That's a smarmy politician's answer, dodging a legitimate query instead of addressing it seriously. (The Texas Moratorium Network has the video.) What would a more honest response look like?
Let me start by admitting we cannot know for sure. The Old Testament emphatically supported the death penalty, and certainly Jesus declared he did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it.
At the same time, New Testament teaching replaced the morality of "an eye for an eye" with "turning the other cheek." Certainly Christ intervened to stop the stoning of an adulteress, but without knowing more, can we universalize from that one example? On the cross Jesus forgave the thief next to him, but despite his divine powers over death, still allowed him to perish. Trying to divulge Jesus' position on capital punishment from these philosophical hints is like guessing the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin.
As Doc Berman pointed out, Jesus himself was subjected to capital punishment at the hands of the Roman Empire, though Christians believe he died sinless. If that is the case, then Jesus was an innocent man executed wrongfully. One imagines, then, at least at some point on Good Friday as he hung innocent on the cross, paying with his life for the sins of others, Christ must have endured some misgiving about the death penalty. Why, I wonder, didn't Rev. Huckabee mention that?
At a minimum, I wish this question had sparked a debate among candidates about the bevy of recent DNA exonerations and the likelihood that more innocent people are still on death row or rotting away in prisons.
Another clue: Early Christian societies considered snitching in death penalty cases an act that justified permanent, lifetime excommunication, damning the informant's soul to eternal hellfire.
Without question we can say that Jesus would not have supported capital punishment (or any criminal penalty) without at least two witnesses supporting charges against the defendant. Both Christ and the Apostle Paul affirmed the tradition from Mosaic Law that "two or three witnesses" were required to convict someone of any offense. Given that, and assuming the verity of the biblical passion story, I don't believe Jesus would have supported executions based on a single person's testimony or on the testimony of a compensated informant (like, say, Judas).
From the Sermon on the Mount, we learn that Jesus considered merely holding anger against someone as grievous an act as killing. (Matthew 5:21-26)
You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.So while this passage insists that murderers should be "liable for judgment," so should those who carry anger in their hearts. The same judgment? Who knows? While we don't know what "judgment" Christ considered proper for murder, we can say Jesus would not support retributive arguments in favor of the death penalty. He would have considered the emotional component that causes people to demand retribution antithetical to the tenets of peace taught in the Sermon on the Mount.
What do the major Christian denominations believe about the death penalty? I found this useful compendium of the positions on capital punishment for the major US denominations. Roman Catholics, American Baptists, Methodists, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Reformed, Eastern Orthodox, and the United Church of Christ all officially take an "abolitionist" or anti-death penalty stance.
I don't honestly know what Jesus' position would have been on capital punishment, but I do know this: Whether Jesus supported the death penalty, without question he established a requirement that his followers visit those in prison, including the condemned - perhaps one of Christ's least-regarded dicta among modern Christians, sad to say.
I like the YouTube debate format. Average people ask questions the professional journalists would never even think to bring up, and the results are frequently telling even when the questions get dodged. While the YouTuber's theological question remains unanswered, it's obvious that Christ had more empathy for prisoners and the condemned than Huckabee and the other pols on the stage demonstrated last night, that's for sure.
MORE/BLOGVERSATION: On Huckabee, Christ and the death penalty, from A Blog From Hell:
Well, Jesus may not have sought public office, (like being King of the Jews or something), but he seemed to have something to say about the death penalty, something to do with only those who haven't sinned should be "casting the first stone." ...Perhaps when Huckabee got off the dais he found a better answer to the question on his voice mail - the incident reminded Think Progress that Huckabee occasionally receives phone calls from God. At the Atlantic Online, Andrew Sullivan says "To use such a cheap line to score a laugh in a political debate is not something I find particularly admirable." Arkansas Blog recalled another instance where then-Governor Huckabee responded with similar flippancy to the same question, declaring that Jesus' silence on the topic implied his approval, which AB points out is a unique form of biblical exegesis, indeed. What kind of theology are they teaching out there at Ouachita Baptist University, one wonders?
Huckabee tried to say that "forgiveness" doesn't mean you don't punish people. The hell it doesn't! Forgiveness doesn't mean anything if you're still punishing the person you are "forgiving." Saying you are doing both is Orwellian bullshit. The New Testament has a kind of economic model, forgiving sins is like forgiving a debt. You can't make someone pay a debt and forgive the debt at the same time. Forgiveness is not about you not feeling angry when you end someone's life.