restricted access 2 | Between Moral Certainty and Morally Certain: The Churches Discuss the Death Penalty
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) 2) Between Moral Certainty and Morally Certain The Churches Discuss the Death Penalty Virginia’s 2005 gubernatorial election pitted Democratic lieutenant governor Timothy Kaine against Republican attorney general Jerry Kilgore in an election that featured a new wrinkle: for the first time in the modern era, an individual personally opposed to the death penalty had won his party’s nomination for governor. Conventional wisdom held that this was a political kiss of death in a state where the majority of voters support the death penalty. This is The Bible recognizes in capital punishment . . . a deterrent character and an expiatory character, in addition to its retributive character. . . . The Bible also teaches explicitly that capital punishment is the just punishment for murder, in order to atone for the pollution of the land. . . . Yet the [O]ld Testament teaching of justice is tempered by mercy. “But if the wicked turn from all his sins . . . he shall surely live, he shall not die.” ( rev. d. de sola pool, Capital Punishment among the Jews As I read the New Testament, I don’t see anywhere in there that killing bad people is a very high calling for Christians. I see an awful lot about redemption and forgiveness. ( james w. l. park, former execution­ officer, San Quentin, California ( Between Moral Certainty and Morally Certain ( 27 not abstract support or poll-tested support—Virginia is home to the nation’s second-busiest death chamber; only Texas has carried out more executions in the modern era. Kilgore repeatedly attacked Kaine on capital punishment. Kilgore stressed his belief that the death penalty is just and necessary to protect citizens and help prevent crime. Kaine just as frequently stressed that his Catholic faith taught him that the death penalty is morally wrong, but that he would carry out the duties of his office if elected. The immediate context of the debate was local, but partisans in each camp made it clear that the debate was anything but. Stephen Neill, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, acknowledged the long-standing debate among Catholics as they struggle with church teaching that life is sacred from womb to tomb. Robert F. Drinan, sj, a vocal death penalty opponent, validated Kaine’s position from the Catholic perspective, reiterating that upholding the law over and against one’s personal , religious opposition is legitimate, indirectly linking Kaine to former president John F. Kennedy. Rev. Donald Runion, Kilgore’s pastor, argued that Kilgore was right, that “the death penalty is biblically permissible as part of the state’s role of keeping order in society.” Nevertheless, Runion agreed with Neill that capital punishment is an issue of conscience, one that believers should decide within the context of their faith tradition and its teachings. This state-level debate brought the death penalty into the open and gave voters and believers a chance to evaluate their beliefs and the positions of their religious traditions on capital punishment.1 The continued salience of religious viewpoints in the contemporary debate over capital punishment is indisputable. During the 2005 campaign, a majority of respondents polled stated that while they disagreed with Kaine’s stance, they accepted that his was a sincerely held religious belief and took him at his word when he pledged to carry out his duties as governor. Kaine’s persuasive articulation of his religious beliefs thus mitigated what could have been a ­ serious political liability. Similarly, a 2004 Zogby International poll found that, for the first time, a minority of Catholic respondents (48 percent) supported capital punishment. Prior polling had found that Catholics supported capital punishment in roughly the same proportion as Americans in general, averaging around 70 percent over the last several decades. Respondents credited church teachings as the primary reason for the decline in support.2 Nor is religion meaningful only in the abstract: “It is clear that throughout the history of penal practice religion has been a major force in shaping the ways in which offenders are dealt with.” Scholars are divided over the precise extent to which religion influences the death penalty in contemporary America , but some basic patterns have emerged. Several studies have found that religion is perhaps as important as race and gender in predicting how jurors 28 ) exile & embrace ) will vote in a death penalty case. Some commentators argue that the dominance of evangelical Christianity within the South is one of the primary explanations for the pronounced geographic disparity in American executions. The death penalty is largely a southern institution: as...


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