Digby brought my attention to a Pew Research Center poll, Shrinking Majority of Americans Support Death Penalty. This isn’t exactly news. But the report contained a graph on the attitudes of different kinds of religious people. The bottom line: white Christians really like the death penalty — whether Protestants or Catholics, they have higher approval than the population as a whole. Black and Latino Christians, however, are just the opposite — they support the death penalty at much lower levels than the population as a whole.
I shouldn’t be surprised that American Catholics should go against the Church on this issue. American Catholics go against the Church on pretty much every issue you can name, most notably same sex marriage, abortion, and most of all, birth control. Protestants are so fractured that it is impossible to say what they are supposed to believe. But it is safe to say that religious people believe what they want and don’t give a lot of thought to what their churches claim.
Although I am a staunch opponent of the death penalty, the fact that Christians don’t listen to their churches is largely a good thing. We don’t want angry Christian mobs stoning adulterers. But the whole thing makes me wonder what people are getting from their churches. As I’ve written about excessively, popular religions are shockingly useless at answering ontological questions. So that leaves them only with the churches’ moral teachings. And on that front, most Christians have apparently decided that their churches are equally useless.
What is especially interesting here is how people make moral decisions based upon their life experiences. I don’t believe for a moment that white Americans are more vindictive than black Americans. But for most white Americans, police abuse of power is not really a thing. The worst they need worry about is an officer giving them a speeding ticket. What’s more, white Americans are less likely to have much direct experience with the milieu in which poverty leads to desperation and desperation leads to violence.
This is a good thing to remember the next time a Christian asks you how a civilization can have a moral code if it isn’t given from God. The truth is even Christians don’t have a moral code given by what they think is the word of God. Even those who take their holy books very seriously have to deal with contradictions. And what they always do in these circumstances is pick whatever belief feels right to them. And that is what we all do. So what exactly do people get from their churches, synagogues, and mosques?
I think religious people get one thing: a sense of community. And this has obvious good aspects. Humans are social animals and we can only survive by working together. But there is a bad side to this. The same things that bind us together also tear us apart from those outside the group. This is one of the problems with the New Atheist movement: people spend most of their time dumping on believers. And the same thing happens among the believers. This is why I’m so fond of the universalists. Are they a religious group or just an open minded collection of people who like potlucks? Regardless, even they have their limits. We couldn’t have a society if some things weren’t outside acceptable bounds. And people ranting Fox News talking points can ruin a good potluck.
Update (8 September 2014 7:47 pm)
In an article today, Scalia’s Utter Moral Failure: How He Destroys Any Claim to a Superior System of Justice, Digby quoted the devout Catholic justice:
See what I mean? When his church says “Same sex marriage is wrong!” he’s on board because he’s a bigot and that’s what he wants to believe. When his church says “Thou shalt not kill!” he’s not on board because it isn’t what he wants to believe. He is a vile man who history will judge very harshly. And he knows it.