Concern about the death penalty in America is beginning to move through Evangelical and pro-life communities across the country. It’s happening at churches in Texas, Florida, and Tennessee, across neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and even around the halls of power in Washington. Christian and pro-life pastors, activists, policymakers, and lobbyists are all expressing considerable doubt about how the death penalty system actually works. They are concerned about the fairness of the system, they have fears about the risk of executing the innocent, and they are coming to terms with capital punishment through their belief in a consistent life ethic.
I know what’s happening firsthand, for a couple of reasons. First, as an Evangelical Christian, I hear discussions questioning the death penalty within my own faith community. Second, as a national advocacy coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, I hear these concerns being expressed everywhere I go around the nation. People of faith who believe in a right to life are, more than ever, fully embracing a culture of life, compelled by revelations that innocent people could be executed and the knowledge that hundreds have been freed from prisons due to wrongful convictions.
However, this shift goes beyond matters of faith. It is also being driven by the patent unfairness of the death penalty system. The case of a death row inmate in Texas is a perfect example. Duane Buck was sentenced to death in Houston after his prosecutor extracted testimony from a psychologist during the sentencing hearing that led jurors to believe Buck is more prone to violence because he is black. The same thing happened in five other Texas death penalty cases. The state attorney general at the time, current U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), acknowledged that reliance on testimony connecting race to dangerousness was unacceptable and vowed to pursue new, fair sentencing hearings in each case. To date, five of the six defendants have received the new hearings: all except for Duane Buck, who awaits execution in the near future unless this wrong is righted.
This type of blatant unfairness, an uneven application of the law, is deeply troubling to an increasing number of Evangelical leaders. The facts in the Buck case and the breakdown in the system that they illustrate have caused a broad mosaic of notable people to step forward to voice their concern. Those calling for a new sentencing hearing in the Buck case, so far, include Shane Claiborne, Christian author, activist, and co-founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia; Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good; Joel Hunter, Senior Pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed; Noel Castellanos, Director of the Christian Community Development Association; Chris Seay, Pastor of Ecclesia Houston; and Brian McLaren, Christian author and activist. I know this is their position on the Buck case because each one of them told me personally.
As I indicated, this wave of concern about the death penalty is not limited to Evangelicals who work to protect life: other leading pro-life advocates are equally disturbed. One of the more well-known is activist and author Abby Johnson, who has endorsed the work of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Johnson is widely known as being a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who resigned after witnessing an abortion on an ultrasound. She also had two abortions herself before the birth of her daughter, Grace. Today Abby Johnson is a top strategist with a pro-life organization that works in direct opposition to Planned Parenthood. "My own story is one of redemption,” Johnson said. “I vehemently oppose the death penalty because it perpetuates the illusion that certain individuals are beyond redemption.” Raised a Southern Baptist, a few years ago Johnson became a Roman Catholic. Her religious beliefs and life experiences have shaped her view of capital punishment profoundly. “Regardless of someone's past actions, their life always has value. For all who are pro-life, we are called to oppose all threats to life from conception to natural death--including the death penalty."
Joining these significant Evangelical and pro-life voices in raising questions about the death penalty is a pro-life Baptist who has captivated the imaginations and aspirations of millions of Americans: former Texas congressman and Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ron Paul. For years he has been expressing concerns about our criminal justice system and its basic lack of fairness and the need to limit government power, especially when it comes to matters of life and death. Recently Dr. Paul joined the growing ranks of leading conservative thinkers who are actively supporting my organization’s efforts. “I believe that support for the death penalty is inconsistent with libertarianism and traditional conservatism,” Paul said. “So I am pleased with Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty’s efforts to form a coalition of libertarians and conservatives to work to end capital punishment.”
Given the realities of our current death penalty system, it is no surprise that Evangelical and pro-life leaders across the country are calling for its end. When we value life, we understand that even he or she who has committed the most terrible of acts is also created in the image of God. He alone should have the power to give life and to take it away. We know that redemption is real, it’s what our Lord and Savior does best. He is capable of transforming and restoring lives. Duane Buck is only one example of this. There is no question of his guilt. He took the lives of two individuals. But there is redemption in the story. Not only has Duane never received a disciplinary action during all of his time behind bars, he has been known to quell violence on death row. He has also become an incredibly faith-driven individual and has organized a group called Christian Brothers, which is a Bible study for those around him. He is even referred to as “Preacher Buck” since he ministers to so many. Ezekiel 33:11 says, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they would turn from their ways and live.” This is the heart of God.