The Bible Belt is the 'death belt,' Shane Claiborne says

Shane Claiborne speaks with Institute on Religion & Democracy President Mark Tooley on a online video call on May 18, 2020.
Shane Claiborne speaks with Institute on Religion & Democracy President Mark Tooley on a online video call on May 18, 2020. | Screenshot: YouTube/The IRD

Christian activist, author and self-proclaimed “recovering redneck,” Shane Claiborne, said this week that America’s Bible Belt should really be known as the “death belt,” warning that the pro-life ethic should be applied consistently. 

Claiborne, a progressive Christian speaker based in Philadelphia and a leader in the New Monasticism movement, joined the leader of the conservative-leaning think-tank Institute on Religion & Democracy Wednesday for a conversation on subjects including just war theory, the death penalty, and abortion.

Claiborne, who grew up in “the hills” of East Tennessee, spoke about how he used to be in favor of the death penalty but later had a hard time reconciling that belief. He contends that capital punishment “undermines the redemptive work that Jesus did on the cross” and “the possibilities of redemption.”

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“I got involved in the death penalty partly because I saw that there were a lot of Christians that were vocal on abortion and other issues,” he said. “But gun violence and the death penalty, we actually haven’t been the champions of life. We have been the obstacles. That is why I wrote a book around both of those because I saw the death penalty. 

“The death penalty wouldn’t stand a chance in America if it weren’t for Christians,” Claiborne asserted. “The Bible Belt is the death belt. Where 85% of the executions happen is in the Bible Belt. It’s also the states that held on to slavery the longest. That became very problematic for me. I think the questions that are raised by the death penalty, they are very deeply theological questions, right?”

Claiborne’s 85% figure comes from 2016 research done by the advocacy group I Was In Prison, which found that over 85% of the 1,419 executions at state prisons since 1976 have been carried out in Bible Belt states. 

The Bible Belt is an informal region of the southern and Midwest U.S. The area became known for its predominance of adherents to conservative Protestant faith traditions. Amnesty International found in 2012 that since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 82% of death penalty cases have occurred in the southern U.S. 

In a 2015 op-ed published by The Washington Post, Claiborne quoted Catholic Florida death row chaplain and I Was In Prison founder Dale Recinella, who said: “The Bible belt has become the death belt.” 

“Is anybody beyond redemption?” Claiborne asked IRD President Mark Tooley. “How much do we trust imperfect institutions like our government with the irreversible power of life and death?”

Claiborne was also critical of the rate of gun ownership among evangelical Christians. 

“Of course, with gun violence, Christians own guns at a higher rate than the general population. The highest-owning gun demographic in America is white evangelicals,” he said. “Particularly, advocating [against the] legality of assault weapons and things like that has been a big passion of mine. To me, these are very personal [issues]. In every corner of our neighborhood, we have stories of people who died from guns here. It is not just a debate for me. I think proximity makes a world of difference.”

Claiborne is a founder of the Simple Way community a nonprofit in urban Philadelphia.

When it comes to holding an authentic pro-life ethic, Claiborne assured that he is for the eradication of abortion, like many conservatives in the Bible Belt are. 

Claiborne, who's been identified as left-leaning, said he doesn’t like the labels of “left” and “right.” Instead, he'd rather the context be framed in terms of “right” and “wrong.”

“The problem is in our partisan politics where you don’t have a party or a candidate that is very consistent,” Claiborne said. “Even in the last election, Hillary Clinton … she was for the death penalty and had a terrible track record on abortion. On the other side, Donald Trump, his life ethic is just an absolute train wreck on almost everything. I didn’t find a home very easily in that [election].” 

Claiborne garnered national attention in 2018 for helping to organize the "Red Letter Revival: A Revival of Jesus & Justice" in Lynchburg, Virginia, that aimed to contrast their movement from "America First" Christianity and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. and pro-Trump Christians. At the time, IRD's Chelsen Vicari attended the event and said what she witnessed was "more of a rally intended to stir a partisan base rather than a Holy Ghost revival." 

When it comes to reducing abortions and gun violence, Claiborne said he doesn’t think in terms of “legalization.”

“I don’t think the answer to our gun problem is to just overturn the Second Amendment. I don’t think the answer on abortion is to just overturn Roe v. Wade,” Claiborne contended. “I do believe that we all have to be asking how we can do a better job at protecting life.” 

He criticized both Democrats and Republicans for what he calls the “toxicity of self-righteousness.”

“I think sometimes for folks on the left, the conversation has just been about rights and not about life and the dignity of the [baby] and of the mother,” he said. “How do we really try to be a stronger advocate for life?” 

“I think, on the other hand, some of the rhetoric on folks on abortion has been a hindrance to actually reducing abortions in real ways by just having an ideology that is so polarizing in our country,” he said. “I think we need a better conversation around abortion and we also need a conversation on what a consistent ethic of life could look like. I am considering writing a book on that.”

Claiborne also warned that self-righteousness is what Jesus called “the yeast of the Pharisees.” 

“I think it does so much damage when we say: ‘I think I am not like those people,’” Claiborne added. “When we can find common ground, I think that is so important and we can have a posture of humility. That’s what I am trying to do.”

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