Righting America

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“Pro-Life” Christian Right Loves the Death Penalty | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Painting of the "Crucifixion with St. Dominic" by Bl. Fra Angelico that portrays St. Dominic with a halo on his knees weeping standing next to the crucified Lord that has blood spilling from his wounds.
“san marco florence 320” by Walwyn is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, is a big fan of the death penalty.  As he told Fox and Friends (where he is a regular contributor), 

Let’s admit the death penalty is sometimes inequitably and even mistakenly applied. We know that and we ought to do everything we can to prevent that. But I remind people, the greatest example of an innocent person being executed was Jesus Christ himself. He was totally innocent, and yet in spite of that, the New Testament never calls for an end to the death penalty.

What? Because Jesus was executed, we are supposed to relax about the fact that many people on America’s death rows were wrongfully convicted and some have been executed? I can see this being employed by prison chaplains: “Cheer up, death row inmate: you are on your way to being like Jesus!” 

Of course, Jeffress’ comment about the death penalty is but one of a string of deplorable quotes from the Dallas pastor, including last Sunday’s Fox and Friends observation (which Donald Trump re-tweeted) that “if the Democrats are successful in removing the president from office, I’m afraid it will cause a civil war-like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.”

But while Jeffress’ rhetoric is particularly awful, his support for capital punishment is very much in the Christian Right mainstream. At Ark Encounter, for example, a plaque informs visitors that God wants capital punishment:

God stressed the value of human life by sanctioning the death penalty for acts of murder. If a person murders another human being, he has destroyed someone made in the image of God, which is a grave offense against the Lord Himself. Other serious crimes were also deemed worthy of capital punishment under the Law of Moses, and the New Testament states that governing authorities have the right to execute judgment for such crimes.

It has to be pointed out that, in the context of Ark Encounter, the idea of God who demands death for a variety of crimes is not surprising, given that the Ark also instructs visitors that, in response to human wickedness, God used a global flood to drown up to 20 billion people, including of course toddlers and infants.

(Is the endpoint of Christian Right rhetoric always something dreadful and violent?)

In his Answers in Genesis (AiG) article, “Is Capital Punishment for Today?,” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Russell Fuller expands upon the Ark plaque’s argument for capital punishment. According to Fuller, not only is the Old Testament  “not obsolete,” but God’s call for “vengeance against murderers” in Genesis and elsewhere still applies. In defense of his argument that God insists on death as the punishment for certain crimes, Fuller goes on to argue that 

some of the laws of the Old Testament, particularly in the Mosaic covenant, were temporary, meant for Israel and its particular circumstances. These laws include the dietary laws and worship laws. But Mosaic laws based on the character of God, such as laws against murder or adultery, or Mosaic laws based on the permanent relationships of people, such as children honoring their parents, are permanent. Such commandments, therefore, transcend the Mosaic covenant, as the Ten Commandments transcend the Mosaic covenant.

Interestingly, Fuller neglects mentioning a host of crimes – crimes that do not involve the violation of dietary and worship laws – that, according to the Old Testament, require death. Just using Leviticus 20, here’s a sample of crimes that require the death penalty:

  • “all who curse father or mother shall be put to death” (v. 9)
  • “if a man commits adultery with the wife of a neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (v. 10)
  • “the man who lies with his father’s wife . . . both of them shall be put to death” (v. 11)
  • “if a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death” (v. 12)
  • “if a man lies with a male as with a woman . . . they shall be put to death” (v. 13)
  • “if a man takes a wife and her mother also . . . they shall be burned to death” (w. 14)
  • “if a man has sexual relations with an animal, he shall be put to death” (v. 15)

Add to this blasphemy (Leviticus 24: 10-16) and making sacrifices to another god (Leviticus 27:20), and this is quite the string of offenses that would require capital punishment. And there are more. Why did Fuller not make reference to these crimes? Why did he not mention that we should impose the death penalty on someone who curses their parents ? Did he run out of space? Or is he engaging in the sort of selective biblical literalism that we talk about in the “Bible” chapter of Righting America at the Creation Museum?

More than this, Fuller says nary a word about the racial, economic, and geographic disparities  in the application of the death penalty in the United States. Nor does he say a word about the fact that the death penalty does not deter crime. Nor does he mention that innocent people are sentenced to death in America.

None of this apparently matters at all, or much, to Fuller, Jeffress, AiG, and the Christian Right. What matters is that God wants the state to kill. 

And how again does this square with Jesus’ admonitions to “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek”?