For four decades, opponents of the death penalty have waited for the moment when a state would abolish the practice. This week, New Jersey took a major step toward banning it. So it would be great to know why state lawmakers outlawed capital punishment. Was their rationale religious, secular, or a mixture of both? Judging from the coverage so far, it's impossible to know.
The New York Times provided few answers. The same was true for USA Today, although its story included the interesting statistic that 1,099 people nationally have been executed since the the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Keith Richburg of The Washington Post was only a bit more helpful in describing the lawmakers' rationale:
The repeal bill follows the recommendation of a state commission that reported in January that the death penalty "is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency." But equally persuasive to lawmakers was not saving lives but money -- it costs more to keep a prisoner indefinitely on death row than incarcerated for life.
The repeal movement in New Jersey gained ground this year despite solid public support in the state for capital punishment, and over the objections of death penalty supporters who accused lawmakers of rushing the issue through a lame-duck session before a new legislature is installed next year. "It's a rush to judgment" said Robert Blecker, a New York Law School professor and prominent death penalty advocate.
Hmm. That phrase "evolving standards of decency" is a curious one. It suggests that such standards are universal, not relativistic. It suggests that there are standards -- period -- and that they can evolve.
So did legislators view those standards as rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or those of the Enlightenment? In other words, did anti-death penalty New Jersey lawmakers invoke God's name for their vote, or a belief that the State should not have the power to kill anyone? After all, the late Pope John Paul II was outspoken in his opposition to capital punishment, declaring that resorting to the practice should be "very rare, non-existent practically." And the 13-person commission that favored outlawing the death penalty included a rabbi.
Another interesting feature of New Jersey's vote was that Democrats favored the repeal, while Republicans did not. It's often said by those on the religious left that Republicans are only pro-life to protect the unborn. So how did GOP state lawmakers justify their support for state-sanctioned killing? Weren't they using primarily secular rather than religious justifications?
To be sure, determining the motives of anyone is difficult; there are often so many motives involved. But New Jersey's vote was historic. Reporters ought to have devoted another paragraph or two to the lawmakers' rationale and justification.