Earlier this month, roughly fifty evangelical leaders signed a letter urging the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and the state’s governor, Greg Abbott, to stop the Aug. 24 execution of death row inmate Jeff Wood.
Self-described evangelicals — a large, varied group — have opposed executions before, often flocking to the side of prisoners who present themselves as having been born again. Their interest in Wood’s case is notable because he is not one of these inmates; they are focused instead on the details of his crime. Wood was in a car while his friend shot a gas station clerk during a robbery, and his attorneys claim he had no intent to murder. “The death penalty, we are told, is reserved for the most egregious crimes,” the letter states. “Wood’s actions — which did not include directly committing a murder or intending to — simply do not fall into this category.”
The letter is the latest sign that a community once known as a bedrock of death penalty support is no longer monolithic. In 1973, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the punishment, the National Association of Evangelicals urged state legislatures to rewrite their laws to revive the punishment. But their support was always in tension with the belief that anyone could be redeemed through faith in Christ — and should not die before they have a chance to take that step. That tension was tested in 1998 by the Texas execution of Karla Faye Tucker, who murdered a man and woman with a pickaxe during a robbery, but underwent a conversion in prison convincing enough to bring televangelist Pat Robertson of The 700 Club to her cause.
That wasn’t enough to sway then-Gov. George W. Bush, who carried a base of white evangelical voters to the White House two years later. (Bush later wrote that signing off on Tucker’s death was “one of the hardest things I have ever done.”)
Then came a slow shift. The national association, which claims a constituency of 30 million affiliated churchgoers, has become less white over the last decade, and black and Hispanic churchgoers are more likely to oppose capital punishment.
But even among whites, leaders often speak of a generational shift. “I remember debating this issue in college with my friends,” says Heather Beaudoin, a 32-year-old evangelical activist with Equal Justice USA who organized the current letter. “I’ve noticed that the friends who fought me have come around.” On a variety of political issues, from environmentalism to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, younger white protestants have moved away from the positions that defined a previous generation.
Last fall, the national association revised its 1973 position and acknowledged, “Evangelical Christians differ in their beliefs about capital punishment.” Older pastors, who may have leaned left on some issues for a long time, now have more cover to take actions like signing a letter in support of a death row inmate.
One of the signatories is Joel Hunter, who leads the 20,000-member Northland Church in the suburbs of Orlando, Florida. He supported Mike Huckabee in 2008, but has prayed with President Barack Obama and says, “Many of us in the evangelical Protestant community are coming to where the Catholics have been for a while: pro-life in terms of whole life, all vulnerable life, whether in the womb or on death row.”
Hunter and his peers speak of separating the theological question of whether the death penalty is just — since there are clear Biblical statements in both directions — to a more grounded focus on inequities in how capital punishment is applied. In 2014, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote for CNN that the death penalty should continue to be used, but “while the law itself is not prejudiced, the application of the death penalty often is.”
Some white evangelicals are increasingly interested in issues of race; another signatory to the Wood letter, pastor Wes Helm of Springcreek Church in Garland, Tex., said the book Just Mercy by death penalty lawyer Bryan Stevenson had sparked conversations among his staff. His church has fought payday lending in the past, and plans to discuss the death penalty as a community later this year. Until then, he said, he only signs for himself.
When it comes to individual cases, evangelical activists know they need to choose ones that will galvanize their community. They continue to go with inmates who, like Karla Faye Tucker, present clear redemption narratives. In recent years, they have supported Kelly Gissendaner of Georgia (who studied for a theological certificate in prison) and Duane Buck of Texas (who leads a Bible study on death row). Fisher Humphreys, an emeritus divinity professor at Samford University in Alabama, says, “Those who undergo a great transformation must have a special appeal to pastors who are trying so hard to get people to undergo that same transformation.”
But in the past few years, the ground has shifted enough that they can go further. Christian leaders are also particularly troubled by the possibility that an innocent person has been executed, so it was a short step to consider someone like Wood, who had so little involvement in the murder; ”He just seems like he went with the wrong crowd one night,” Humphreys says.
Mental illness is another area where there is an opening; Christian leaders supported Scott Panetti, who was so mentally ill he tried to subpoena John F. Kennedy before his trial. Jeff Wood was also intellectually impaired (his IQ has been assessed around 80) and he asked his trial attorneys not to present any evidence on his behalf.
There are limits, however. Joel Hunter admits that his 20,000 parishioners “give me the benefit of the doubt” in cases like that of Wood, but might not be so comfortable if he were to support a death row inmate with a heinous crime and no sign of remorse. “I’m a pastor first; I’m not primarily a social justice advocate,” Hunter says. “I won’t come out and argue it’s too bad that Hitler died.”