My Response to Al Mohler’s Ambiguous Defense of the Death Penalty
Before you read my response, you should read Southern Baptist seminary president and theologian Al Mohler’s column at: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/05/01/why-christians-should-support-the -death-penalty/ .
I have addressed capital punishment here before and found it to be one of the most controversial issues. I get more responses and the temperature is higher in many of them (than with most other subjects).
A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of about twenty-five evangelical ethicists in Washington, D.C. It was hosted by the Constitution Project. On May 9 the Project will release its formal list of proposals for reforming the death penalty in America. I can’t say what they are until then as, until they are formally released, they are under possible revision. I can say, however, that of the twenty-five evangelical ethicists who attended, only one defended capital punishment. The participants came from a broad range of denominations and represented several racial and ethnic backgrounds. Both genders were represented. I find it interesting that Mohler claims that the Bible and Christianity (as he understands it) definitely defends capital punishment when a broad range of evangelical Christian ethicists oppose it. In fact, I would say, based on my own experience, that very few non-fundamentalist theologians and ethicists support it.
I find Mohler’s defenses of capital punishment weak at best. The Old Testament “clearly calls for” many things—including capital punishment for a broad range of offenses including adolescent rebellion against parents. Certainly for idolatry. Does Mohler think we, as a whole society, should then expand the death penalty for all the offenses for which it is called for in the Old Testament? I doubt it. That makes his appeal to the Old Testament extremely weak.
Mohler seems to believe that IF the Bible calls for something American government should practice it. That’s a huge leap off the pages of the Old Testament to modern, secular government. He speaks disparagingly of secular government. Does he want a return to theocracy? If not, he should explain how his argument is consistent with a rejection of “Christian Reconstructionist” theocracy.
Mohler claims that “capital punishment is sometimes necessary.” Really? How so? Why? In fact, it is totally unnecessary. It is never, in any case, necessary. I suppose he means that “rightly and justly applied [it] will have a powerful deterrent effect.” The fact is it doesn’t have that effect. And his explanation of what he means by “rightly and justly applied” makes capital punishment virtually impossible—given human nature and the impossibility of ever being absolutely certain of a person’s guilt.
According to the Constitution Project (which has conducted a great deal of research into these issues and is not precisely anti-capital punishment) at least 244 people have been exonerated of capital charges after being convicted—often on the basis of alleged “eyewitness” testimony. DNA is causing everyone in the justice system (except those with their heads in the sand) to question the reliability of eyewitness testimony. Studies are showing that people of different races often confuse people of other races with each other.
Advocates of capital punishment like to say that no innocent person has been executed. Since when? Nobody doubts that in the past many innocent people were executed. I suppose they mean in the recent past. But just recently serious doubts about one executed man’s guilt has been raised by experts including a special Texas panel led by a governor-appointed chairman. (The governor fired one chairman apparently because he was favoring the findings of the panel that Todd Willingham was not guilty of the crime for which he was executed.) Enough evidence of his innocence has been brought forward to now declare that he was almost certainly not guilty of the crime for which he was executed. The new governor-appointed chair and the governor seem to have stopped the panel from declaring Willingham to have been innocent.
Should Christians support the death penalty? Mohler asks. His answer: “I believe that Christians should hope, pray and strive for a society in which the death penalty, rightly and rarely applied, would make moral sense.” Why rarely? If murder deserves execution and murder is common, why should execution be “rarely applied?”
The fact is that capital punishment is never necessary which is the main reason ethical people, including Christians, should oppose it. Deadly force should never be used when it is not necessary. Capital punishment is absolutely never necessary. A stronger case could be made that sometimes torture, even of innocent persons who might have needed information, is necessary. And yet no Christian ethicists I know of supports torture. Now that the federal government and all states (so far as I know) have sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole and solitary confinement for violent inmates (and if the they don’t yet, they can and should), capital punishment is simply not necessary for any reason—unless blood lust and vengeance is considered a valid reason for it.
If I could ask Mohler one question it would be this: How do you respond to the possibility that God might have some use for the life of a person the state executes? How is the state, supported by you and other conservative Christians, not cutting off God’s ability to use a person in the future?
Oh, silly me. Mohler is a Calvinist. He would surely say something to the effect that if God had any use for the person he wouldn’t allow the state to execute him (or her).
But, of course, that takes us down a different trail altogether. If that’s the case, then whether we have capital punishment or don’t isn’t even up to us at all! Why even debate ethics if God decides and renders certain everything according to a foreordained plan?
Frankly, I am appalled at Mohler’s support for capital punishment. His reasoning is extremely weak, unless he’s a theocrat and wants the state to execute teenagers for rebelling against their parents and idolaters for worshiping false gods. His claim that capital punishment is a deterrent has been disproven many times. Finally, his caveats about how capital punishment is applied add up to a strong case for its abolition. Why doesn’t at least call for a moratorium on it until it can be administered rightly and justly?