SBC support for death penalty based on Bible, Duke says

WASHINGTON (BP)--Southern Baptists support capital punishment because it is a "biblical position" that remains applicable, said Barrett Duke of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission at a panel discussion on religious views of the death penalty.

The discussion featured a variety of perspectives from panelists representing Jewish and different Christian backgrounds. It was held June 5 in Washington as the execution date for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh neared.

Duke, vice president for research of the ERLC, was the only panelist to favor capital punishment and not favor a moratorium on the practice. He referred to a resolution adopted at last year's Southern Baptist Convention in outlining his position.

"Southern Baptists believe all people are conceived with the right to life," Duke said. "Some people forfeit that right."

In support of the death penalty, he cited Genesis 9, in which God commanded Noah to use the death penalty prior to the establishment of Israel, and Romans 13, in which Paul says it is "still a valid exercise of government to use capital punishment," Duke said.

The government should not use execution "for its own ends," but because the "image of God" has been violated and the state has the responsibility to protect the weak, Duke said. "In a sense, civil government is making a statement about the sanctity of life," he said.

Southern Baptists have concerns about capital punishment's use, however, the greatest of which is that an innocent person could be executed, Duke said. That is why last year's resolution called for the death penalty to be used only when there is "clear and overwhelming evidence," he said.

Capital punishment "should never be a simple thing; it should never be a vindictive activity," Duke said. "If there is any possibility of doubt," the death penalty should be avoided, he said.

There are "racial and economic inequities" that need to be remedied, Duke said. The 2000 SBC resolution urged capital punishment be applied "without reference to the race, class or status of the guilty."

While calls for a moratorium on the death penalty have increased in recent years, Southern Baptists have not addressed that issue, Duke said. He would not favor it out of concern it would be a first step to abolition of capital punishment, Duke said.

Orthodox Jewish panelist Nathan Diament said, "We're not abolitionists, but we are for a moratorium."

Capital punishment was appropriate for murder, according to rabbinic teaching, said Diament, public-policy director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. Orthodox Jews have concerns about the "accuracy" and "fairness" of the practice, he said.

John Carr of the U.S. Catholic Conference acknowledged government has the right to use capital punishment but said it "should forgo that right."

Although there are a range of views held by Catholics, the bishops in the United States have opposed the death penalty since the 1970s, said Carr, the USCC's director of social development and world peace.

This opposition, Carr said, is based on:

-- Capital punishment's "uncertainty and its finality;"

-- "Questions of [its] fairness;"

-- "Its coarsening effect on culture;"

-- Its "contribution to a growing disrespect for human life."

Carr said, "We cannot defend life by taking life."

Joseph Lowery denied the government has the authority to use capital punishment. Lowery is chairman of the Black Leadership Forum and president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Lowery said the death penalty is used disproportionately in the South and on black and poor people. The Bible also was used to defend slavery in the South, Lowery said.

"Capital punishment is for people who have no capital," Lowery said. "The poor are richly prosecuted but poorly defended."

He supports a moratorium and confesses he sees it "as a first step," Lowery said.

A USA Today poll showed even people who oppose capital punishment think McVeigh should be executed, Duke said. "I think the American public is going to continue to say there are some crimes that are too vicious" not to punish with the death penalty, he said.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which is based in Washington, sponsored the event.


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