Texans love God and killing killers

TexasDeathPenaltyWell, this is certainly a pushy opening for a story on a hot-button issue, care of Reuters reporter Ed Stoddard in Dallas:

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.

... Texas has executed 398 convicts since it resumed the practice in 1982, six years after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a ban on capital punishment, far exceeding second-place Virginia with 98 executions since the ban was lifted. It has five executions scheduled for August.

Speaking as a prodigal Texan (and as an unrepentant opponent of the death penalty), I would have to say that a statement like that raises at least two big questions.

(1) Is this iron-clad connection between Christians in Texas and the death penalty justified?

(2) Has the reporter fairly demonstrated that it is justified?

In this case, I am going to go with "yes" on the first question and "no" on the latter.

Why? Here is a sample of the Godtalk in this piece, just to give you a flavor of what is going on here in the land of President George W. Bush and current Gov. Rick Perry:

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.

Texas also stands at an unusual geographical and cultural crossroads: part Old South, with its legacy of racism, and part Old West, with a cowboy sense of rough justice.

All kinds of things are going on in that crucial chunk of text, starting with the vague, vague, vague reference to "many outsiders" standing in judgment of these conservative, pro-death-penalty Christians. Might it have been possible to quote a critic or two by name?

Well, wait a second. I think Stoddard does that, only his outsider is a professor at Southern Methodist University -- a progressive enclave in Bible Belt land of Texas if there ever was one. So the outsider is actually an insider on the left side of things.

This is good, since you need that voice in the article. However, it is also very bad in that this is the voice who gets to speak for the very, very complex world of Christianity in Texas. Where are the voices from Southern Baptist higher education -- left and right -- and from, oh, Hispanic Catholicism in the state? Trust me, there are people out there who can defend the death penalty and attack it from a wide variety of pews.

I would also agree that one would have to be blind not to see an element of racism in the Texas death-penalty statistics. However, isn't it a bit of a cheap shot to -- wink, wink -- link that so directly to the reference to Bible thumping?

There was no need to turn this story into a one-sided cheap shot. The story is complex enough, and sad enough, even if you tell it straight.

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