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Ask Professor Burge 21: The Death Penalty and the Decline of a Majority


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/07/08

Professor Ryan Burge‘s website states: “I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science as well as the Graduate Coordinator at Eastern Illinois University. I teach in a variety of areas, including American institutions, political behavior, and research methods. My research focuses largely on the intersection between religiosity and political behavior (especially in the American context). Previously, I have completed an appointment as a post doctoral research fellow at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale, Illinois. While there I was an adviser on issues of survey methodology and polling, as well as providing data collection and analysis.

I have published over a dozen articles in a number of well regarded peer reviewed journals including Politics & Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Review of Religious Research, the Journal of Religious Leadership, RepresentationPoliticsGroupsand Identities, the Journal of Communication and Religion, the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture and the Social Science Computer Review. 

In addition, my research has been covered in a variety of media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, Vox, 538, BuzzFeed News, Al-Jazeera, Christianity Today, Religion News Service, The Daily Mail, Deseret News, World Magazine, Relevant, and C-SPAN. I am the co-founder and frequent contributor to Religion in Public, a forum for scholars of religion and politics to make their work accessible to a more general audience.

Finally, I am a pastor in the American Baptist Church, having served my current church for over thirteen years.”

Here we talk about the death penalty, declining numbers, immigration, and identity.

*Interview conducted October 12, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, 40% of Catholics oppose the death penalty since the late 80s, 90s. That’s up 25%. Is the 25% up out of a total or 25% higher than the prior number?

Professor Ryan Burge: So in the end, around a quarter of Catholic supporters were opposed to the death penalty in 1990. So, that means 75% were in favor. And now by 2018, it is 40% oppose and 60% favor of the death penalty. That’s actually a pretty significant shift because they’re getting close to like 50/50. I think the death penalty is one of the most interesting aspects of American religion or politics, because it used to be an issue where if you’re a conservative, you were opposed to the death penalty. But now I think with the advent of DNA evidence, it is the things like the Innocence Project, where if you were wrongly accused of crimes and put in prison for a long time, I think you are realizing a lot of people in America are wrongly accused and wrongly jailed. And that’s giving people a lot more hesitation when it comes to the death penalty, realizing they have probably killed innocent people before.

Now, it is still an issue where most Americans do favour the death penalty. But it is an issue that’s changed, which I think it’ll be interesting to monitor that in 10, 15, 20 years as we hear more stories about this. If people of faith especially, and I think Catholics, are interested because they believe in what’s called a Consistent Ethic of Life, which means that life should be protected at the beginning, the middle, and the end; which means they’re opposed to abortion, but, they’re also opposed to the death penalty. So, if they believe the teachings of the church, they should be opposed to the death penalty as much as, if not more than, they’re opposed to abortion, which we actually don’t see. So, if you see the Catholic teachings, they are amongst Catholics going forward.

Jacobsen: Why do 55% of white Evangelicals in November of 2019 think there should be a reduction in legal immigration by 50%, with half of white Catholics agreeing with the same proposal? And atheists only sitting at 13%, agnostics at 18%, and Jewish peoples and Buddhist people sitting at 23% and 24%, respectively. What’s the reasoning there? How do ethnic and religious identities coincide there?

Burge: OK, so, there are two ways to look at this. One is that it is about conservative politics and conservative politics or anti-democratic across the board, both legal and illegal. There’s been a lot of discussion in America that immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans, are driving down wages for Americans, especially unskilled labour, things like factories. But I think it is pretty hard to ignore the fact that a lot of white Christians are xenophobic and potentially racist. They just don’t like America becoming less white. I think one of the important narratives in American politics is that America is becoming less and less white every year and less and less Christian every year. We’re up to the point now where in probably the next two or three years, less than half of Americans are going to be white Christians when we used to be a country of 75% or 80% white Christian.

So I think the reality is a lot of white Christians are scared about that future and they think if they stop immigration, it will slow that decline of white Christians and will allow white Christians to keep the majority in America, keep the power in America. So, that’s what Trump was about. Make America great again is what harkening back to a time of white Christians, held a lot of sway in American politics. And they don’t as much anymore. They’re losing power every year. So, I think a lot of this is tied up with power politics and realizing at some point they’re not getting a majority. They’re not going to run the country as they used to. And they want to keep it as long as they can. So, yes, that’s the reality, which is that white Christians did not want to see brown faces in their country.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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