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Texan Justice and Liberal fiction

August 19th, 2007 by Matt

Texas is about to perform it’s 400th execution since capital punishment was reinstated in 1982. Stuff has an interesting article on this entitled “Religion, Culture Behind, Texas Execution Tally”

The article suggests that outsiders find it puzzling that evangelical Christians support capital punishment. This surprise, I suggest, reflects the theological and historical ignorance of these outsiders. Historically most Christian Theologians supported capital punishment as does mainstream historical Christian tradition. I suspect the reported puzzlement often comes from facile “if you oppose abortion you must oppose capital punishment” arguments which I have critiqued previously.

Like many media accounts of religion and morality the article resorts to caricature

Like his predecessor, Governor Perry is a devout Christian, highlighting one key factor in Texas’ enthusiasm for the death penalty that many outsiders find puzzling – the support it gets from conservative evangelical churches.
This is in line with their emphasis on individuals taking responsibility for their own salvation, and they also find justification in scripture.
“A lot of evangelical Protestants not only believe that capital punishment is permissible but that it is demanded by God. And they see sanction for that in the Old Testament especially,” said Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas

A lot could be said here. First there is a subtle reductio ad bushium hinted at in the first line. Second, note that when the journalist wants to gain an understanding of the scriptural and theological justification evangelicals rely on to defend capital punishment he turns not to an evangelical ethicist who supports the death penalty but to a political scientist.

Third, what is said is questionable at best. In North America many evangelicals are dispensationalists and hence do not consider Old Testament moral norms to be binding on believers and so would not appeal to the Old Testament. Their scriptural justification is drawn from the New Testament particularly Romans 13.

Third, contrary to what the article confidently asserts evangelicals do not believe people are responsible for their own salvation. Whether they are Arminians or a Calvinists evangelicals believe that salvation is given by grace. One cannot earn it through works and hence one is not responsible for it God is. What some Christian writers ( Kant and CS Lewis) have argued is that respect for human dignity requires that punishment be retributive as opposed to therapeutic or deterrent One is justified in depriving a criminal of his right to life or liberty by punishment only if he deserves it, he has by his own voluntary actions and done something he as a rational agent knows is wrong. To subject people to treatment without their consent or to punish one person for the future crimes of others is degrading. This argument may be mistaken. But the first step to refuting it is to actually understand it, not to attribute to evangelicals views they in fact reject.

Not content with stereotyping and caricature. The article goes on to repeats the objection that that capital punishment is applied in a racist manner the article states.

blacks more likely than whites to be condemned … Over 41 per cent of the inmates currently on death row in Texas are black, but they account for only about 12 per cent of the state’s population.

Now there are several problems here:

First, the while its true that blacks make up only 12 of the states population its also true that in the United states around 52% of all homicides are committed by Blacks. Hence the statistic provided is misleading at best and outright deceptive at worst. To asses whether capital punishment is applied in a discriminatory manner or not the issue is not the percentage of blacks executed relative to the number of blacks in society the issue is the percentage of blacks executed relative to the number who commit homicide.

Second, this whole argument has been exploded by Ernest Van Der Haag in the Harvard Law Review Association ( 1983)

Maldistribution of any punishment among those who deserves it is irrelevant to its justice or morality. Even if poor or black convicts guilty of capital offenses suffer capital punishment, and other convicts equally guilty of the same crimes do not, a more equal distribution, however desirable, would merely be more equal. It would not be more just to the convicts under sentence of death.

Van Der Haag’s point is this: If capital punishment is just and those executed deserve to be executed then the fact that a disproportionate number of blacks are executed can not change this. To say otherwise is essentially to argue that because some people escape justice every one should.

On the other hand if capital punishment is unjust and those executed do not deserve to die then applying capital punishment equally would not be an improvement. This is like arguing that all people should be treated unfairly because some are. The appeal to unequal distribution then is a red herring; the question is whether capital punishment is just.

Of course none of this is surprising, to expect the media to accurately report the views of religious conservatives or actually give a competent treatment of a moral or ethical issue is asking to much. That might require getting people to actually hear reasoned theological dissent to the current liberal left orthodoxy.

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