Capital punishment is often used as a “cover” issue by conservatives and liberals.
For those who self-identify as liberal, being against capital punishment can be a way to be pro-life without having to oppose “reproductive rights.”
For self-professed conservatives, opposing capital punishment can be a way to defend against the charge that they only care about the unborn.
But opposing the death penalty is much more important than that — which is why the National Catholic Register (where I used to be executive editor) and the National Catholic Reporter are uniting with other media outlets to oppose it together.
Those who see themselves as part of the American conservative movement should actively work to end the death penalty. Here are six reasons why.
1. To oppose the death penalty is to apply an ancient principle: You must not take a life unless you have to.
As the Catechism of the Council of Trent put it when discussing executions, “they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence.”
For Christians, the death penalty was never simply a matter of an “eye for an eye” — it was a way of protecting society from aggressors.
Killing does not cheer Christians and Christians do not cheer killing. We kill when it is the only way to stop further killing, and even then, we regret it.
Even today, the Church “does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor,” says the Catechism (No. 2267). It just says that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’”
2. The right to life does not come from the state but from God.
The same culture-of-death problem is at the root of both abortion and the death penalty: The state thinks it has the power over life and death.
The state does not have that power.
Giving the state that power has led to terrible destruction in abortion and euthanasia, with more to follow with federalized health care.
While the death penalty is capable of showing the state’s concern for life — by taking crimes against it utterly seriously — in a culture of death and violence like ours, the death penalty appears to many as just one more instance of the powerful killing the weak.
3. The death penalty is Big Bad Government at its worst.
George Will made the argument in the Washington Post in 2000 reviewing a book on wrongful convictions: “Conservatives, especially, should draw this lesson from the book: Capital punishment, like the rest of the criminal justice system, is a government program, so skepticism is in order.”
We have seen why it is dangerous to entrust the government with health care, and how it can even foul up a website. Will said he saw the same kinds of mess-ups in the criminal justice system:
• Forensic fraud.
• Mistaken identifications.
• CYA moves in criminal investigations.
• Fraudulent “admissions” by criminals working the system.
• Incompetent defense attorneys.
Big government running a website is bumbling and frustrating. Big government that can kill people is horrific and sad.
4. Communists love the death penalty.
There is nothing conservatives hate more than communism — and the communist regimes of the 20th century.
Well, Communist dictators applied the death penalty with a gusto never seen before.
As the researchers of The Black Book of Communism discovered, atheist communist dictators made the 20th century an unprecedented bloodbath, killing tens of millions of enemies in the Soviet Union and China alone.
“Ten years ago, the authors of The Black Book would have refused to believe what they now write,” says the editor in his forward.
We don’t imitate communists’ economic preferences. Let’s not imitate their criminal justice preferences, either.
5. Sharia embraces the death penalty.
Since the war on communism has waned and the war on terror is the order of the day, conservatives might want to distance themselves from the practices of the Taliban and ISIS, too.
In fact, Islamic Law in many of its manifestations is very pro-death penalty.
• A December report said that the Saudi Arabian government passed a law imposing the death penalty for bringing Bibles into the country.
• In August, a “disturbing trend” of beheadings in Saudia Arabia was reported. “Offences that resulted in the Saudi Arabian death penalties in August ranged from drug smuggling and sorcery,” according to UK’s The Independent.
• And even when the death penalty is applied for murder, it can be applied without legal representation as in the case of a housemaid beheaded in 2013 in Saudia Arabia.
Now, beheading poor people without lawyers and killing people for jewel theft might not be likely to happen in the United States, but Western versions of such atrocities can happen. See No. 3, above.
6. It could be us next.
The Founding Fathers were not Pollyannaish about the future of America.
“The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing,” wrote John Adams.
He knew that America can be turned into a power-hungry system of tyranny as easily as any other country.
In fact, he feared specifically for an America that would reject religion, saying:
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
There is no reason a future secularized American regime would not turn against its citizens and allow the lives of its people to be taken unjustly. In fact, in the shameful history of lynchings, we have already seen this happen in America.
As Chicago’s then-Cardinal Francis George said: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”
We can start that work now by opposing the death penalty.