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Why is the death penalty discussed in religious terms?

For months after her daughter, Shannon, was murdered in 1998, Vicki Schieber was lost.

She was confused and enraged, suddenly forced to face a future without her brilliant, passionate daughter. Shannon was only 23 when she was raped and killed in her Philadelphia apartment the day before she planned to head home to Maryland for summer vacation.

"I got so mad at God at first. I remember pounding on the driver's seat asking, 'Why God? Why didn't you take me?'" said Schieber, a lifelong Catholic.

Although heartbroken, Schieber and her husband surprised those who expected them to push for the death penalty, including the Pennsylvania district attorney prosecuting the case against Troy Graves, who was arrested in 2002 and charged with murdering Shannon and raping or attempting to rape 12 other women in Pennsylvania and Colorado. The Schiebers urged lawyers to take the death penalty off the table because of Vicki's social work background, media coverage of capital punishment and, most importantly, their faith.

"We believed that all life is sacred, and (when) we had to face this person in the court room who murdered our daughter, that idea guided us," she said.

The death penalty — how it should be carried out and whether flawed lethal injection drugs constitute cruel and unusual punishment — has been a prominent topic of debate over the past two years among policymakers, law experts, advocates and everyday people. Meantime, states continue to carry out society's most severe punishment. On Feb. 3, the oldest inmate on Georgia's death row was executed.

Often lost in these highly publicized debates is how faith influences opinions and galvanizes those for and against capital punishment. Opponents, like the Schiebers, might believe murderers deserve mercy, too, or cite Jesus' many acts of extreme forgiveness. Supporters, who surveys show are a majority among religious believers, can argue that defying God by taking a human life should lead to the ultimate punishment.

"You have to recognize that religion is woven into this debate in complicated and often unpredictable ways. There's no single (path) from scripture to a political view," said Erik Owens, associate director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

Faithful influence

Capital punishment is losing support in the U.S. In 1996, two years before Shannon Schieber was murdered, 78 percent of Americans favored the death penalty as punishment for convicted murderers, according to Pew Research Center. By 2015, that figure had fallen to 56 percent.

In 2010, Pew investigated the factors that drive people's opinions on the death penalty, testing the influence of things like media coverage of execution and education.

Pew's survey showed that "about one in five Americans (19 percent) with an opinion about the death penalty say that religion is the most important influence on their thinking about the issue," compared to 20 percent who cited education and 13 percent who cited the media.

Researchers also analyzed how different influences swayed people's opinion, noting that religion was much more often offered as an explanation for opposition than for support. "About one-third (32 percent) of those who oppose capital punishment cite religion, compared with 13 percent among those who favor it," Pew reported.

Official stances of religious denominations on the death penalty, which are informed by religious texts, as wells as social justice concerns, partially explain this gap, because few faith groups openly affirm the use of capital punishment.

In the U.S., the Southern Baptist Convention and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod officially support the death penalty. Islamic leaders around the world do, as well, although some American Muslims groups oppose it, according to Pew.

Notable death penalty detractors include the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Pope Francis decried capital punishment before Congress last September, saying, like Schieber did, that "every life is sacred," CNN reported at the time.

Contemporary faith-based activism against the death penalty is, in some ways, surprising because religious practice and capital punishment have a long history with each other, Owens said, noting that in colonial America the death penalty was understood to offer criminals their best chance to repent and receive God's forgiveness. Faith leaders played a prominent role in public executions.

"Preachers would deliver sermons about God's mercy and judgment. They'd terrify the audience and drive the convicted to truly and sincerely repent," Owens said. "Some people honestly thought they were doing the criminals a favor."

Why religion

As religion gradually came to play a less dominant role in public life, people began considering the death penalty through a variety of other lenses, questioning its effectiveness in deterring murder and comparing its cost with the cost of imposing a life sentence.

However, as Schieber's story illustrated and Pew's data confirmed, religion has continued to affect people's stance on capital punishment in both large and small ways.

"In one sense, everything is a religious issue for people who are believers. Religion is what we'd call a comprehensive world view. It ought to, arguably, affect everything you look at," Owens said. "The death penalty puts this idea to people in really important ways. It's a question of principles deeply informed by religion: mercy, justice, evil, fairness and guilt."

Similarly, Bill Blankschaen, who runs Patheos' Faith Walkers blog and belongs to the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, said that his faith helps him engage with any number of political issues, including the death penalty. He supports capital punishment, viewing the sacredness of life as the rationale for it, unlike Schieber or Pope Francis.

"God gives life, and only God should take a life," he said, noting that when a murderers take someone's life they violate God's authority.

"God instituted the death penalty in Genesis 9," Blankschaen added. Genesis 9:6 reads, "Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind."

Schieber said the importance of showing mercy guided her decision about the fate of her daughter's killer, who was eventually sentence to life in prison for the attacks of seven women in Fort Collins, Colorado.

"We believed that all those years in prison could change a person. He has a chance to be redeemed, to heal. If we stick him six feet underground, what could he do?" she said, noting biblical stories about Jesus emphasize forgiveness.

Since her daughter's death, Schieber has been working with Catholic groups and other activists to end the death penalty nationwide. She said they argue in religious terms, because faith is woven into the American political system.

"We are one nation, under God. We have a strong faith basis," said Schieber, who co-edited the 2013 book, "Where Justice and Mercy Meet: Catholic Opposition to the Death Penalty."

Similarly, John Carlson, acting director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and an associate professor of religious studies at Arizona State University, said religion adds to the death penalty debate a meaningful focus on the dignity of human life.

It's understandable why someone might look at ongoing legal battles over capital punishment and conclude religion has nothing to add, he said. The arguments often focus on the execution itself — such as an adequate supply of lethal injection drugs or whether a botched lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

But for Carlson, the death penalty debate will always benefit from the involvement of religious groups and ideas, which can help answer a key question: Do convicted criminals deserve to die?

"Understanding the purpose of punishment is crucial, and religious groups have a long history of attending very deeply to the retributive value of punishment," he said.

Predicting the future

Like Owens, Carlson highlighted how religious belief can lead people to more than one position on the death penalty.

"There are religious values and principles that one can turn to on either side of this debate" he said. "My own study suggests that there is nothing that requires religious people to support capital punishment, but, on the other hand, nothing that absolutely morally prohibits it either."

Owens, who, along with Carlson, co-authored "Religion and the Death Penalty: A Call for Reckoning," compared the phenomenon to faith-based discussions of poverty in America. Most believers would say it's problematic, but they can't agree how God would want them to fix it.

This ambiguity, along with political and other forces, explains the division within religious groups. Rank-and-file believers regularly hold different views on the death penalty than faith leaders, as Pew reported last year.

More than half (53 percent) of Catholics — including 63 percent of white Catholics— and 66 percent of white Protestants favor the death penalty, despite Catholic leaders and most prominent Protestant denominations having publicly opposed capital punishment.

More than seven in 10 white evangelical Protestants favor the death penalty, according to Pew. This group includes Southern Baptists.

Public opinion on the death penalty will continue to evolve, because faith-based opinions, whether held by rank-and-file believers or their leaders, shift as people interpret the social and political climate in new ways, Carlson said.

Religious belief is affected by context, he said, noting that "right now, the context in the U.S. is one in which capital punishment is under incredible scrutiny."

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