All three states with death penalty-related measures on the ballot Nov. 8 – California, Nebraska and Oklahoma – affirmed the use of capital punishment.
In California, a measure that would have repealed the death penalty failed by a margin of 46-54, according to the secretary of state. Nebraskans overwhelmingly overturned their state legislature’s 2015 repeal of the death penalty, and Oklahomans approved an addition to their state constitution affirming existing death penalty statutes amid controversy surrounding the state’s lethal injection methods.
Capital punishment “is grounded in the understanding that God has established civil authorities to rule over us … for our good,” said Oklahoma pastor Shane Hall, referencing Romans 13. “Those civil authorities have been given authority from God to rule and provide good order to society. There is nothing within New Testament teachings that would negate civil authorities’ using the death penalty in order to accomplish those ends.”
In the Old Testament, capital punishment was “displayed as a means of maintaining order,” Hall, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, told Baptist Press (BP). The Old and New Testaments together suggest the death penalty is “still relevant and available to be used in today’s culture.”
Californians considered two death penalty-related questions Nov. 8: the proposed repeal – known as Proposition 62 – and Proposition 66, a measure aimed at streamlining the appeals process for death row inmates.
Proposition 66 was passing with 50.9 percent of the vote and 100 percent of precincts reporting, according to the secretary of state. However, the Associated Press (AP) has not called the race because provisional and vote-by-mail ballots remain uncounted.
Nebraska’s Referendum 426, which reinstates the death penalty, carried by a 61-29 margin, gaining approval in 92 of 93 counties, The New York Times reported.
In 2015, Nebraska’s legislature passed a death penalty ban, overriding the veto of Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts by a vote of 31-19.
Steve Holdaway, pastor of LifeSpring Church in Bellevue, Neb., told BP that for many evangelicals, reinstating capital punishment “was not a vindictive or a mean-spirited thing or a wild-west reaction” to state legislators.
“It was simply” reflective of a belief that “the state, in extreme cases, ought to be able to impose the death penalty when it’s merited,” Holdaway said.
Still, Holdaway, who supports the death penalty, acknowledged disagreement among Christians on the topic.
“I would never ever look down upon a fellow evangelical or pastor who completely opposed the death penalty. I can see where they’re coming from,” Holdaway said.
Oklahoma State Question 776, which affirms capital punishment is not inherently “cruel or unusual,” passed by a 2-1 margin, Politico reported.
Executions are legal in Oklahoma but have been on hold since October 2015 to allow the state to study its execution methods amid scrutiny of multiple executions in which corrections officials made errors, AP reported.
State Question 776 gives the legislature authority to administer the death penalty by any method not prohibited by the U.S. Constitution, a provision that could prove useful should a court strike down a specific method of lethal injection.
Hall said he believes voters supported capital punishment because “a sense of moral justice is ingrained in people of Oklahoma that if someone does something wrong, there needs to be an appropriate measure of punishment meted out for that wrong.”
Nationally, support for the death penalty was at 61 percent in 2015 and has not dropped below 60 percent since 1972, according to data from the Gallup polling organization.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)