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«ISSN 1556-3723 (print) Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion Volume 7 2011 Article 10 Catholics and the Death Penalty: Religion as a ...»

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ISSN 1556-3723 (print)

Interdisciplinary Journal of

Research on Religion


Volume 7 2011 Article 10


Catholics and the Death Penalty:

Religion as a Filter for Political Beliefs

Thomas K. Bias

Research Associate

Health Research Center and Department of Community Medicine

West Virginia University School of Medicine West Virginia University Morgantown, West Virginia Abraham Goldberg Department of History, Political Science, Philosophy, and American Studies University of South Carolina Upstate Spartanburg, South Carolina Tara Hannum* Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science West Virginia University Morgantown, West Virginia *Tara.Hannum@mail.wvu.edu Copyright © 2011 Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion is freely available on the World Wide Web at http://www.religjournal.com.

Catholics and the Death Penalty:

Religion as a Filter for Political Beliefs Thomas K. Bias Research Associate Health Research Center and Department of Community Medicine West Virginia University School of Medicine West Virginia University Morgantown, West Virginia Abraham Goldberg Department of History, Political Science, Philosophy, and American Studies University of South Carolina Upstate Spartanburg, South Carolina Tara Hannum Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science West Virginia University Morgantown, West Virginia Abstract Research has shown that public opinion about the death penalty can be largely attributed to the tone of media stories and the number of murders that happen around the time the surveys are conducted. However, not all citizens react similarly to new information such as media stories.

Political awareness can help people to filter out new information that might otherwise sway their opinions. Those who lack such awareness are more easily persuaded by new information, resulting in rather unstable, easily changed opinions. We hypothesize that strongly held religious beliefs also serve as such a filter, creating stability in opinions regardless of political awareness. Using the issue of capital punishment, we examine how strongly held Catholic beliefs might affect opinions on the death penalty. We show that Catholics with a strong religious attachment are less likely to be persuaded by current events and political discussion than is the norm. Strongly religious Catholics tend to filter out such information and seemingly ground their opinions in the social doctrine of their church.

Bias, Goldberg, and Hannum: Catholics and the Death Penalty 3 While politicians, academics, and people who work in the criminal justice system have examined the use of capital punishment with reference to statistics along with arguments about deterrence, race and class bias, incapacitation, or cost, many Americans view capital punishment in terms of moral philosophy and religious conviction. Both sides—those who are for and against capital punishment—make arguments that are grounded in Judeo-Christian tradition (Richards 1980). However, debates about the death penalty are moving toward testing the social utility of the death penalty rather than examining the moral implications of this punishment. Most scholars have not focused on the impact of religion in shaping attitudes about capital punishment (Young 1992). For an issue with such immense moral implications, it is important to understand the value judgments that enter into determining attitudes on capital punishment. For this reason, religion cannot be ignored (Medhurst 2009).

Little is known about the influence that religion has on shaping views about capital punishment. Although few studies have linked the power of religion to the way in which attitudes about capital punishment are determined, some studies have attempted to determine religion’s effects on other social issues. The results have largely been inconclusive. Studying intrinsic and extrinsic factors has created more debate about the methods and theories behind the studies than it has solved. Studies that have looked at the relationship between fundamentalism and prejudice have also been inconclusive (Young 1992). What we do know is that religious groups are at odds with each other over several political issues, including abortion and the death penalty (Evans 2002), and that determining the effects of religion on attitude and behavior is complicated (Young 1992).

Many religious groups do not have an official stance on moral issues, especially capital punishment. That makes the impact of religion on adherents’ political opinions hard to measure. One group that does have official doctrine, which is easily accessible and simple to examine, is the Catholic Church.

Therefore Catholics can be used as a small pilot study to determine what, if any, impact religion has on public opinion about the death penalty. Because the Catholic Church is the largest religious denomination in the United States, it is possible to obtain a representative sample for study.


Support for the death penalty among Catholics was higher than that among nonCatholics in the 1970s (Bjarnason and Welch 2004). Jelen (1990) found that there was little evidence of attitude consistency in regard to religious membership.

When the article was written in 1990, Jelen found no consistent Catholic belief around the issue of life. In fact, evangelical Protestants opposed abortion and other “life issues” more than Catholics did. In 1995, the recently completed 4 Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion Vol. 7 (2011), Article 10 Catechism of the Catholic Church (John Paul II 1994) strongly opposed the use of capital punishment. The Catechism stated that modern nations were in a position to defend life in a manner that did not deprive the offender of redemption and was consistent with the common good and the dignity of all people (Bjarnason and Welch 2004). Also in 1995, Pope John Paul II issued a papal encyclical entitled “Evangelium Vitae,” which discouraged the use of the death penalty in modern society and questioned its usefulness in protecting society. “Evangelium Vitae” takes the stance that “[a]bortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection.” The Catholic Church’s position, as articulated in “Evangelium Vitae,” encourages individual Catholics to engage government leaders in a civic debate about the morality of these issues (John Paul II 1995). Therefore, we could expect to see a shift in beliefs of parishioners after the Catholic Church began to articulate its position more vocally and frequently in the mid-1990s.

The evidence that the Church’s dedication to teaching a position on capital punishment has led to a decline in Catholics’ support for the death penalty has been mixed. Previous studies have found that Catholics who attend services more frequently are more likely to hold beliefs consistent with the Catholic Church’s position on abortion and capital punishment. In a study conducted by Bjarnason and Welch (2004), the strength of Catholic religious doctrine and teaching was tested against parishioners’ and priests’ attitudes toward the use of capital punishment. Religious affiliation was expected to be highly influential in determining individual value judgments. Among members of the Catholic Church, women, African-Americans, and unmarried individuals were less supportive of the death penalty than were their male, white, married Catholic counterparts. Support for the death penalty was also lower among Catholics who were older and those with more education. Members of the Catholic Church who were integrated into the social life of the parish and attended services more frequently were also less likely to support the death penalty. While support was higher among members of the Catholic Church who responded that they were Republican and supported traditional family values, Catholics overall were more likely than non-Catholics to oppose the use of capital punishment.

According to Perl and McClintock (2001), previous research concluded that the “consistent life ethic” of the Catholic Church, the belief that all human life begins at conception and continues through a natural death and deserves special legal protection at all stages (cf. Bernardin 1988), was not influential in changing attitudes. This consistent life ethic is unique because it combines a traditionally conservative position on abortion with a traditionally liberal position on the death penalty. Perl and McClintock (2001) found that evangelicals who were pro-life on abortion were more inclined to support the death penalty, while Catholics’ beliefs Bias, Goldberg, and Hannum: Catholics and the Death Penalty 5 were in accord with the consistent life ethic. These findings of an overall change in Catholic support for the death penalty over time provide additional evidence of the impact of the Catechism and Evangelium Vitae. Mainline Protestants who opposed abortion were also more likely to oppose the death penalty. This result was unexpected, but Perl and McClintock (2001) assumed that mainline Protestants have a broader concern for human life are also sympathetic toward other “liberal” issues, such as increased government aid for the poor.


Public opinion is affected by many different variables. No person exists in a vacuum, and these variables come into play in shaping attitudes on many issues, including capital punishment. The goal of research in this area is to determine which factors matter. Many studies have attempted to look at the factors that influence an individual’s opinion about capital punishment. Some factors that researchers have considered important are race, gender, education, age, income, and other socioeconomic factors. Being African-American, being female, having more education, and having a lower income are suggestive of an anti–death penalty stance. Political variables such as party affiliation and ideological selfrating have also been found to be significant. Self-identifying as Republican or conservative is an indicator that an individual is more likely to support capital punishment, while individuals who associate with the Democratic Party or identify themselves as liberal are less likely to support the death penalty. Although certain demographic aspects have been determined to be clues to an individual’s stance on capital punishment, the effect religion has on these attitudes is relatively unknown (Jacobs and Carmichael 2004; Young 1992), Baumgartner, De Boef, and Boydstun (2008) detailed many aspects of the death penalty and included a chapter about how to predict public opinion on the issue. They demonstrate that aggregate public attitudes toward the death penalty can be largely explained by two key variables: the number of murders in the United States during a given period of time (they use quarterly data) and the net tone of news stories about capital punishment. They also assert that catastrophic events, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, can affect public opinion. Baumgartner, De Boef, and Boydstun (2008) present a durable, successful, and simple model of public opinion even without focusing on demographic and cultural differences that have been shown to be important in shaping individuals’ opinions about the death penalty.

Traditional literature on mass opinion can help to explain why the murder rate and the extent and tone of news coverage of capital punishment between 1976 and 2008 affected attitudes toward capital punishment in the general population, but we believe that Catholics’ opinions may be shaped differently. In his classic study 6 Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion Vol. 7 (2011), Article 10 on the formation of mass opinion, Zaller (1992: 22) argues that attitudes are regulated by political predispositions, that is, “stable, individual level traits that regulate the acceptance or non-acceptance of the political communications the person receives.” People who are predisposed to have a certain attitude—whether due to ideology, socialization, or any other number of reason—toward capital punishment are not likely to be as affected by current events or political discussions of the murder rate and media coverage. Conversely, people without such predispositions are perhaps more easily swayed by events and political communications through the media. We theorize that a religion with a strong social doctrine can assist in the formation of a political predisposition and serve to filter out factors that would normally affect opinions.

Zaller (1992) argues that people resist messages that run counter to their predispositions “only to the extent that they possess the contextual information necessary to perceive a relationship between the message and their predispositions” (p. 44; italic in the original). This implies that a level of political awareness is required to resist messages that are antithetical to predispositions.

Our model tests what effect attendance at religious services (excluding wedding and funeral masses) has on opinions among Catholics toward capital punishment.


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