American pastors support the death penalty,

but oppose legalizing physician-assisted suicide

(Original release date:  August 23, 2000)  In a statistically representative research study of over 500 Protestant ministers throughout the United States, church pastors were asked to state their personal opinions on a number of different social and political issues.  Among these were questions regarding the death penalty and physician-assisted suicide.  The study was conducted by Grey Matter Research (formerly Ellison Research) of Phoenix, Arizona.

 

By a margin of 72% to 28%, pastors oppose “outlawing the death penalty.”  Forty-eight percent of all pastors said they strongly oppose eliminating the death penalty, while 24% somewhat oppose this.  In contrast, 15% of all ministers strongly support outlawing the death penalty, and another 13% somewhat support this position. 

 

Feelings on this issue varied widely according to the political stance of ministers.  Republicans (representing six out of every ten ministers in the United States) are particularly adamant that the death penalty should remain an option for the justice system:  just 12% want to outlaw the death penalty.  Among registered independents, who make up 15% of all ministers in the U.S., 37% want to outlaw the death penalty.  But among Democrats, who represent 22% of all American ministers, 61% call for the death penalty to be outlawed.  

 

Many Protestant churches are from denominations that are members of either the conservative National Association of Evangelicals or the mainline National Council of Churches.  Pastors from NAE-member denominations are squarely opposed to eliminating the death penalty (12% want it outlawed).  Ministers from NCC-member denominations are split over this issue, with 44% opposing the elimination of the death penalty, and 56% calling for laws to do away with this form of punishment. 

 

The intensity of the feelings in support or opposition of the death penalty hinted at the likelihood that many pastors have mixed emotions on this issue, according to Ron Sellers, president of Grey Matter.  “Over one-third of all ministers didn’t strongly support or oppose the death penalty,” Sellers noted.  “This suggests that they either haven’t fully made up their minds on this issue, or that they have conflicting feelings.  It may be that the death penalty isn’t a clear-cut issue for many ministers, who may be struggling over conflicting feelings of the need for justice and punishment on one hand, and the call to mercy and support for life on the other hand.” 

 

The study also dealt with the issue of physician-assisted suicide, which was legalized in the state of Oregon and in a number of countries overseas.  When asked how they feel about “laws allowing physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients,” 69% of all pastors strongly oppose these laws, and 14% somewhat oppose them.  Seven percent strongly support the idea of legalizing physician-assisted suicide, and another 10% somewhat support this concept. 

 

Like the idea of outlawing the death penalty, support for this idea generally comes from the more politically liberal ministers.  Among Republicans, just 8% want to legalize physician-assisted suicide.  Among independents, 20% support it.  Among Democrats, 37% support it.  

 

Churches from denominations in the traditionally conservative National Association of Evangelicals are unified in their stance against physician-assisted suicide, as just 9% want it legalized.  In the mainline National Council of Churches, there is again somewhat divided opinion:  33% support this, while 67% oppose it. 

 

Interestingly, while a majority of pastors of all ages oppose this idea, the strongest support for it came from the oldest ministers.  Twenty-three percent of all pastors who were 60 or older support legalizing physician-assisted suicide, compared to 15% of the younger ministers.  Older ministers more strongly support the death penalty than do younger pastors.

 

Study Details:

The study was conducted by Grey Matter Research (formerly Ellison Research), a marketing research company located in Phoenix, Arizona.  Although Grey Matter Research has numerous clients, this study was funded and conducted independently by the company.  The data was gathered in April and May of 2000, but this is the first time it has been released to any source.  The sample of 518 Protestant ministers included only those who are actively pastoring churches.  The study’s total sample is accurate to within ±4.3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level with a 50% response distribution.  The study was conducted in all 50 states, using a representative sample of pastors.  Respondents’ geography, church size, and denomination were carefully tracked to ensure accuracy.

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Attitudes about “Outlawing the death penalty”:

Attitudes about "Laws allowing physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients"

 

Type of Pastor/Church

Strongly Support

Somewhat Support

Somewhat Oppose

Strongly Oppose

All Protestant ministers

15%

13%

24%

48%

Under age 45

18

17

23

42

Age 45-59

16

12

25

47

Age 60 or older

9

13

22

56

Northeast U.S. location

16

25

23

36

Midwest U.S. location

20

10

25

45

Southern U.S. locations

14

14

20

52

Western U.S. location

10

9

27

54

Democrats

42

19

18

21

Independents

19

17

24

39

Republicans

3

9

26

62

Self-described political liberals

61

23

6

10

Self-described political moderates

20

24

33

23

Self-described political conservatives

3

6

23

68

From an NAE-member denomination

2

10

28

60

From an NCC-member denomination

33

22

21

23

 

Type of Pastor/Church

Strongly Support

Somewhat Support

Somewhat Oppose

Strongly Oppose

All Protestant ministers

7%

10%

14%

69%

Under age 45

3

10

13

74

Age 45-59

7

9

15

70

Age 60 or older

10

13

16

61

Northeast U.S. location

6

20

18

56

Midwest U.S. location

7

8

13

72

Southern U.S. locations

6

9

14

71

Western U.S. location

7

8

14

71

Democrats

11

25

24

39

Independents

8

12

13

67

Republicans

4

4

10

82

Self-described political liberals

20

30

30

20

Self-described political moderates

2

16

25

58

Self-described political conservatives

6

3

6

86

From an NAE-member denomination

5

4

2

90

From an NCC-member denomination

12

21

24

43