Should Conservatives Oppose the Death Penalty?

May 28th, 2014

The Boston Globe's Leon Neyfakh reports, in a May 25 story ("The conservative case against the death penalty"), on opposition to the death penalty from within the Republican party. He writes:

The argument [such Republicans] put forward is, overall, extraordinarily straightforward: People who share a deep worry about government overreach, who believe in the sanctity of life, and who place great importance on fiscal responsibility should not support a policy that empowers the state to spend large sums of money killing people.

When it turns out that (due to the process of appeals) it is much more expensive to hold someone on death row than in general population, when the death penalty is shown to be an ineffective deterrent to crime, and when citizens are, for all this, sometimes wrongly executed, all of this seems to add up to something Republicans should be eager to oppose. As Marc Hyden of Conservatives Against the Death Penalty states the case, "The question is not whether people who commit heinous crimes deserve to be executed — it's whether we trust the government to efficiently and effectively carry that out." One could add 'justly.'

One fascinating feature of Neyfakh's story is that two of the three anti-death penalty conservatives he profiles, Richard Viguerie and Ramesh Ponnuru, arrive at their anti-death penalty views due to the influence of their Catholic faith. Ponnuru says that at an emotional and intuitive level he feels pro-death penalty when he hears about horrible crimes. Yet the clear teachings of his faith win out: "Our emotional or intuitive reactions are not a sure guide to right and wrong in matters of moral import."

Neyfakh's story reminds me that it was through Catholic-worker style Catholics I met while in seminary at Duke Divinity School that I came to oppose the death penalty. (Read about the Catholic Worker Movement here and founder Dorothy Day here.) As Neyfakh documents through Viguerie and Ponnuru, I was surprised by how well the case against the death penalty fit within the larger framework of the logic of pro-life thought (which my friends would just have called the consistency of Catholic moral theology).

From the perspective of Christian ministry and discipleship, Ponnuru's point that what seems right emotionally and intuitively is not always right is important. To the extent that we are (self-consciously or not) Augustinian, we expect our emotions (which, in fallen form, Augustine terms 'passions') to be frequently out of whack even as our lives are transformed by the light of Jesus Christ. It seems important for Christian disciples and pastors to be able to emphasize this point. What kind of community life, what kind of focus on discipleship, do our churches need to sustain in order that we (pastors and congregants alike) may be able to imagine that our emotions and political intuitions need to be always held up to the greater light of divine revelation? What kind of spirituality do we need to sustain such a community life?

It seems, in relation to the death penalty as everywhere, Christians in American need to be able to think, pray, and act outside the somewhat arbitrary bricolage of ill-wed positions espoused by both the Republicans and the Democrats to be able to be, first and last, disciples of Jesus Christ.

Be sure to read the rest of Neyfakh's story.


Clifton Stringer is a Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College. He is an Elder in the Southwest Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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