The religion behind why some people of faith support the death penalty — and why others don't

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"I wonder if Frank Keating has any comment?"

That was my first thought last week when Pope Francis decreed — as The Associated Press reported — "that the death penalty is 'inadmissible' under all circumstances and the Catholic Church should campaign to abolish it."

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Keating — a lifelong Catholic — served as Oklahoma's governor, I covered the state prison system and later religion for The Oklahoman. On both those beats, the conservative Republican's support for capital punishment came into play.

I always enjoyed interviewing Keating because he wasn't shy about sharing his opinions — even if that meant calling then-Pope John Paul II mistaken in his opposition to the death penalty. In February 1999, Keating famously skipped Mass one Sunday because he said he couldn't sit silently while then-Oklahoma City Archbishop Eusebius Beltran read a letter criticizing the governor's death-penalty stance.

After the news involving Francis last week, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly offered astute, must-read commentary ("Death penalty doctrine: Francis builds on insights of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI?"), followed by a helpful podcast.

Beyond the important questions tmatt raised, I was curious — perhaps because of my past experience with Keating — to see coverage of Catholic governors in states with active death chambers.

For example, Texas executes more inmates than any other state, and yes, it has a Catholic governor.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, is a staunch death penalty supporter and longtime friend of Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson, who prayed at his inauguration. However, Abbott has clashed with his friend and the state's other bishops on issues such as immigration. "We agree to disagree," Olson told me on the immigration issue last year.

I was pleased to see an AP story delving into the quandary that Francis' decree could pose for U.S. politicians.

From that story:

Sister Helen Prejean, the anti-death penalty campaigner whose ministry to a death row inmate inspired the book and film, “Dead Man Walking,” asked on Twitter if Gov. Pete Ricketts, who she said has “pro-life values,” would heed the pope’s direction.
“If we say we are for dignity of all life, that includes innocent and guilty as well,” she told The Associated Press.
Ricketts, a Republican and Catholic, worked to reinstate capital punishment in his state after lawmakers abolished it in 2015. He said the pope’s decree doesn’t change his stance.
“While I respect the Pope’s perspective, capital punishment remains the will of the people and the law of the State of Nebraska,” Ricketts said in a statement. “It is an important tool to protect our corrections officers and public safety.”

As for Abbott, here is what the AP report had to say:

The decree is also unlikely to slow the nation’s busiest death chamber in Texas, where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — a devout Catholic — has previously said there was no conflict between his faith and support for the death penalty. His spokeswoman did not return messages about whether the pope’s statement might shift Abbott’s view. The next execution in Texas is set for Sept. 12.

It's interesting that Abbott — based on his spokeswoman's lack of response — did not want to engage the issue.

Hopefully, reporters will keep pressing for a comment from Abbott.

Meanwhile, let's turn from the specific Catholic angle to a more general story on faith and capital punishment. 

Tennessee is preparing for a high-profile execution. Religion writer Holly Meyer has a front-page story on "why the death penalty divides many Christians." 

Meyer notes:

Gov. Bill Haslam pointed that fact out in a statement he issued Monday night announcing that he would not intervene in Irick's lethal injection, which is scheduled for Thursday. In 1986, a Knox County jury convicted Irick of the murder and aggravated rape of 7-year-old Paula Dyer. He was sentenced to death.
The governor shared his decision not to grant clemency to Irick soon after the state Supreme Court denied the 59-year-old Knoxville man's request to stay his execution.     
"My role is not to be the 13th juror or the judge or to impose my personal views, but to carefully review the judicial process to make sure it was full and fair," Haslam said. "Because of the extremely thorough judicial review of all of the evidence and arguments at every stage in this case, clemency is not appropriate."

Kudos to Meyer for attempting to get the governor to explain how his faith played into his decision and for interviewing a pastor from Haslam's denomination when the governor declined to talk:

Haslam declined to explain to the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee how his own Christian beliefs factored into his decision not to intervene in Irick's case. Nor did he share which, if any, religious leaders he consulted in that process. 
Some have tried to intervene. 
Last month, the Catholic bishops from the Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville dioceses sent a letter to Haslam calling on him to put an end to this year's executions. 
The governor attends Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville and Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church when he is in Knoxville. The churches are a part of the Presbyterian Church in America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, respectively. Neither of those evangelical denominations have an official position on the issue. 
Marvin Padgett, who is an ordained PCA minister, personally supports the death penalty and believes the Bible permits it as well. But it should not be taken lightly nor celebrated, he said.  
"It is something to be approached with gravity," Padgett said. "Are there instances where the crime is so heinous that the perpetrator of the crime should be put to death? And I think, reluctantly, that is the case." 

This is one of those cases that illustrates so well the importance of having a trained Godbeat pro such as Meyer report a story such as this.

The Tennessean writer offers helpful context and insight both from capital punishment supporters and opponents alike.

Go ahead and read her story.

Read it all.

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