The Relationship between Capital Punishment, Race, and Religion

     The reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 brought forth many concerns for criminologists when dealing with the question of whether or not black Americans are being treated fairly in the court system. Some Americans believe that race is an issue and choose to oppose the death penalty due to that reason. It is believed that at least 23 individuals have been wrongfully executed in the last 10 years (Seligman, 1994) and that number continues to increase. If race is a contributing factor in the decision to execute an offender, it might be assumed that black Americans, most likely to be sentenced to death, oppose the death penalty. Moreover, does religious preference play a role in opposition of the death penalty?

     Due to the overwhelming number of black Americans on death row I believe the data will show a relationship between attitudes for opposition of the death penalty and race among black Americans. It has also been a long time concern to whether or not having a religious preference changes ones attitude toward the death penalty. I believe that religion could have some effect on opposition to the death penalty. If I am correct, the data should show that those individuals who have a religious preference are more likely to oppose having a death sentence.

Literature Review

      Aguirre and Baker reported a study in the periodical, Social Justice, to determine a relationship between favoring the death penalty and being racially prejudiced. The data was taken from the 1984 General Social Survey (GSS). The data showed that there is a significant association between racial prejudice and support for the death penalty.

     In an article written by Seligman in Fortune magazine, he discussed President Clinton's promise to end racial discrimination in death sentencing. Seligman brought forth the question of whether or not innocent people get put to death, and concluded that 23 innocent persons have been put to death in the last century. The author also asserts that the race of the victim is the deciding factor of what the sentencing will be.

     In an article written in Commonweal, the author discusses the opinion of the Catholic church for the issues concerning abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia. It is the church's belief that any killing is wrong. However, the author goes on to suggest that although the need for the "state to resort to such measures is very rare, if not practically nonexistent."

     Before beginning the study it was believed that race and religion would be good predictors for determining attitudes concerning the use of the death penalty as punishment for capital crimes. Based on the review of relevant literature, I hypothesize that:

  1. Black Americans should be more likely than white Americans to oppose capital punishment, and
  2. Individuals who hold religious values should also be more likely to oppose the death penalty.


     This analysis utilizes interview data collected by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) in the 1994 General Social Survey (hereafter GSS) The GSS, a nationwide annual survey offers the advantage of multi-stage probability sampling and can be considered representative of English-speaking, non-institutionalized adults (18 years of age and older) living in U.S. households. (For more detailed information on the GSS, see Babbie and Halley [1994].) This examination of the relationship between capital punishment, race, and religion relies on a subset of 958 of the 2992 original respondents. The data extract includes only questions asked on both interview ballots B and C for Version 2 of the 1994 GSS. This provides the researcher with a continuous set of questions with a lower number of missing cases; however, the trade-off is the lower number of total cases. Following is a brief description of the variables considered and of the frequency distributions for these variables.

     The sample population of this survey, as seen in Table 1, consisted of 705 (79%) participants who favored the death penalty, while 187 (21%) opposed the death sentence in the case of murder. The interview participants were asked, "Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?". Respondents answered either favor or oppose.

     To determine their religious preference the participants were asked, "What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, other, none?" There were 547 (57.5%) Protestants, 259(27.2%) Catholic, 27(2.8%) Jewish, 89 (9.3%) with no religious preference, and 29 (3%) other.

     When interviewed, the race of the participant was selected by the interviewer. However, if the interviewer was unable to determine the race of the participant the question was asked; "What race do you consider yourself to be?" The participant answered with either white, black, or other. White participants accounted for 788(82.3%) of the sample population, while black participants accounted for 131(13.7%). The other 39 (4.1%) participants were of another race.

     This study was performed to determine if there is a relationship between capital punishment, race, and religion. Capital punishment is termed as cappun, race is termed as race, and religion is termed as relig. To examine my hypotheses crosstabulations and regressions were performed using chi-square and lambda


     It was hypothesized that black Americans would be more likely to oppose the death penalty. Table 2 shows that 614 (83%) white Americans favor the death penalty for murder, while 62 (53%) of black Americans favor the death penalty. The data collected supports my hypothesis that black Americans are more likely to oppose the death penalty; chi-square is 55.129, p < .001, as shown in Table 3. Lambda shows that the strength is .000, which is not strong.

     It was hypothesized that individuals with no religious preference would be more likely to be in favor of the death penalty than those with religious values. Among the Protestants interviewed 405 (79.9%) favored the use of the death penalty for murder, while only 102 (20.1%) opposed its use. Of the Catholics in the study 195 (79.3%) were in favor of the death penalty, and 51 (20.7%) opposed its use. 22 (81.5%) of the Jewish were in favor of the death penalty, while 5 (18.5%) were opposed to it. 61(75.3%) of the sample without a religious preference were in favor of the death penalty, while only 20 (24.7%) were opposed to it. The results of the data do not support my hypothesis. The chi-square for this data is 1.273. p <.866.

     It was believed that race would be a good predictor of beliefs about capital punishment. Of the white Protestants, as shown in Table 4, 350 (86.4%) are in favor of the death penalty, while 55 (13.6%) oppose it. 50 (52.1%) of those black Protestants favor the death penalty, and 46(47.9%) oppose it. Among white Catholics, 175 (79.5%) are in favor of the death penalty, and 45 (20.5%) oppose it. Among black Catholics, 7 (70%) are in favor of the death penalty, while 3 (30%) oppose it. Of the 26 white Jews in the study, 22 (84.6%) are in favor of the death penalty, and 4 (15.4%) opposed it. Of the white sample with no religious preference, 55 (76.4%) were in favor of its use, while 17 (23.6%) were opposed to it. The data is less than the .05 significance level. However, the strength of the data is .000.

     In looking at the regression analysis, we see that the variance, as shown in Table 5, was .023, which is low and the independent variable is not a good predictor of the dependent variable. The model significance is 10.388, and the significance is .000. Beta is 4.452 and the significance is .000.

Discussion and Conclusion

     The findings show that there is a correlation between race and attitude about the death penalty. The data shows that black Americans are more likely to oppose the death penalty than white Americans. However, more research needs to be done in this area to examine in greater detail the significance between race and capital punishment.


Aguirre, Adalberto and D.V. Baker. 1993. "Racial prejudice and the death penalty: a research note." Social Justice 20:150-156.

Seligman, Daniel. 1994. 'Uh oh! More stats." Fortune 130:114-116.

Pope John Paul II's Evangelium vitae. 1995. "Culture of Death?" Commonweal 122:3-5.