Friday, October 30, 2015

In race divide over executions: evangelicals ahead of Hillary

So Hillary offers a cautious politician's assessment of the death penalty:

“We have a lot of evidence now that the death penalty has been too frequently applied, and too often in a discriminatory way, so I think we have to take a hard look at it. ... I do not favor abolishing it, however, because I do think there are certain egregious cases that still deserve the consideration of the death penalty, but I’d like to see those be very limited and rare, as opposed to what we’ve seen in most states..."

Just about the fence straddling I'd expect from a centrist Democrat running for President.

According to Pew Research, only 40 percent of Democrats support executions, as opposed to 56 percent of all citizens. Sanders and O'Malley come down against it, but they are scrabbling for the support of the left-most fraction of the party. Somewhat inconsistently, according to the poll, most of us -- even those who don't support death sentences -- think executions can be morally justified sometimes. But accumulated doubts about how the penalty is applied undermine its legitimacy.

More interesting than Hillary's effort to split the difference are the strains the death penalty is revealing among U.S. evangelicals. Robert P. Jones reports:

... the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE)—the umbrella group founded in 1942 to give conservative white-evangelical Protestants an amplified voice—voted to soften its longstanding position supporting capital punishment. In the first amendment to its stance since 1973, the new resolution officially recognizes the evolution of evangelical thought into two distinct streams, each “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.”

Yes, that too is an attempt to straddle a moral divide.

This chart shows the divisions about the ultimate penalty within U.S. religious communities.
Run your cursor over the bars to see the percentages. Clearly, all groups are at least somewhat conflicted about what to do with people who commit awful crimes, but black and brown people are a lot less conflicted than whites.

And -- just as the rest of the U.S. population is becoming less uniformly white, so is the evangelical population.

According to the General Social Survey (GSS), in 1998, 72 percent of self-identified evangelicals were white, while 24 percent were black, and 4 percent were some other race. In 2014, the white proportion of evangelicals had fallen 8 percentage points to 64 percent. Meanwhile, the black proportion of evangelicals remained steady at 25 percent, Hispanics accounted for 8 percent, and other races accounted for two percent.

The demographic data unequivocally point to an evangelical future that is less white, comparably African American, and more Hispanic. As whites are becoming less dominant in the American evangelical family, organizations like the NAE have begun to adjust to the new reality ...

... Particularly on issues connected to race and racism, the moral imaginations of white evangelicals have been somewhat limited by a theological toolkit that emphasizes individual sin and responsibility, the importance of right personal relationships, and a resistance to explanations that appeal to structural factors. Evangelicals have tended to see racism as a problem of disordered personal relationships rather than disordered institutions and laws, and they often dismiss out of hand sociological or structural explanations of social problems. But the new NAE resolution has departed from this pattern; in its closing statement, it even connects the issue of capital punishment directly to the broader issue of criminal-justice reform, calling for the elimination of “racial and socio-economic inequities in law enforcement, prosecution and sentencing of defendants.”

... In the process of making this modest shift on capital punishment, the NAE has done something far more significant. It has added two new tools to the evangelical cultural toolkit: a lens for perceiving systemic injustice and a greater tolerance for sincere moral disagreement.

Evangelicals aren't so different from the rest of the U.S population: we all, of all races, have to get used to the browning of our country and society. In the words of the James Russell Lowell poem against slavery adopted by many Protestants as a hymn:

New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth ...


Rain Trueax said...

My time serving on a jury convinced me the death penalty should go. The juries don't get all the evidence and can't even give a verdict they might prefer if the law is written a certain way. However, life in prison has to mean life in prison as too often those who commit a violent crime do repeat as soon as they are free to do so. To me life in prison makes sense even for the most heinous crimes. And on the times the court system got it wrong, someone isn't already dead and they can at least eventually get out of prison.

Susan Leone Starr said...

Thank you for that comment, Rain Trueax, because it makes clear something I never put words to before: in all this theoretical talk, we lose sight of the fact that the human beings administering the death penalty--which, given the number of trials/appeals, etc., must involve dozens if not hundreds of people for each case--are just as imperfect as the person on trial. This should not be a debate about the theory of the penalty, only its reality.

Rain Trueax said...

Grand Juries too, Susan. I had originally thought they were made up of experts but they are just ordinary people who don't mind setting aside weeks to be available. They have one advantage over a regular jury in that they can ask questions but basically they can be prejudiced, ignorant or highly motivated. At least where I live in Oregon, there were on requirements beyond being a citizen.

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