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The Churches & Capital Punishment

To the Editors:

Russell Baker, reviewing William S. McFeely’s Proximity to Death [NYR, January 20], comments on “a degree of brutality in the public spirit that seems inconsistent with the present increase in America’s churchgoing population.” To that, one must ask, “What increase?” Following World War II, there was a striking growth in church membership and attendance. But since about 1965 there has been a notable loss. Successive issues of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches show a marked numerical decline in most churches, including those that are members of the National Council of Churches (NCC), which publishes the Yearbook. The losses typically range from a third to a fifth.

There is, by this time, an extensive literature trying to explain the decline. Much of it is polemical, attributing the loss sometimes to the churches’ abandonment of traditional faith and sometimes to their failure to adjust to the times. But whatever the contradictory explanations, there is substantial agreement on the facts.

There is also agreement that many members are not guided by the social teachings of their churches. The large member churches of the NCC (notably the United Methodist Church, the United Presbyterian Church in the US, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the American Baptist Churches, the United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ]) are virtually agreed in opposing capital punishment. But senators and representatives, and the people who elect them, are opposed or indifferent to the stands of the churches. It would be at least as plausible to attribute the rising approval of capital punishment to the secularization of society as to its religiosity. But the understanding of political attitudes is very, very complex, and simple explanations are almost always wrong.

Roger L. Shinn
Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics
Union Theological Seminary
New York City

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