Here’s transcript of radio interview with Mark Tooley on Christianity and capital punishment by Amber Khan of Interfaith Radio (IFR) broadcast September 30, 2019.
Interfaith Radio: “…and contrary to what people think, capital punishment is not a violation of the sanctity of life; it is an affirmation of it. God is saying human life is so sacred, whoever takes it has to pay the ultimate price.” “That was Robert Jeffers, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, explaining recently on Fox and Friends why he, as a Christian, supports the death penalty. Today, we’ve shared our conversation with Sister Helen Prejean. She’s the author of the book Dead Man Walking, in which she explains how her faith drives her to work toward the abolition of the death penalty. But many people who favor the death penalty believe that they are on the moral, even the Godly, side of the question. To find out more about their way of thinking, we called on Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, an independent and ecumenical think tank based in Washington, D.C. I began by asking him, “What’s the religious case in the Christian tradition for the death penalty?”
Mark Tooley: “Well, it should be remembered that every major branch of Christianity, historically, has affirmed the death penalty in some instances, so the Catholic Church, literally, until last year, Eastern Orthodoxy, all the major Protestant traditions, certainly affirmed by the Protestant reformers, so I think, in essence, the argument is, ‘God institutes government to uphold justice, and to restraint evil, based especially on admonition from St. Paul in the Book of Romans that God ordained the state to wield the sword against the wicked. And, more specifically, there is a command in the very first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, to Noah, after the Great Flood, in which it is said that he who sheds a man’s blood, shall his blood be shed, and most Christian traditions have regarded that admonition at the very beginning of the Bible as having a universal force that’s still in effect today.”
IFR: “How does the evolution of conversation around the death penalty, how has it evolved, from your perspective?”
MT: “Well, I’m not aware of major streams of Christian thought dissenting from the historic support for the death penalty until, really, the mid-twentieth century in Western Christianity, when mainline Protestant denominations started taking stances against the death penalty in the 1950s and the 1960s. The Catholic Church, of course, began curtailing its support for the death penalty, especially under Pope John Paul II, in the 1980s, who did not dispute the state’s power and vocation to use the death penalty, but essentially said, ‘There should be very few instances where it’s really necessary.’ Although, when Pope Francis essentially abolished all affirmation of the death penalty last year, that was a major move. And, it should also be noted less significant, but still important, when the National Association of Evangelicals put out a statement four years ago, essentially rejecting the death penalty after having affirmed it for many decades.
IFR: “So, we’ve seen a shift in recent decades, where more Protestant denominations are rejecting the death penalty. In the Roman Catholic Church, it was only last year that the Pope rejected it in all cases. So now, it’s Catholics who favor the death penalty who are out of step with the official teachings of the church. Could you speak to this change within Catholicism?”
MT: “Yes, so now it would be those on the conservative side of the church who would be in dissent. After Pope Francis announced this new position, there were some published commentaries by Catholic conservatives, but not a great deal, and I find that most Catholic thinkers have been fairly reticent on this issue. The last, really, very important Catholic thinker who addressed this issue, who is a favorite of mine, is the late cardinal Avery Dulles, who put out a very strong robust defense of the Catholic Church’s traditional affirmation of the death penalty. Although he did, in the years of Pope John Paul II, affirm the great limitations of the death penalty that the pope had advocated.
IFR: “When you refer to the thinkers that are now the dissenters, are there any common threads or themes that they lift up or point out in our current context that would, kind of, illuminate where the fault lines are?”
MT: “I am not a Roman Catholic myself, but as I understand the perspective of conservative Roman Catholics, they were distressed, among other reasons, that this new position that Pope Francis was adopted of the death penalty, was essentially saying that the church had been in significant error for most of two thousand years on a very important issue. And that is problematic in terms of understanding the church’s teaching authority, and, also, the basic teachings I’ve already referenced, that would have united all the major branches of Christianity, in terms of what St. Paul has said about wielding the sword, and what’s the book of Genesis says about the death penalty being appropriate for murderers.
IFR: “You’re not Roman Catholic – and I appreciate that that is not your tradition – your own church, the United Methodist Church, in which, I understand, you are very active, officially opposes the death penalty. What is your take on this stance?”
MT: “Yes, United Methodism, or its predecessor denomination was among the first denominations to take a stance against the death penalty, going back sixty years, but even that is relatively recent in terms of Christian history. And yet, I think it’s important to point out that I would strongly guess that most Methodists, if polled, like most Americans, would support the death penalty in some circumstances. So the fact that their denomination is opposed to it, would probably be great news to them; it’s not frequently referenced at the local church level, but I think the stance is problematic in that it doesn’t take seriously or even recognize the arguments that Christians had used for centuries for the death penalty and it illustrates a troubling trend in American Christianity today in which Christian elites are very, very uncomfortable with government’s punitive role. Not just the death penalty, but law enforcement in general – the military – and yet, historically, Christians have understood the core vocation of the state to be primarily punitive, in terms of restraining and punishing the criminal and the wicked.”
IFR: “That’s really interesting, in terms of the view of the role of the state as one of dispensing punitive consequence for breaking the rules. In the conversation with Sister Prejean in her writing in her memoir, River of Fire, she references the context for how she came to her position. She describes in detail her realization of and exposure to the brutality and inequity that African-Americans were facing, and how the penal system, she saw, as a reinforcing of Jim Crow laws as an extension of the economic systems of slavery.”
MT: “Obviously, many would agree with her that law enforcement has not be equitable. In no society, anywhere, has law enforcement, or any aspect of government, been completely equitable. We live in a fallen world, and people are frail and sinful, by nature, as Christianity teaches, so obviously, to critique some situations where the death penalty was wrongfully imposed or wrongfully sought is legitimate, and other aspects of law enforcement – to say that law enforcement in America has been racist in some instances, obviously true – and yet, that doesn’t get to the core argument of why Christianity, traditionally, has affirmed the death penalty, which is that the state has a responsibility to uniquely punish someone who takes for themselves a right that only God should have, in terms of willfully taking away the life of another person who’s created in the image of God.
IFR: “What are the consequences that you see of a society that removes the death penalty from the options that the state has?”
MT: “Well, in many ways, the shift against the death penalty, it’s a consequence of living in a relatively safe and wealthy society, where we have the luxury to have prison systems that cost many billions of dollars. Those who live in the world today, or earlier in history, who lived closer to the edge, where there was more disorder and danger, were much more inclined to support the right of the state to use the death penalty against those who were dangerous and destructive. In terms of – ”
IFR: “Can I pause there? I just want to unpack what you just said. Do you think that if our society was more lawless, or had less security, that we would be more comfortable with giving the state the power to have the death penalty as a punishment?”
MT: “Oh, very definitely, I think public opinion would be demanding it, and certainly support for the death penalty did increase during the high crime years, especially in the 1970s and through the 1990s. But crime has mostly been in decline continuously for twenty-five years or more in the United States, and we’re historically at very low crime rates so, in effect, we have the luxury to take this strong position against the death penalty and to complain about too-large a prison population, but that was not a major concern back in the early 1990s.”
IFR: “Do you see the punitive role of the state, or the ability to have the death penalty as an option to be reflective of religious beliefs, or is it more around the construct of how we keep order?”
MT: “Well, it’s a combination of both. Ideally, the Christian church is not taking positions based on popular opinion. Any given day, any given year, hopefully it’s relying on the permanent teachings that guide the church across the centuries, ultimately based on the Bible. But, again, the church traditionally thought that the state’s primary purpose, ordained by God, is to create public order so that other aspects of human life can occur, and, to flourish in the state is not providing that public order, then all kinds of evils are going to take place. And Christians living in Europe, in North America, have forgotten that primary vocation of the state because we live in comfortable, largely safe, wealthy societies – that’s not an immediate concern.”
IFR: “I want to turn to something you just said. You call the right of the state to execute evildoers a ‘permanent and transcendent teaching of the church.’ Can you elaborate on that?”
MT: “I believe it’s a permanent teaching. I think most of the great teachers in the church’s history have believed that it is a permanent teaching that the state is ordained with the use of lethal force, and should be able to kill in the pursuit of justice and in defense of the innocent, when necessary, whether that’s through the law enforcement, through the judicial system, or through war. And so, very often, those who are most troubled by the death penalty often are inclined, understandably, are more pacifist in terms of how they look at issues of war and peace.”
IFR: “Hmm. When you refer to the state, in this context, is the state seen as part-and-parcel or connected to the church – is it a religious state or is it a secular state?”
MT: “No, and that’s an important point that the church, traditionally, has understood. All government, everywhere, as ordained by God to provide for civil order. So, obviously, when St. Paul was speaking about this point, he was speaking in the first century under the pagan emperors of Rome, so he did not believe – the state was not in any way Christian, or friendly to his theological perspective – but he understood, and the churches understood, that government everywhere, to the extent that pursues order and justice is an instrument of God’s purposes for allowing human flourishing where possible.”
IFR: “Many people, who may be people of faith in the Christian tradition, who don’t consider the death penalty to be morally or religiously objectionable. But they still reject it in the United States, particularly as immoral because of the haphazard or discriminatory way that they see it having been applied, particularly in its application to racial minorities – African-Americans in particular. And, also because of the growing number of wrongful convictions exposed by groups like the Innocence Project. Do you have any similar qualms about the death penalty for those reasons?”
MT: “Well, we should never be enthusiastic about the death penalty, obviously, even when the most abhorrent murderer is put to death. That’s not a cause for celebration, that’s an enormous tragedy that a human life was bent towards evil and had to be destroyed for that purpose. But we have to keep in mind that the world, such as it is, fallen as it is, no human activity, however noble in intent, is going to be flawless or sinless, and so, inevitably, innocent people are going to go to jail. Innocent people, obviously, are killed in very just and necessary wars, and so, we have to factor this into the equation, so we must do everything we can to prevent the innocent from ever facing the death penalty and we probably do a better job of that than any other time in history and those who are on death row in America typically are there for many, many years, with many, many appeals, so nothing similar to fifty or a hundred years ago, where someone might be more immediately hanged for their crime. But nonetheless, we can’t take a perfectionist view that ultimately would be paralyzing, if we did, there would be effectively no law enforcement if we must have absolute, one-thousand-percent proof in every situation.”
IFR: “How does that reconcile with, also, messages of forgiveness and reconciliation and redemption and grace?”
MT: “Well, that’s a very important point, and I confess I’m very often perplexed when I’m posed with this issue, by other people of faith who seem to presuppose that the death penalty is in opposition to the concept that people can repent. And, obviously, repentance is at the core of the Christian message. Repentance is always possible, and the God whom Christianity looks to is always seeking the lost souls and always, up until the last breath, hoping they do come to him, but that doesn’t preclude the consequences of their earthly actions. So, if you’re a tax evader, and you haven’t paid your taxes for decades, and you’re very sorry for it, I don’t think we expect the IRS to say, ‘Oh, if you’re sorry, you don’t have to pay your back taxes.’ And, in fact, if that person is a person of deep Christian faith, they should be anxious to make right what they did wrong, and to pay their back taxes. So, someone is on death row for having committed a horrendous crime, and yes, hopefully someone is reaching them with the message of repentance and being in a relationship with God, and certainly, many Christian chaplains are in prisons doing exactly that, but that doesn’t preclude the consequences of their terrible crime, and, I would argue, if they have a true appreciation for just how horrendous it is to take another human life, for your own selfish purposes, essentially usurping what only belongs to God, then you would have a deep understanding that yes, in fact, you do deserve the death penalty.”
IFR: “We live in a time in which we have a shift in public attitudes, and we look at the justice system, not just as punitive, but also as potentially restorative, and the death penalty discourse, I think, linked to that, now. How does restorative justice fit in on Earth?”
MT: “Well, I can only respond with a story, that – a friend of mine, her brother was a pizza delivery man in Florida who was brutally murdered while delivering pizzas about fifteen years ago. And it was a very devout Catholic family, and the murderer was caught and tried, and the parents, because they were devout Catholics, did offer him forgiveness when they testified at the trial and pleaded for his life. And I understand, the murderer, as a result of their witness, he was sentenced to life and did become a Catholic while in prison as a result of the parents of his victim having testified in defense of his life. So that was very moving, inspirational, and a powerful witness of their faith, so, obviously, there’s room and space for that. I also recall that the founder of Prison Fellowship, which is the biggest Christian prison ministry – ”
IFR: “ – that’s Chuck Colson’s group?”
MT: “Chuck Colson, yeah. And Chuck Colson – ”
IFR: “ – he himself was – ”
MT: “He’d been in prison for his crimes related to the Watergate scandal. And initially, he had opposed the death penalty, believing that it put a limit on the possibility of repentance and a changed heart, but then changed his position again, and in later years saw that, no, that the death penalty was needed in some situations. And those on death row do have typically a long-standing opportunity to repent and ministry should reach those people, but nonetheless, the consequences should still be there.”
IFR: “That was Mark Tooley, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Religion and Democracy, and editor of its foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. That’s all for this week. Inspired, a production of Interfaith Voices, relies on the generosity of our supporters. Visit our website, www.interfaithradio.org, to learn more about us, access this and past episodes, and sign up for our newsletter. And if you like this episode, please consider sharing it. Pass it on to a friend. And before we go, I have some really exciting news to share: we just won first place at the Religion Newswriters Association’s Annual Awards Gala in the radio/podcast category. The episode was the first in our Trans in the Eyes of God series, which we produced in support from the Arcus Foundation. The series shared the personal stories and struggles of transgender people of faith and goodwill, and their journey to find a spiritual home among the world’s religious traditions. A round of applause to the women who produced that episode: Laura Corel, Stephanie Letchie, Melissa Fato, and June Owens. And, a special thanks to guest host, the Rev. David Win. You can find that episode, and the rest of the series, on our website. Inspired is produced by Lauren Marko and Kevin McCarthy. We are taped at the WAMU studios in Washington, D.C. We are grateful to our founder, Maureen Feedler, and M.C. Yogi for our theme music. I hope you’ll join us next week. I’m your host, Amber Kahn.”