The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held its annual meeting on March 14-16, 2013, in Washington. Widely reported on in the media, its main agenda was fiscal conservatives and social conservatives assuring each other that they could collaborate in reviving the Republican Party despite their different emphases on issues, respectively, north and south of the navel. On March 15, 2013, Religion News Service carried a story that, I imagine, few people beside myself found interesting. Let me explain why I think that it is interesting.
For the first time in the history of the organization opposition to the death penalty was put on the agenda, by no less than two heavy hitters of the conservative movement: Richard Viguerie and Jay Sekulow. The latter formulated his position as follows: “I’m opposed to the death penalty not because I think it’s unconstitutional—although I think it’s been applied in ways that are unconstitutional—but it really is a moral view, and that is that the taking of life is not the way to handle even the most significant of crimes… I think we have to be careful in executing final judgment. The one thing my faith teaches me—I don’t get to play God. I think you are short-cutting the whole process of redemption [by imposing the death penalty]… I don’t want to be the person that stops that process from taking place.” Most people who oppose the death penalty do so because of its intrinsic cruelty. Other reasons for opposition is the mounting evidence (due to DNA testing) that innocent individuals have been convicted of capital crimes, the discriminatory execution of poor and minority defendants, and the exorbitant costs of prosecuting these cases. What is interesting here is an explicit religious rationale for the opposition.
There is a large quantity of data about attitudes to the death penalty in the United States. The political differences are very clear: Conservatives are more in favor, liberals more opposed. This is equally clearly reflected in the differences between Republicans and Democrats. The majority of all Americans are still in favor of the death penalty—according to recent data from the Pew Research Center, 62%, as against 31% opposed. However, there has been a steady decline of those in favor since the mid-1990s, when Pew started to trace the issue—from a peak of 78% in favor. The figure for those opposed goes up if the questionnaire mentions life in prison without parole as an alternative to execution. The data on the attitudes of religious people are less clear, though they generally correspond to the conservative/liberal divide (except for African-American Protestants, a majority of whom are in opposition). Interestingly, the difference between white Evangelicals and white mainline Protestants is not as large as one might expect—respectively 77% and 73% in favor. A sharply deviant group consists of those who claim no religious affiliation—57% opposed to the death penalty (a figure that correlates with overall liberalism). Catholic attitudes have shifted toward opposition since 1995, when Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which for all intents and purposes rejected the death penalty (the Roman Catholic Church now routinely links opposition to the death penalty with opposition to abortion and euthanasia, all seen as part of a comprehensive “culture of life”).
Despite the slow but steady decline of support for the death penalty, the United States still stands out from other Western democracies in this matter. Principled opposition to capital punishment has become a stable component of so-called “European values”—the United States could not be admitted to the European Union on moral grounds. This particular expression of “American exceptionalism” has not been helpful to US claims to stand for universal human rights.
The relation of Judaism to the death penalty is complicated and cannot be pursued here. From early on, Jewish law has been very reluctant to inflict capital punishment. In any case the issue has been abstract for more than two millennia—the Roman Empire took away from Jewish legal authorities the right to execute people, and the modern state of Israel has no death penalty in its criminal law (with the exception of the crime of genocide for which Eichmann was executed).
The historical record of Christianity in this matter is (to put it in carefully value-neutral terms) horrific. This is all the more remarkable in the case of a religion whose founder proclaimed a message of non-violence, who himself suffered death by a particularly cruel form of execution, the instrument of which has become the central symbol of the faith. (It is somewhat startling to reflect what might have happened if, instead of the crucified Jesus, the symbol of Christianity on every altar had become the gallows, with the body of Jesus hanging from it.)
Early Christians, close as they were to the founding events, would not serve in any capacity that would involve them in the administration of the death penalty. This changed dramatically when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman state, and it has changed little until very recently. No major Christian tradition can be omitted from this generalization (other than the so-called “peace churches”, notably Mennonites and Quakers).
There is no reason here to go into the ferocious history of Islam in this regard, nor are any of the major Asian traditions (including allegedly compassionate Buddhism) likely contributors to the contemporary catechism of human rights. The claim of the currently fashionable “new atheists”, to the effect that all religions lead to violent atrocities, is empirically spurious: The most ghastly atrocities of the twentieth century were committed by neo-pagan Nazis and atheist Communists. (Perhaps I may allow myself to refer to a statement by Gilbert Keith Chesterton, to the effect that the doctrine of original sin is the only Christian doctrine for which no faith is required—one just needs to look around. Or, to put the same idea in more secular terms, homo sapiens is not the moral climax of the evolutionary process.)
It would be a mistake to see in this little incident at the recent conservative meetings a reason to say yes to the question heading the Religion News Service story: “Will conservatives unite against the death penalty?” I would not hold my breath. What is probably happening here is that the slow tendency away from the death penalty will increasingly affect conservatives, for all the reasons mentioned above. It is not difficult to envisage some scenarios that would abruptly reverse this trend, in America and even in Europe. In the short run in this country, the little incident may be part of the Republican effort to resuscitate the notion of a “compassionate conservatism”. If one is opposed to the death penalty for fundamental moral reasons (as I am), one would prefer if the opposition were based on less tactical reasons. For worse and (sometimes) for better, history is not an ongoing philosophical seminar.
[Crucified figure photo courtesy of Shutterstock.]