Dead leaders walking?

deathpenalty 03 When I was growing up, two of my favorite books were In Cold Blood and Dead Man Walking. Both exposed the desolation, inhumanity, and cruelty of capital punishment -- and both were hugely popular. But did either of them make the death penalty less popular? The data is not encouraging. So I was interested to read a story by G. Jeffrey MacDonald of Religion News Service that Christian leaders increasingly are working to ban capital punishment. Wrote MacDonald,

As bishops work statehouse hallways, parish priests are spreading the message that "pro-life" also means anti-death penalty. For more than two years, they've used sermons, bulletin inserts and a DVD titled "A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death" as part of a campaign to keep the issue in churchgoers' consciousness. ...

Clergy from mainline Protestant denominations, which have opposed the death penalty for decades, have recently joined hands with pragmatists who fear the death penalty can claim innocent victims or doesn't effectively deter crime.

The National Association of Evangelicals, meanwhile, stands by its 1973 statement favoring the death penalty under certain circumstances, but "the NAE hasn't really been active on the death penalty in recent years," according to Heather Gonzalez, the NAE's association director.

MacDonald informs readers that their efforts come at a propitious moment:

On Monday (Jan. 7), the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether death by lethal injection violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. New Jersey recently became the 14th state to ban executions. And Gallup Poll data show public support for the death penalty in murder cases has slipped from a high of 80 percent to 69 percent over the past 13 years.

Well, neither passage makes the pond any less murky. MacDonald should have explained to readers the relevance of these two developments: the mobilization of Christian leaders and waning popularity for the death penalty. Are the two related?

To be sure, MacDonald suggests that they are. An author is quoted as saying that Catholics are more likely to oppose the death penalty if their pastor speaks out against the practice. But this is not illuminating. Catholic bishops have opposed the death penalty for decades.

Also, MacDonald notes that the NAE has become politically quiescent on the issue. That's interesting news. Even so, he should have specified when the NAE stopped its outspoken support for capital punishment. Perhaps the NAE's relative silence on the issue has made evangelicals more opposed to the death penalty. But in the absence of data or more information, readers can't tell.

Perhaps I am not being sufficiently clear, so let me restate my thesis. It's one thing to say that society's leaders, whether writers or clergy, are mobilizing against a social practice. It's another to say that they are having much of an effect.

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