The Internet Monk
"the power of opinion, the phenomenon of speech, the impact of truth"
A Webjournal edited by Michael Spencer
Why Conservatives Should Rethink the Death Penalty
by Michael Spencer
On August. 14, 1936, my mother was present for the hanging of Rainey Bethea for the rape of 70-year-old Elischa Edwards, who was also murdered. It was, according to records, the nation's last public execution. My mom's memory confirms the reports I've always read: a massive crowd- perhaps as many as 20,000- witnessed the hanging of the 22-year old black man. The jury had deliberated 4 and 1/2 minutes. Bethea had confessed to the crime.
The national media discovered this story about the time of the execution of Timothy McVeigh. The coverage of the Bethea hanging contains the usual liberal overtones of a Jim Crow era lynching. That does not appear to be the case. Perhaps someone at PBS (which devoted two nights to the story) wanted to counter the almost universal support for the execution of McVeigh, something even most of the usually predictable liberal critics of capital punishment found appropriate.
There are many conservatives who would like to return to the era of frequent public executions, even hangings. In fact, conservatives are generally united in strong support for the death penalty, a fact the liberal media enjoys equating with the election of George W. Bush as President, since as Governor of Texas, Bush presided over record numbers of executions. It is anecdotally said that Bush faced opposition to the death penalty from his mother, wife and daughters, but never flinched, even in the case of Karla Faye Tucker, an obviously rehabilitated evangelical Christian.
I support the death penalty. McVeigh deserved nothing less. A man convicted of the murder of a 70 year old woman deserves it, rape or not. As a Christian, I believe it is taught in scripture and I have no doubt that Jesus would have supported it. If I served on a jury, I would express my support for the death penalty without embarrassment.
Having said all that, I am uneasy with the current conservative posture on the death penalty. Not with the position, but with the posture; with our approach to the application of the issue. As recent discussions on the Internet Monk Message Board support, there are issues here for thinking conservatives to civilly debate.
Let me be clear about one thing. I do not believe we should question the death penalty as a way of making conservatism "kinder." If someone thinks that conservatism is cruel, they don't understand liberalism, which is tyranny masquerading as compassion. The Biblical admonitions that support capital punishment are presented as a way of properly valuing and respecting the fact that human beings are made in the image of God. It's not presented as a way to torture the guilty, but to remind the rest of us that people aren't like anything else in creation. I don't expect liberals to appreciate that, since they reject the Judeo-Christian worldview and its emphasis on the sacredness of human life. Note how liberals can't see why we oppose abortion yet support capital punishment.
No, my reconsideration is based on two factors: my enthusiastic belief in limited government, and my commitment to the idea of genuine, objective truth. Sad to say, I believe conservative enthusiasm for particular issues is obscuring the importance of these two principles. And we must be a principled movement, or our positions mean nothing.
Let's start with my second objection: the importance of genuine, objective truth. Conservatives may not entirely agree on the nature of truth or the means for discovering it, but generally, theynhave refused the postmodern spirit and insisted that judgments, policies and personal choices be evaluated on their coherence to an objective standard of truth. Whether Christians or not, conservatives have said "You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
What does this have to do with the death penalty? Plenty. In making a judgment about guilt and punishment, conservatives need to take into consideration all the truth in a given situation. Frankly, this seems to be quite the opposite of what many conservatives want to do. For example, the truth of mental status applies in the case of the Houston mother who drowned her kids. Yes, it may result in dueling expert psychologists explaining her mental state, but we aren't acting on principle if we ignore that aspect of the case, even with the clear outrage of the death of five children. We should say that no punishment is appropriate until we know if this mother was rational, insane or some mixture of the two.
Recently, a number of convicted murderers were released because DNA evidence proved they could not have committed the crimes for which they were convicted. Conservatives had little to say about this, and I suspect some are not happy at the development. The fact is, this is the triumph of truth, and conservatives should rejoice. It is liberals and postmodernists who want us to believe that truth is political and imaginary, shaped only by the agenda of the powerful. As conservatives, we believe truth is a force that brings down tyrants and rights wrongs. We don't believe it is a commodity to be ignored or manipulated.
As I have debated this subject, it seems there is a fear, not entirely irrational, that we should be swift and quick in the use of capital punishment to insure that the culture of excuses, with all its various prophets of irresponsibility, doesn't turn the entire justice system into the O.J. Simpson trial. I sympathize and largely support that notion, but we will not achieve that end by reducing the "truth factors" considered in a particular case. If the Houston mom was insane by a reasonable definition, then she must be dealt with differently than McVeigh, and conservatives should be quick to say it. We should strongly support the distinction between children and adults, and be against the kind of sentencing that sees them as the same, because it is the truth that they are not the same. We should welcome the evidence of science in any form that gets us closer to what really happened. Truth is always our friend and ally.
When we love the truth, we are all more free. And freedom is a core conservative principle. Quick justice and swift punishment are not the legacies of our system of government, but the legacies of lynchings and tyranny. Conservatives may not like judicial activism, the ACLU, the trial lawyers lobby and the like, but let's not forget that the truthful use of the justice system is a precious benefit of our continuing American revolution. On any given day, it may be the only protection any one of us has, and perhaps our only hope of publishing the truth.
So, we go to my other consideration, the principle of limited government. And here, I am bitterly disappointed with many of my conservative counterparts. We will applaud the limitation of government on taxes and regulations. We applaud the limitation of government in taking over the private sector. We applaud the limitation of government in forcing the liberal agenda on our families. But can't we see that limited government is important when it comes to the issues of our agenda as well?
Conservatives are attempting to preserve the ideas of the American revolution, particularly the idea that unlimited central government inevitably leads to abuse. Any study of history will quickly reveal that one of the primary abuses of government in history has been the application of capital punishment. Christian scripture clearly says that government has the power to bear the sword, but that same scripture shows the execution of Jesus by the state as an evil act. The founding fathers of this nation were good candidates for swift execution by the British government. All dictatorial empires have used capital punishment to eliminate opposition and intimidate the public. To listen to some conservatives talk, you'd think that captial punishment, like Christmas, can only do us good. Read Foxe's Book of Martyrs. All those burning Protestants were fried up legally.
When we allow the government to execute McVeigh, we should be reluctantly yielding such power. When we see the incarceration of thousands of Americans for crimes like personal drug use or tax evasion, we should be uneasy. It is quite possible that capital punishment is abused by state governments and it is quite appropriate that conservatives be the loudest voices urging caution in the use of the ultimate punishment. Not because it is wrong, but because government is sinful and awkward, usually acting in the interests of the powerful, and not to be trusted completely in any situation. Even when implementing our agenda.
As I see it, conservatives are somewhat seduced by their desire for justice and order. While these values are important, even crucial, they cannot be purchased at the price of making government more powerful. Freedom, not order, is our primary value. Justice must include the possibility that government can be unjust, and frequently finds ways to punish those who are innocent of anything other than deviation from the norm.
So I would prefer that our attitude towards capital punishment be seasoned with a bit less enthusiasm, since we are, after all, giving to government the right to kill us all for whatever reasons it deems acceptable. That makes patriots nervous. So where are the patriots?
I don't expect many conservatives to join me in these reconsiderations, but I think they are important. Chuck Colson has said that conservatives are showing a dangerous tendency to be willing to give up their freedoms to purchase more order in society. If we are reduced to such a choice, all of us will have difficulty choosing, but consider one option. If we empower tyrants with more power and less truth, how will freedom loving people rise up to oppose such a government and restore true justice?