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Death and Texas - Part 1

Reuters blames Bible-belt religion for Texas' record number of executions.

On Sunday, the Washington Post published a Reuters story about the number of executions in the state of Texas–now pushing a remarkable 400 since the Supreme Court lifted its ban on capital punishment in 1976. Texas has carried out 398 executions and it has 5 more planned for August. The closest runner up to the Texas numbers is Virginia with 96 executions–only one quarter of the Lone Star State's record.

What was puzzling about the story was the way writer Ed Stoddard tried to link the numbers to religion. Here's how he led off the story:

Texas will almost certainly hit the grim total of 400 executions this month, far ahead of any other state, testament to the influence of the state's conservative evangelical Christians and its cultural mix of Old South and Wild West.

The Washington Post repeated the emphasis by headlining the story, "Religion, Culture Behind Texas Execution Tally."

Whoa there, Podner!

What does religion have to do with it? All Stoddard could come up with was this:

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.

That's it. Unless you also count the fact the Governor Rick Perry is "a devout Christian." Yup, that explains a lot.

Let's take a look at the factors cited by Stoddard:

First, a belief in individuals taking responsibility for their own salvation. Well, of course we evangelical Protestants don't teach that individuals "take responsibility for their own salvation." We teach that the grace of God comes to individuals in their pervasively sinful state and enables them to respond to his love by faith. But, yes, we do emphasize that individuals can have a personal, saving relationship with Jesus (as opposed to salvation necessarily being mediated through clerics and church ritual).

But neither Stoddard's version of evangelical belief nor the correct one has much to do with capital punishment. If anything, belief in the individual dimension of salvation drives evangelicals to engage in more extensive and more intense prison ministry than other Christians.

Second, evangelicals find justification for capital punishment in Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament. Well, no and yes.

No, evangelicals who support capital punishment do not use the Old Testament as their primary source of justification. If you ask almost any evangelical in the pew if they think that Sabbath-breaking or homosexuality should be a capital crime, they would shudder in horror at the thought.

Yes, evangelicals do find support in Scripture–but as part of God's plan for the secular order. See Romans 13:1-7, where the Apostle Paul portrays "the sword" and taxes as legitimate functions of the state. But to consider this a legitimate function of the state is not to approve of the way any given state carries out its responsibility for retribution.

When studies show disproportionate application of the death penalty by race or economic status, Christians of any and every stripe should be challenging the system. And when DNA-testing and other death-row efforts repeatedly reveal the miscarriage of justice, Christians should be working to make sure justice is truly served.

Posted:August 13, 2007 at 9:45AM
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