A new Pew survey shows “modest decline” in support for the death penalty, with 55 percent of U.S. adults saying they favor it for people convicted of murder and 37 percent opposing, as opposed to 62 percent favoring and 31 percent opposing in 2011, the last time Pew asked the question.

Any drop comes as good news for those opposed to capital punishment, but as usual the drill-downs turn up the interesting information. Take race: Many more whites (63 percent) continue to support the death penalty than do Hispanics (40 percent) or African Americans (36 percent). Or religion-and-race: 67 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 64 percent of white mainline Protestants support the death penalty; for Hispanic Catholics and black Protestants, support is 37 and 33 percent, respectively. And white Catholics? Support for capital punishment is higher than the overall number, at 59 percent.

However you slice it—“more than half” of white Catholics or “nearly six in ten” or “three-fifths” or “half again as much as Hispanic Catholics”—59 percent looks like a pretty high number. Maybe stubbornly high? In 2011, the number was 61 percent. A two-point drop over three years—vs. a twenty-point collapse of support among Hispanic Catholics (from 57 percent) in the same period.

For Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, the racial disparity in death-penalty support doesn’t get the attention it should; he also notes that “religion—or at least Protestantism—tends to increase the divide” (as he further frames it, white Catholics are “the least likely among religious whites to support capital punishment,” which may come as cold comfort). “It sounds glib,” Bouie concludes, “but if you needed a one-word answer to why whites are so supportive of the death penalty, ‘racism’ isn’t a bad choice.” Responding in the Washington Post, Andrew Gelman says death-penalty support isn’t about race so much as it is about politics: “Whites have become more politically conservative, but that’s not the same as becoming more racist. … [C]apital punishment has become a partisan attitude, associated with general conservatism,” which among whites is on the rise “not just in the south but in other parts of the country as well.”

I’m not sure either explanation gets completely to the heart of it, and it’s probably not helpful to think of it in such binary fashion anyway. So if there are other factors involved, what could they be? And how might they be at work when it comes to that 59 percent in particular?

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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