our Sunday Visitor urged "the readers of our diverse publications and the whole U.S. Catholic community and all people of faith to stand with us and say, 'Capital punishment must end.'" Citing opposition to the death penalty in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and statements by Popes John Paul II and Francis, the editorial said, "The practice is abhorrent and unnecessary. It is also insanely expensive, as court battles soak up resources better deployed in preventing crime in the first place and working toward restorative justice for those who commit less heinous crimes." The publications concluded: "We join our bishops in hoping the [Supreme] court will reach the conclusion that it is time for our nation to embody its commitment to the right to life by abolishing the death penalty once and for all."


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