Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The cooling of a hot button?

The race for the White House has taken center stage in national news as we begin 2008. I have no intention of using this space to endorse a candidate. There is, however, a feature of the campaign that interests me because it is connected to a matter that is very important to me and it may underscore a trend that I mentioned back in November.

Have you heard anyone ask the candidates about the death penalty?

Actually I have because I listen for that question. But capital punishment has not come up often in the presidential campaign and it certainly has not made headlines. Such was not always the case.

I remember Bill Clinton running for president as a "new Democrat" back in 1992. One of the issues that he frequently cited as one differentiating him from presumably "old" Democrats was his support for the death penalty. He brought it up many times including, I think, in his acceptance speech at the convention. During that White House run, in January of 1992, Clinton, who was then the governor of Arkansas, made a point to fly back to his home state to witness the execution of Ricky Rector who had an IQ of 70. Clinton made his staunch support of the death penalty a centerpiece of his successful White House bid.

But it is 16 years later and discussion of the death penalty is largely muted in presidential politics despite ample opportunity for it to come up. Last month New Jersey became the first state in a generation to repeal the death penalty. But I didn't hear of any candidates issuing statements one way or the other on this decision. I saw no reporters asking any campaign representatives for response to the New Jersey action.

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether or not lethal injections, the most widely used method of execution, constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Again, the candidates were silent as far as I could tell in the news. Numerous candidates have spoken of the types of judges they would appoint, especially in relationship to the issue of abortion. But I have not heard judicial appointments come up in connection with the death penalty in the race for the White House.

Presidential candidates spend a lot of money on internal polling trying to determine what is important to the American people so that they can make it known where they stand on the issues that matter to the electorate. I can only attribute the quietness surrounding the death penalty in this campaign to this apparent fact: the American public doesn't really care about the death penalty that much anymore. If the people did care then you can bet that the candidates would be weighing in and the reporters would be asking about it. The fact that neither of these is happening tells me that an issue that was so important to the people a few years ago is not so important to them anymore.

In my blog entry cited above I asked whether the death penalty is fading away. For numerous reasons the number of juries choosing death fell from 317 in 1996 to 128 in 2005. The number of executions dropped from a modern high of 98 in 1999 to 53 in 2006. More and more it looks like the hot button issue of the death penalty is cooling off.

Romans 1:16 tells us that the gospel is "the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes" (TNIV). The power of God is powerful enough to transform anyone, even murderers, but not if we give them lethal injections first. We can protect society from murderers short of killing them. Because life is precious and because the gospel, the power of God, can transform anyone we must put murderers in prison for life rather than executing them.

"Life for life" is the principle given in Deuteronomy 19:21 and several other passages. The state can embody this principle in its laws by taking the lives of murderers through life imprisonment. Indeed, taking the lives of murderers through life imprisonment is true to the "life for life" principle while upholding the crucial scriptural principle of the sanctity of human life.

Study after study has shown that capital punishment has no deterrent effect on crime. Moral questions should not be decided based on money, but if we were to factor in dollars and cents, the death penalty costs more than life imprisonment. Capital cases, with the mandatory appeal process, are very expensive. We can't do away with the expensive appeals process, because we will run the risk of executing an innocent person as we almost did here in North Carolina in the case of Alan Gell.

It is no wonder that Americans are becoming more ambivalent toward the death penalty. Would that we would develop a passion for following the lead of New Jersey by repealing the practice.

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