Concerning Hispanic evangelicals and the death penalty: Dig a little deeper, please

In my days covering the state prison system for The Oklahoman, I witnessed a handful of executionssome high profile and others not.

Given that experience, headlines concerning public support for — and opposition to — capital punishment always catch my attention.

A front-page story by the Houston Chronicle this week tackled a compelling angle: Hispanic evangelicals forming what the newspaper described as a "new front in the battle against the death penalty":

The Chronicle's lede:

For years, Samuel Rodriguez, a California Assemblies of God preacher, accepted both views as gospel truth.

But then came nagging doubts about capital punishment's effectiveness in deterring crime and a growing belief that "African-Americans and Hispanics disproportionately are on the wrong end of the injection." After a decade of soul-searching, Rodriguez reached a startling conclusion: To truly be pro-life means to support life "inside and outside the womb."

Today, Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the nation's largest Hispanic evangelical group, has become emblematic of a new wave of conservative Christians rallying opposition to the death penalty. Rodriguez fought to spare
the life of schizophrenic Texas double-killer Scott Panetti — a federal court stayed the execution — and, in a Time magazine essay, decried a botched Oklahoma execution.

In March, a second Hispanic group, the New York-based National Latino Evangelical Coalition, became the first evangelical association to call for capital punishment's end.

"The idea that the evangelical church gives rubber-stamp approval to the death penalty is no longer applicable," Rodriguez said. "More and more, Bible-believing individuals, theological conservatives, Christ's followers in America, are beginning to sway away from capital punishment."

Keep reading, and the Houston newspaper makes the case that Hispanic evangelicals "are entering a contentious debate that for decades has split American believers":

While the America's evangelical movement remains conservative - former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was the featured speaker at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference's 2015 Houston convention - issues such as abolition of the death penalty and immigration reform have resonated with Hispanics.

In a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll, less than a fourth of Hispanic Protestants said they favor the death penalty, compared with 59 percent of white Protestant evangelicals and 52 percent of white mainstream Protestants. Among Catholics, the survey found, 29 percent of Hispanics and 45 percent of whites support the death penalty.

There's a lot to like about this meaty, 1,300-word report, including its nuanced exploration of where a number of Christian denominations stand on the death penalty.

But I found myself wanting to know more about the key angle — that of Hispanic evangelicals.

Yes, the Chronicle quotes the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference's Rodriguez and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition's president, the Rev. Gabriel Salguero. But what about Hispanic evangelicals at the grassroots level? Where are the Houston voices? What do the ordinary pastors and people in the pews in the Chronicle's own coverage area have to say? Their voices are strangely lacking, unless I somehow missed a sidebar that didn't show up in my online reading.

Moreover, the statistics cited by the Chronicle provide no historical context: Has the number of Hispanic Protestants who oppose capital punishment increased in recent years? If so, by how much? And, on a related note, does the Catholic background of many Hispanic evangelicals contribute to this trend?

In short, my assessment of this story is: Great topic. Nice effort. Less-than-perfect execution.

Dig a little deeper, please.

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