Death penalty debate: Morality and pragmatism

Many Americans seem to accept capital punishment as a fact of life. Polls show that 63 percent of the population favored keeping capital punishment on the books in 2013. Yet that consistency can mask a simmering national debate about the efficacy, morality and even legitimacy of the death penalty.


The capital punishment debate has raised many questions about the relationship between pragmatism and moral principle. The issue is complicated when the guilt of the person convicted of the crime is dubious. Since 1973, more than 130 people have been released from death row after being found innocent due to new evidence or technological advances.

Many death penalty opponents base their views on research that indicates the death penalty is ineffective as a deterrent to crime or is racially biased against minorities. Others point to the huge financial burden death penalty cases put on the government, a burden that often limits the quality of lawyers appointed to defend the accused. Yet those who oppose capital punishment on moral reasoning say such considerations should not be foremost and could backfire if subsequent research undermines those arguments.

Proponents of the death penalty say that executing the guilty is a matter of justice, and many cite scripture and religious tradition to bolster their position. They also say citizens have a right to use capital punishment if it protects them against criminals, especially terrorists.

Still, the United States is increasingly seen as a global anomaly. It is one of few industrialized nations that still sanction the death penalty. Some argue that this stance erodes the moral authority of the United States.

The death penalty has seen many legal changes over the years: in 1972, in the culmination of a series of rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively barred capital punishment, which was on the books in 40 states. But in 1976, the court ruled that several new statutes were constitutional and that the death penalty itself was constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. That effectively reinstated the use of capital punishment.

From 2002 to 2008, the high court made three significant death penalty rulings. In 2008 it struck down a law that allowed people convicted of raping a child to be executed. In 2005 the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, abolished capital punishment for juvenile offenders. The majority ruled that the death penalty for minors is cruel and unusual punishment, and in the decision cited a “national consensus” against the practice. The decision overturned a 1989 ruling that had upheld the death penalty for offenders as young as 16 and 17 years old. In 2002, the high court banned capital punishment for the moderately mentally retarded.

With 500 executions since 1976, Texas eclipses all other states in number of executions — Virginia has the second highest number of executions with 110. According to Texas law, those convicted of capital murder, capital sabotage or a repeated offense of sexual assault on a minor can be sentenced to death. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice maintains a website with information on all past executions and all scheduled executions. The site lists the offenders crime along with a picture, their race, date of birth and last statement if they have already been executed. It is the most comprehensive archive of executed persons in the country.

Religious opinion

American religious attitudes toward the death penalty are largely formed by the Judeo-Christian ethic, which is based on citations from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, as well as rabbinic and Christian tradition. But religious leaders and adherents can cite Scripture and tradition to back different views.

Here are some of the salient references often cited in the debates:

  • The so-called lex talionis, the “eye for an eye” law of ancient Judaism, is cited by those who support capital punishment.
  • The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is cited by opponents of the death penalty.
  • In Genesis 9:6, God says to Noah: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” This is seen as a justification for the death penalty.
  • The episode in the Gospel of John (Chapter Eight) in which Jesus defends the woman caught in adultery is cited by some Christians as showing that Jesus set aside the death penalty as a justifiable punishment.
  • Christian supporters of capital punishment also cite the words of the Apostle Paul in Chapter 13 of the New Testament Epistle to the Romans, in which he states that the Christians must be subject to secular authorities because “those that exist have been instituted by God.” He also says that authorities justly “bear the sword.”

Jewish tradition generally holds that the death penalty is allowed in principle, but in practice its use is almost never condoned. A famous observation of the 12th-century Jewish sage Maimonides is often invoked in this regard: “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” The main branches of Judaism do differ to some degree in their emphases.

The Quran, and Islamic teaching generally, are seen as allowing the death penalty under certain circumstances. But as in most religious communities, there is some variance on when and whether capital punishment should be used. The variance in views is not, however, considered as diverse as it is in Christianity, for example.

  • “Religious Groups’ Official Positions on Capital Punishment”

    Read a roundup of the positions of various religious groups and denominations on capital punishment, posted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

  • “After Troy Davis: The Religious Belief Breakdown on the Death Penalty”

    A Sept. 22, 2011, blog post at Christianity Today examines attitudes toward the death penalty broken down by religion.

  • “God’s Justice and Ours”

    Read a May 2002 article by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, “God’s Justice and Ours,” in the journal First Things. In the article, Scalia, a Catholic, argues against the church’s increasingly stringent teaching against the death penalty.

  • “Scalia states his case for morals”

    In September 2011, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told an audience at Duquesne University Law School, “If I thought that Catholic doctrine held the death penalty to be immoral, I would resign.” That statement prompted criticism that Scalia, one of six Catholics on the high court, was misinterpreting Catholic teaching against capital punishment. Read this Sept. 25, 2011, article published on

  • “Christians and capital punishment”

    Read a July 9, 2013, opinion piece by professor of theology Robert Olson arguing that churches should do more to oppose capital punishment.

  • “Punishment: Political, Not Metaphysical”

    Read a series of exchanges from October 2011 at The Public Discourse, a politically conservative site, between Christopher O. Tollefsen and Edward Feser, arguing over whether capital punishment is morally wrong or justifiable in some cases.

  • “Religion and the Death Penalty: A Call for Reckoning”

    Pew held a January 2002 conference on the death penalty that included reflections from a variety of faith traditions. The essays were collected into a volume, Religion and the Death Penalty: A Call for Reckoning. The volume has the writings of 21 contributors representing a range of religious traditions.

  • “Judaism and the Death Penalty; Of Two Minds but One Heart”

    Read an April 1, 2004, essay published on the Orthodox Union’s website about the split opinion on the death penalty in the Jewish community.

  • “Demystifying Muslim Justice”

    Read an essay about Islam and the death penalty written by Aslam Abdullah and posted by

Why it matters

The death penalty debate epitomizes the impact of religion in the public square, encompassing issues of religious belief, interpretation of scripture and justice.

News articles and research

National sources

Christian organizations that support the death penalty

  • National Association of Evangelicals

    The National Association of Evangelicals is an organization that includes 45,000 congregations from 40 member denominations, individual congregations from an additional 27 denominations, and 250 parachurch ministries and educational institutions. Its mission is to gather, strengthen and expand the evangelical community. Galen Carey is vice president for government relations.

    Contact: 202-789-1011.
  • Southern Baptist Convention

    The Southern Baptist Convention, with about 16 million members, is the largest group within the evangelical world, as well as the second-largest faith group in America (behind Catholics).

    Read a 2000 statement and a Baptist Press report on the SBC’s endorsement of the death penalty. Hayes Wicker is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Naples, Fla., and chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention committee that authored a resolution in support of the death penalty.

    Contact: 615-244-2355.
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

    Headquartered in Salt Lake City, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a presence in numerous countries.

    The church teaches that capital punishment can be an appropriate penalty for murder, but only after a civil trial. Read a church statement.

    Contact: 801-240-1670.

Christian organizations that oppose the death penalty

  • Orthodox Church in America

    The Orthodox Church in America website gives a detailed explanation of the faith. It also lists the 19 self-governing and self-ruling Orthodox churches worldwide, which include the OCA. (The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is directly under the authority of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople in Turkey, and is not administratively related to the Church of Greece.)  Primate of the Orthodox Church in America (historically Russian) is Metropolitan Tikhon, located in Syosset, N.Y. Find local parishes.

  • U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

    The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has raised concerns about a range of freedom of conscience questions related to protection of life issues and supports including conscience provisions in proposed funding bills.

    In March 2005 launched the Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty. On the conference’s web page there is a fact sheet, statements from Catholic conferences and officials broken down by state and region, and statements on church teaching about the death penalty from the Vatican. The site also has links to various amicus briefs filed by the Catholic hierarchy.

  • National Council of Churches

    The National Council of Churches is an association of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, evangelical, historic African-American and Living Peace churches that represents more than 30 denominations and 45 million people. It is active in economic justice issues.


    The council called for a moratorium on the death penalty.

  • Presbyterian Church (USA)

    The Presbyterian Church (USA) is the largest Presbyterian body in the United States.

    The church called for a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000. Read a chronology of the PCUSA statements on capital punishment.

Jewish organizations

  • Orthodox Union

    The Orthodox Union is the educational and outreach arm of Orthodox Judaism. It is generally considered a Modern Orthodox organization. Among its main concerns is helping Jews keep kosher and strengthening their traditional rituals, practices and holiday observances. It posts a page that allows users to search for Orthodox synagogues by state. Rabbi Steven Weil is senior managing director.

    The group called for a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000 so the fairness of the way it is applied could be reviewed, though it noted that traditional Judaism generally condones the death penalty.

  • United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is an association of 760 Conservative congregations and 1.5 million members in North America. Rabbi Steven Wernick is CEO.

    Conservative Judaism has taken a position that the death penalty should be abolished, for all practical purposes.

Muslim organizations

  • Minaret of Freedom Institute

    The Minaret of Freedom Institute, based in Bethesda, Md., conducts independent scholarly research into issues involving Islam in the U.S. and policy issues affecting Muslim countries. The institute’s emphasis is on Islam, freedom and free markets, and the political and economic implications of Islamic law.

    Read a November 2001 essay in which president and director Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad reflects on Islam and the death penalty, particularly in the American context.

Secular organizations that support the death penalty

  • Justice For All

    Justice For All is a victims’ rights and criminal justice organization that focuses on reducing and prosecuting homicide cases based in Houston. The organization maintains Pro-Death Penalty, a resource site that lists information about victims, and

  • Criminal Justice Legal Foundation

    The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, based in Sacramento, Calif., is a nonprofit organization whose purpose is “to assure that people who are guilty of committing crimes receive swift and certain punishment in an orderly and constitutional manner.” Michael Rushford is president, and Kent Scheidegger is legal director/general counsel.

    The foundation maintains a page of resources on the death penalty.

Secular organizations that oppose the death penalty

  • National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

    The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty is a network of more than 100 organizations dedicated to abolishing the death penalty state by state. Diann Rust-Tierney is executive director.

  • Death Penalty Information Center

    The Death Penalty Information Center opposes capital punishment and tracks recent developments as well as legislation on the death penalty. Richard Dieter is executive director. Contact through Anne Holsinger.

  • Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation

    Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation was founded in 1976 as an organization for family members who have a relative who was murdered and who oppose the death penalty. Jack Sullivan Jr. is the executive director.

  • Campaign to End the Death Penalty

    The Campaign to End the Death Penalty is a Chicago-based group that describes itself as “the only national membership-driven, chapter-based grassroots organization dedicated to the abolition of capital punishment in the United States.”

  • Southern Center for Human Rights

    The Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta “provides legal representation to people facing the death penalty, challenges human rights violations in prisons and jails, seeks through litigation and advocacy to improve legal representation for poor people accused of crimes, and advocates for criminal justice system reforms on behalf of those affected by the system in the Southern United States.” The center focuses on issues of discrimination in the application of the death penalty. Media inquiries should be directed to Kathryn Hamoudah.

  • Amnesty International USA

    Amnesty International USA describes itself as “a global movement of people fighting injustice and promoting human rights.” It works in a wide variety of issues, including LGBTQ rights, education, poverty and prison rights.

    Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn is director of Amnesty’s Program to Abolish the Death Penalty. AIUSA opposes the death penalty and says juvenile executions are the next frontier for abolition. Amnesty International also sponsors an annual Faith in Action weekend to abolish the death penalty


  • James E. Coleman Jr.

    James E. Coleman Jr. is a law professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He chaired the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project from 2001-06.

  • Harold W. Attridge

    Harold W. Attridge is Sterling Professor of Divinity at Yale University Divinity School. He is the author of The Bible and the Death Penalty.

  • Herbert H. Haines

    Herbert H. Haines is a sociology professor at the State University of New York, College at Cortland. He studies social movements for criminal justice reform and is the author of Against Capital Punishment: The Anti-Death Penalty Movement in America, 1972-1994.

  • James J. Megivern

    James J. Megivern is an emeritus professor of religion at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. He is an expert on Christian ethics and capital punishment and is author of The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey.

  • Davison Douglas

    Davison Douglas is a law professor at the College of William & Mary’s Marshall-Wythe School of Law. He is an expert in constitutional law, civil rights law and the relationship between law and religion.

    He wrote “God and the Executioner: The Influence of Western Religion on the Death Penalty” for the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal in 2000. He noted the difference in attitudes between the pulpit and the pew and suggested that the fate of the death penalty in America will probably be decided in the realm of the secular, not the sacred.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Joseph Bottum

    Joseph Bottum is an author based in South Dakota and a former editor of the conservative-leaning interfaith journal First Things. Contact through Random House publicist Katie Moore.

    He argued against the use of capital punishment in an essay titled “Christians and the Death Penalty,” in the August/September 2005 edition.

  • James S. Liebman

    James S. Liebman is Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Law at Columbia Law School in New York. He specializes in criminal law, ethics and capital punishment.

    Liebman co-wrote the landmark study “A Broken System, Error Rates in Capital Cases 1973-1995.” The report found that 68 percent of all death verdicts imposed and fully reviewed during the 1973-95 study period were reversed by the courts due to serious error. The study was released in 2000.

  • David Masci

    David Masci is a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project in Washington, D.C. Masci previously worked for 14 years as a journalist for Congressional Quarterly.

    He is the author of a December 2007 analysis of issues regarding the death penalty in the United States.

In the South

  • People of Faith Against the Death Penalty

    People of Faith Against the Death Penalty is a nonprofit, interfaith organization based in North Carolina whose mission is to educate and mobilize faith communities, particularly in the South, to act to abolish the death penalty in the United States.

    Contact: 919-933-7567.
  • Timothy J. Floyd

    Timothy J. Floyd is director of the Law & Public Service Program at Mercer University School of Law in Macon, Ga. He is an expert on the death penalty and served as defense counsel in the first case in the nation under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994. His primary research interest is legal ethics, especially how moral theology applies to the practice of law. He wrote “What’s Going On? Christian Ethics and the Modern American Death Penalty” for the Texas Tech Law Review in 2001.

  • Helen Prejean

    Sister Helen Prejean is a Roman Catholic nun and author of Dead Man Walking, an account of her ministry with death row inmates in Louisiana’s Angola State Prison that was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 1996. Her most recent book is The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions. Prejean, whose office is in New Orleans, is one of the most popular and outspoken opponents of the death penalty.

  • Ted A. Smith

    Ted A. Smith is associate professor of preaching and ethics at Emory University in Atlanta. Smith focuses on questions of ethics and justice, such as the death penalty, in a democratic society where the majority may support ethically problematic measures.

  • Jim Marcus

    Jim Marcus is co-director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Capital Punishment Clinic. The clinic gives students the opportunity to help represent indigent criminal defendants in capital cases.

  • Dudley Sharp

    Dudley Sharp of Houston is a death penalty activist who formerly opposed capital punishment but now supports it. He has been interviewed on major television and radio news and opinion programs and included in newspaper articles.

  • Dan Malone

    Dan Malone is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for various magazines and newspapers in Texas. He has taught classes at Tarleton State University and the University of North Texas. His writing and research interests include the death penalty, immigration and criminal justice. Malone is co-author of America’s Condemned: Death Row Inmates in Their Own Words.

  • John K. Cochran

    John K. Cochran is a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida in Tampa and has written widely on religion and crime.

    A death penalty expert, he wrote the article “Religion, Punitive Justice and Support for the Death Penalty” for Justice Quarterly.

  • William P. Quigley

    William P. Quigley is a law professor and director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University New Orleans. He is the author of Ending Poverty as We Know It: Guaranteeing a Right to a Job at a Living Wage.

    Quigley is a public interest lawyer who has represented defendants or convicts in death penalty cases. In 2003 he wrote an open letter to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia responding to Scalia’s criticism of Catholic social justice teaching against the death penalty.

In the Midwest

  • Joseph L. Hoffmann

    Joseph L. Hoffmann is Harry Pratter Professor of Law at Indiana University-Bloomington. He is an expert on the death penalty and federal criminal law.

  • John C. McAdams

    John C. McAdams is a political scientist at Marquette University in Milwaukee whose research focuses on congressional politics, social class and elections and capital punishment. He has written that he favors capital punishment, even if it doesn’t work as a deterrent.

In the West

  • John D. Carlson

    John D. Carlson is associate professor of religious studies at Arizona State University. His books include, as co-editor, Religion and the Death Penalty: A Call for Reckoning. His work focuses on religion, ethics and politics.

  • Gregory J. Kuykendall

    Defense lawyer Gregory J. Kuykendall specializes in capital cases and wrote about the politics of death sentencing in Arizona. He is also lead death penalty counsel to the Mexican Foreign Ministry.

  • Mark A. Costanzo

    Mark A. Costanzo is a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. He is an expert on the death penalty, nonverbal communication, expert testimony and social psychology. He wrote Just Revenge: Costs and Consequences of the Death Penalty.

  • E. Christian Brugger

    E. Christian Brugger is J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Professor of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. He wrote the essay “Embryos, Clones and Stem Cells” for the New Oxford Review (October 2003).

    He wrote the book Capital Punishment and Roman Catholic Moral Tradition.

  • Franklin E. Zimring

    Franklin E. Zimring is William G. Simon Professor of Law and Wolfen Distinguished Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, Law School. He specializes in issues of criminology, violence and family law.

    He has written books on capital punishment and juvenile violence.

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