Justice

The Growing Faith-Based Movement To End The Death Penalty And Protect Prisoners

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

A group of death penalty opponents stand outside St. Francis Xavier Church to protest an execution in St. Louis in 2013.

When state lawmakers voted in May to make Nebraska the 19th U.S. state to ban the death penalty, secular activists who support prisoners’ rights lauded the decision as a triumph for coalition-based efforts to protect human dignity. But behind the scenes, people who worked on the campaign heaped praise on one group in particular for helping shift the political winds on capital punishment: People of faith, especially local Catholics.

“When I think of a word to describe how the local Catholic church in Nebraska stepped up in the repeal effort this year, that word would be ‘invaluable’ and that includes hundreds, probably thousands, of individual Catholics,” Effie Caldarola, organizer with the secular group Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, told the National Catholic Reporter.

In fact, the influence of faith actors was deemed so important that when pro-death penalty groups began mobilizing in June to accrue signatures for a statewide referendum on the practice, anti-capital punishment advocates once again turned to religious leaders to help push back. Priests and pastors promised to deliver a message of forgiveness during Sunday sermons and homilies.

“We rationalize and try to sanitize the death penalty in the way it’s applied, but murder is murder in God’s eyes and my eyes as well,” Rev. Lauren Ekdahl, a Methodist minister in Nebraska, told the Associated Press.

Yet while these organizing efforts are inspiring opponents of the death penalty across the country, some are beginning to notice that the spiritual work being done in the Cornhusker State is not isolated incident. Rather, it appears to be part of a resurgent, impassioned, and increasingly effective movement among people of faith to combat capital punishment and speak up for prisoner’s rights.

In some ways, the renewed push to end the death penalty seems like a natural fit for religious Americans. After all, the central religious figure of the nation’s largest religious group — Christianity — is Jesus Christ, who the Bible describes as a victim of capital punishment and whose brutal public execution is regularly recalled during religious holidays, sermons, and symbols such as the cross.

This is partly why a wide range of Christian institutions already officially oppose capital punishment. The United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the United Church of Christ have all issued statements opposing the death penalty, as have non-Christian groups such as the Unitarian Universalist Association and Reform and Conservative Jews. And while the Catechism of the Catholic Church technically allows for capital punishment when it is “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has repeatedly issued statements saying that the practice is an affront to Christian teaching in most circumstances.

People of faith have crusaded against the death penalty for years, including Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun who lobbied Nebraska lawmakers this year to end the practice of killing prisoners and whose opposition to capital punishment was famously depicted in the critically acclaimed film Dead Man Walking. And in March, Pope Francis argued that, at this point in history, the death penalty should be abolished, writing, “Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.”

“[The death penalty is] cruel, inhumane and degrading,” he added. “[It] does not bring justice to the victims, but only foments revenge.”

Yet while these official proclamations are often bold and unequivocal, many parishioners in the pews remain unconvinced. According to a post on Pew’s Fact Tank blog, two-thirds of white mainline Protestants (a category that includes several of the denominations listed above) still support capital punishment, even though many of their religious institutions oppose it. The same is true for Catholics, over half of whom — 53 percent — say there are instances when criminals should be put to death.

Meanwhile, a solid 71 percent of white evangelicals back capital punishment, often with the support of their leadership. The Southern Baptist Convention — the largest evangelical Protestant denomination on the country — still publicly endorses the death penalty, albeit “only when the pursuit of truth and justice result in clear and overwhelming evidence of guilt.”

Yet the pope’s activism, combined with the recent string of legislative and legal battles, has added fuel to a new generation of faith-focused advocates, many of whom merge the opposition to capital punishment with increased support for prisoner’s rights.

In February, an unusual group of religious activists and highbrow theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann rallied to commute the death sentence of Kelly Renee Gissendaner, urging forgiveness and rehabilitation for a woman scheduled for lethal injection for convincing her boyfriend to murder her husband in 1997. And in May, several faith-based organizations in Massachusetts publicly denounced instituting the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 21-year-old convicted of killing three and wounding dozens when he helped set off bombs at a running of the Boston Marathon in 2013.

“Vengeance is not ours,” Rev. Arthur T. Gerald Jr., a Baptist minister in Boston, reportedly told his congregation in reference to the verdict earlier this year. “We preach forgiveness and resurrection. We are here to save souls. No matter what you’ve done, there is always forgiveness under Jesus Christ.”

In June, a bevy of faith actors weighed in on recent Supreme Court ruling addressing whether or not the drug midazolam constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” when used for lethal injection. Two Catholic organizations — the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) and Fordham University law school — filed amicus briefs insisting the drug was a form of torture, with the NCR noting that Pope Francis recently labeled torture as a “mortal sin.” When the Court ultimately ruled that the drug — which Justice Sotomayor called “the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake” in her dissent — was permissible, anti-death penalty groups such as the Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN) to End the Use of the Death Penalty were outraged.

“The Catholic Mobilizing Network is disappointed by the Supreme Court’s ruling today in Glossip v Gross to allow states to continue using the drug midazolam in lethal injection procedures,” the group’s statement reads. “We stand with Pope Francis who addressed the debate about methods of execution in a letter he wrote in March stating, ‘there is no humane way of killing another person.’”

“We cannot teach killing is wrong by killing,” they added.

While these efforts weren’t enough to turn the court’s opinion, they are part of an emerging coalition of religious groups who are using faith-based activism to help address what they say is the larger issue at play: The way average Americans view prisoners. One of CMN’s partners, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), launched a campaign this year focused on the issue of solitary confinement, a disciplinary tactic used regularly in U.S. prisons but which NRCAT argues is a form a torture. To help illustrate the horrors of this practice — which can leave prisoners starved, dehydrated, or even lead to death — the group constructed a traveling reconstruction of a cell used for solitary confinement, erecting it in churches across the country. They invited congregants to sit within its dark walls to experience the nerve-wracking isolation experienced by many prisoners.

The point, advocates argue, is to humanize — not demonize — criminals, an ethic shared among spiritually rooted opponents of the death penalty.

“There is a strong and growing faith consensus about human dignity and the ways in which our us prison system violates certain fundamental principles of human dignity that our religious traditions share,” Rev. Laura Markle Downton, a Methodist minister and Director of U.S. Prisons Policy and Programming for the group, told ThinkProgress.

These efforts focus on the moral implications of abusing prisoners, but advocates also insist that their rehabilitation-focused approach — often called “restorative justice” — has practical benefits as well. Clifton pointed to restorative justice programs in Texas and other states, where ecumenical groups have worked with incarceration officials to help rehabilitate convicts and reduce recidivism rates among criminals.

“We need to progress our whole culture [to a point] where violence isn’t the solution,” Karen Clifton, Executive Director of CMN, told ThinkProgress. “We’re trying to create all different kinds of materials … meet people where they are, and walk with them as they move towards a healing response instead of a vengeful or violent response.”

Their advocacy may do more then help criminals; it may also be changing the hearts and minds of their fellow people of faith. According to a Pew survey released in April, support for capital punishment is now dropping among every major religious group, with outright opposition to the practice on the rise. There are even modest gains among conservative Christians: Just 16 percent of white evangelical Protestants said they opposed the death penalty in 2011, but a full 25 percent said the same in 2015 — a nine-point jump in just four years.

In the meantime, Clifton and others say they are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis, who is scheduled to visit the United States later this fall. Clearly, religious opposition to capital punishment predates Francis’ papacy, but advocates are hoping his wild popularity can continue to amplify the message that they are pushing their churches, fellow people of faith, and Americans writ larger to embrace: That all people are imbued with dignity — including criminals.

“We’re anticipating a lot of good words when the pope gets on this soil,” Clifton said.