Death Penalty -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

The recently botched execution in Oklahoma has again raised the ugly head of the death penalty in America. As you can tell, I have a strong opinion on the issue of the death penalty. There are a variety of reasons, including some that I draw from Scripture, knowing that supporters of the death penalty can marshal their own texts (thus, as Martin Marty notes, cancelling each other out). That said, there is a growing discomfort with the death penalty, a form of punishment that America is counted among an interesting group of countries who engage in official executions. That the innocent die among the guilty and that persons of color and the poor are disproportionately the ones who are so punished, might give us pause. Martin Marty, with his usual adept wisdom, helps us examine the practice and its declining popularity (except perhaps in Texas). I invite you to read and respond.

Death Penalty
Monday | May 5 2014
                                                                                                     Photo Credit: C. Elle / Creative Commons
“People who believe in the death penalty should be very concerned about this,” warned David B. Muhlhausen of “the conservative Heritage Foundation.” “This” is what Muhlhusen suspects is a move by President Obama “to weaken the death penalty system.”

The New York Times' Peter Barker (May 3, 2014) describes President Obama as ambivalent about the "polarizing issue" of the death penalty which he "rarely discusses;" however, the President found "deeply disturbing" last week’s “botched execution” and now says that Americans should “ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions” about it.

The Economist (April 26. 2014) has advanced the topic with a lengthy article on “The Slow Death of the Death Penalty” and “How America is Falling Out of Love with the Needle,” the currently favored instrument of death. The magazine notes that outside of Texas (with seven unbotched executions so far this year), only three others occurred in the nation.

Still, Amnesty International reminds Texans and the rest of us that America is in very distinct and distinctive company among executors: Only Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and China, “disreputable peers,” execute more.

Muhlhausen spoke appropriately of “people who believe in the death penalty” because all but a few social scientists suggest that supporting this form of killing is more a matter of faith than reason. This faith is being tested as a growing number of states are reforming their punishment systems at the expense of the death penalty. Economically conservative budget-cutters realize that following through on the death penalty is far more expensive than punishing through life terms in prison.

Now and then we read of a researcher who thinks that the death penalty is a deterrent against crimes of the most heinous sort. Such analysts are increasingly lonely; crime rates and the threat of capital punishment apparently have little to do with each other.

The number of Americans who “believe in the death penalty” is ever lower, asThe Economist reminds us. For various reasons, the number of these “believers” has declined from 80% in 1994 to 60% today. Activist groups and numbers of religious bodies, including official Catholics, moderates, and some evangelicals oppose capital punishment.

Individuals are moved when they read, as they do in The Economist, that innocents are killed, though some relatives get some satisfaction when, posthumously, their dead loved one is declared innocent. Such declarations and pardons come only after strenuous efforts. The Economist this week featured the story of Texan Cameron Todd Wellington. The magazine reported that a faulty electric wire in a burning home was probably at fault in the  crime blamed on the executed Wellington.

Some argue that “retribution” is important for providing satisfaction to those who seek standards and justice. Sooner or later, people on both sides cite the Bible to make their case. They cancel each other out, because the Bible, a library that includes commands and histories from many cultures and numbers of centuries, has no clear voice on this. The Good Book can be cited as licenser of all kinds of punishments which few would support today.

People of good faith can disagree on this “polarizing issue.’ But it would be nice to see the United States drop down from fifth place among the capital punishers to a place among nations that do not execute the guilty (or the innocent) and still sustain lower crime rates than does the United States.


Baker, Peter. “Obama Orders Policy Review on Executions.” The New York Times, May 2, 2014, U.S.

The Economist. “The slow death of the death penalty: America is falling out of love with the needle.” April 26, 2014.

Amnesty International. “The Death Penalty in 2013.” Accessed May 3, 2014.

“The Roman Catholic Church’s Official Teaching on the Death Penalty: Excerpted from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” Beliefnet.comAccessed May 3, 2014.

BBC. “Judaism and capital punishment.” Last modified July 21, 2009.

Image Credit: C. Elle / Creative Commons

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.
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