Hurrah! New York Times spots a religion ghost in Nebraska drive to kill death penalty

I groaned when I saw the following New York Times headline on yet another story about a political battle -- one that some would call a "culture wars" skirmish -- out in middle America, the land of red zip codes.

The headline said: "Conservative Support Aids Bid in Nebraska to Ban Death Penalty."

I assumed, of course, that the story would focus on the fiscal and legal side of the term "conservative," ignoring the fact that there are conservative people (my hand is raised as a pro-life Democrat) who believe that all human life is sacred, from conception to natural death -- even when a jury assembled by the state approves the killing.

You see, some doctrinally conservative people -- but certainly not all -- don't want to give that kind of power to the state, fearing human error and injustice linked to race and social class. As St. John Paul II once noted:

"A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made ... for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."

This is, in other words, a story with strong religious themes it and that part of the debate must be covered. I kind of assumed the Times would miss that, but I was wrong. This may be evidence that the Times team does a better job covering this kind of moral, religious and cultural issue (a) when it does not involve the Sexual Revolution, (b) when the conservatives involved happen to agree with the Times editorial page and (c) well, I can't think of a good (c) option.

However, the story initially -- in its major summary of the facts -- ignore the faith element. Why are Republicans joining with Democrats and independents in this case?

Those Republicans have argued that the appeals process for inmates sentenced to death has left the state with unnecessary costs, money that should be spent elsewhere. They have spoken of the botched execution in Oklahoma last year and the difficulty in procuring the drugs for lethal injections. (The electric chair was outlawed in Nebraska in 2008 when the State Supreme Court declared the method unconstitutional.) Some lawmakers have also pointed to the fact that Nebraska has not executed an inmate since 1997, leaving family members of crime victims waiting interminably for resolution. Eleven inmates are on death row.

However, right after that statement the story -- perhaps dealing with a motive that editors thought shouldn't be listed among the actual "facts" -- offered this:

Senator Colby Coash, a conservative who is a sponsor of the bill, said he had come to believe that opposing capital punishment aligned with his values as a Republican and a Christian conservative.
“I’m a conservative guy -- I’ve been a Republican my whole life,” he said in an interview. “A lot of my conservative colleagues have come to the conclusion that we’re there to root out inefficient government programs. Some people see this as a pro-life issue. Other people see it as a good-government issue. But the support that this bill is getting from conservative members is evidence that you can get justice through eliminating the death penalty, and you can get efficient government through eliminating the death penalty.”

And later, there was this:

Some conservatives, like Senator Coash, say they now see the death penalty as anti-Christian. Twenty-two percent of Nebraskans are Catholic, according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, and studies have revealed that Catholic support for the death penalty is decreasing as Pope Francis denounces it strongly. A Pew poll released in April showed that 42 percent of Catholics in the United States opposed the death penalty, compared with 36
Stacy Anderson, the executive director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said this was the closest Nebraska had ever been to having a veto-proof majority on a bill to eliminate capital punishment, leaving her “cautiously optimistic” that it would succeed.
“We’re hearing across the board from Republicans and Democrats that the system is broken, there’s no way to fix it, and it’s time to move on,” Ms. Anderson said. “Republicans have been saying that this is a pro-life issue for them. They believe in the sacredness of life across the board. And for fiscal conservatives, the math just doesn’t make sense, especially when we aren’t getting any benefit from it.”

That's pretty good. Yes, once again we do have the magic "Pope Francis effect," in which statements made by earlier popes and bishops are irrelevant because of the words of the current media superstar at the Vatican. Now, the Pope Francis statements are important, of course, but the story would have been stronger by noting his agreement with other popes, such as Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II. But the key ideas are there.

So what, in the end, is missing from this story?

While I am a firm opponent of the death penalty, with no exceptions, I think the story needed to seek some kind of quote from one of more religious believers who defend this practice. Like I said, this is a topic that creates fierce debates among Catholics, evangelicals and others. In this case, the Times turned this into a debate between compassionate, admirable religious folks and strict, law-and-order folks. As in:

... Other Republicans, dismayed over what they see as a deviation from the party’s core beliefs, have vowed to fight the measure. Senator Bill Kintner, who opposes repeal, said a filibuster had been discussed to try to stop it.
Those lawmakers in his party who favor the bill, Mr. Kintner said, have lost their way. “Conservatives have always been the bedrock of law and order,” he said in an interview in his office in the Capitol. “We want to make sure our streets are safe.”

I don't think it would have been hard, in Nebraska, to have found someone with strong ties to people in the pews who would defend the death penalty. One more time: There is a debate here in pulpits and pews. Cover it.

Note to those clicking "comment": Please focus on the journalism issues in this post, not the actual content of the political debates about the death penalty.

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