RELIGIOUS faith and capital punishment have always been intertwined. Christianity's primordial event was the execution of its founder, and the same fate was suffered by many of its early teachers. At the same time, putting wrongdoers (or sometimes just wrong thinkers) to death has generally been presented as a sacred imperative. In English history, Thomas Cranmer (burned in 1556) is remembered as a Protestant martyr, and Thomas More (beheaded in 1535) as a Catholic one; in both cases the executioners, as well as the victims, claimed to be following the will of God. The sacred texts of both Judaism (also revered by Christians) and Islam mandate the death penalty in certain circumstances. A famous verse in the Koran lays down that "if anyone kills a person, unless it be [as a punishment] for murder or spreading mischief in the land, it will be as if he kills all people." In other words, it is permissible to take life as retribution for a terrible crime; and "spreading mischief" has been interpreted pretty broadly by Islamic judges, to include apostasy (leaving Islam) and homosexuality. But in one respect, Islamic law is more lenient than many Western codes: it allows the family of a murder victim to forgive, and hence spare from death, a killer.
With all these sacred pronouncements on the subject of execution, we shouldn't be surprised that news stories about capital punishment are often tangled up with issues of faith. Turkey warned a few days ago that the whole Sunni Muslim world would be in turmoil if Egypt carried out a death sentence passed on ousted President Mohammed Morsi and more than 100 fellow members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Last month, when Indonesia executed eight people, including two Australian citizens, for drug trafficking, emotions in Australia ran especially high owing to reports that the convicted men sang Christian hymns as they faced the firing squad. Andrew Chan, one of the Australian convicts, had become a Christian minister during his incarceration.
At the trial that led to a death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who planted a bomb at last year's Boston Marathon, some memorable evidence was given by Sister Helen Prejean (pictured), a Catholic nun who campaigns against the penalty. She described the bomber as a contrite young man who was fully aware of the suffering he had caused. Contemporary Catholic thinking links opposition to the death penalty with a broader concern for the "sanctity of life". Pope Francis unconditionally opposes the death penalty. More liberal Christians cite the story in which Jesus stopped the stoning of an adulterous woman by challenging the person who was "without sin" to cast the first rock.
In America, however, most Christians still support capital punishment. Last year Albert Mohler, one of America's most influential evangelical figures, made an impassioned defence of the death penalty. Quoting the Book of Genesis as well as Saint Paul's injunction to respect earthly authority, he argued that "Christians should hope, pray and strive for a society in which the death penalty, rightly and rarely applied, would make moral sense."
A poll by the Pew Research Center in March found that 56% of Americans back the death penalty while 38% oppose it. Catholics were slightly less supportive (approving it by 53% to 42%) than average, whereas Protestants were more keen. Among white evangelicals, some 71% agreed with execution and only 25% were against. Black Protestants felt differently; 37% agree with the death penalty while 58% oppose it.
But even in America, support for the death penalty is waning, falling from 80% in 1994. In Mr Mohler's world-view this mounting opposition is not merely mistaken, but a sign of the dark forces of secular thinking that are overturning established religious morals in every area of life. Yet Mr Mohler is surely mistaken on this narrow point. If the death penalty is eventually abolished in the United States, it will not just be secularists, misguided or otherwise, who bring about that decision. The successful coalition will include idealists like Ms Prejean who oppose capital punishment from the bottom of their God-fearing hearts.
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Common reasons against capital punishment