The rise of the anti-death penalty conservative

If the Republican presidential candidates want to display their pro-life bona fides, they should at least be consistent

death penalty
(Image credit: REUTERS/Arizona Department of Corrections/Handout )

In a recent episode of The Daily Show, new host Trever Noah asked what would happen if conservatives applied their enthusiasm for preserving the lives of the unborn to passing additional restrictions on gun ownership. Though Noah's exact hope is probably a pipe dream, his line of reasoning could be more fruitfully applied in another direction — a direction that has already been taken by social conservatives themselves: the consistent pro-life ethic.

Of course, to be pro-life in the sense of opposing legal abortion in most or all cases ranks high on the priority list of Republican orthodoxy. Low taxes, strong military, saving babies — these are the building blocks of a successful GOP candidate.

And the videos released by the Center for Medical Progress this fall, which allegedly depict Planned Parenthood staff discussing the profit and practice of harvesting fetal organs, have made abortion a topic of interest in the 2016 election in a way we haven't seen for at least a decade.

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But protesting abortion is not all the consistent pro-life ethic entails. As typically expressed, most often in Catholic circles, consistent defense of human life in all its forms also requires opposition to the death penalty and assisted suicide (as well as any involuntary form of euthanasia).

"Life is something that comes from God and shouldn't be taken away by man," explains Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest. Those with a consistent pro-life ethic "are concerned about a person from womb to tomb." For all Christians, consistent pro-lifers argue, "Something is definitely wrong when we claim to follow a man who halted an execution (John 8:1–11) and then was unjustly executed by the state, but still prefer justice over mercy."

While assisted suicide is legal in Washington, Oregon, Vermont, and (starting in 2016) California, it remains relatively low-profile on the national stage. The death penalty, however, is a different story.

This is particularly true because of recent high-profile capital punishment cases, like the ongoing saga of Richard Glossip, who is on death row in Oklahoma. Glossip's case has attracted significant attention — and multiple stays of execution — thanks to the dubious evidence and circumstances surrounding his conviction and sentencing, as well as the state's intent to kill him with a lethal injection containing midazolam, which in previous executions has produced agonizing deaths lasting as long as two hours.

Of course, there are some conservatives for whom capital punishment is already a pressing issue. "For those of us who are pro-life and maintain the far-from-radical notion that our government shouldn't kill innocent Americans, the death penalty fails to live up to our standards," argues Marc Hyden of Conservatives Concerned About The Death Penalty (CCATDP), a nonprofit that exists to question "a system marked by inefficiency, inequity, and inaccuracy."

And marked by these difficulties it most certainly is.

As CCATDP enumerates, the problems and perils of capital punishment in modern America are many. There's the risk — as in the Glossip case and too many others, like Marlon Howell or Cameron Todd Willingham — of accidentally killing an innocent person. More than 150 people sentenced to die in America have been exonerated in the last four decades, some after spending 30 years or more on death row.

Beyond that, the death penalty is exorbitantly expensive for taxpayers — as much as 10 times more expensive than a life sentence by some calculations. The lengthy process drags out the grief of murder victims' families, endlessly resuscitating it with a new appeal or evidence. And there's no evidence that the threat of death deters crime.

Furthermore, capital punishment is implemented in a systemically unfair manner: Factors like where you live, your race and the race of your alleged victim, and even whether your judge is elected or appointed can all influence whether you're sentenced to prison or death.

With inequities like these, Hyden argues, there's nothing "limited or wise about giving an error-prone government the power to kill its citizens, especially when many of us don't trust the state to even deliver mail."

In spite of the evidence that — as conservatives tend to agree in other policy arenas — the government is neither competent nor trustworthy, polling suggests that CCATDP is still in the minority on the right: Only 11 percent of Americans oppose both abortion and the death penalty. There is "no significant correlation between attitudes about the legality of abortion and views on capital punishment," according to Robert P. Jones of OnFaith, and if we zoom in on Tea Partiers, support for a consistent pro-life ethic drops to just 7 percent.

So in 2016, Republican debate moderators looking for a tough but thoughtful question to add to their list should consider question grilling presidential contenders on the death penalty.

Thanks to the Planned Parenthood footage — not to mention the cross-partisan popularity of the broader cause of criminal justice reform, as well as the consistently pro-life Pope Francis — the timing is good. And thanks to the clear discrepancies between opposition to big government handing out a license to kill, on the one hand, and support for the death penalty on the other, the chance to catch candidates in hypocrisy is pretty good, too.

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Bonnie Kristian

Bonnie Kristian was a deputy editor and acting editor-in-chief of TheWeek.com. She is a columnist at Christianity Today and author of Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community (forthcoming 2022) and A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today (2018). Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, USA Today, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.