Are death penalty foes modern abolitionists? Some mainstream media are reaching for that innocence by association, seeking the reflected glory of the 19th century anti-slavery movement. In so doing, however, they ignore its religious nature.
Those media include the Los Angeles Times, which uses that word three times -- once in the headline -- in its follow-up on two ballot items that fought for Californians' attention along with whom they wanted for president.
Proposition 62 would have repealed the death penalty; voters defeated it by 53.9 percent. Proposition 66 would "expedite" the penalty, with measures like referring such cases to lower courts instead of the state Supreme Court. That one was narrowly approved, by 50.9 percent.
The issue resounds beyond the borders of the nation's most populous state, as the Los Angeles Times explains:
California had been one of the most significant states to watch regarding its decision on the death penalty, legal experts said. With nearly 750 inmates awaiting execution, almost double the number in Florida, the state has the second-highest death row population in the country.
The ballot race results showed a large divide over capital punishment in keeping with national trends and followed voter decisions in favor of the death penalty in Oklahoma, which became the first to approve state constitutional protections for it, and in Nebraska, where voters overturned bipartisan legislation repealing it.
For crossfire, we hear from District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, Sacramento County, in favor of the death penalty. Following her is former star Mike Farrell of the M*A*S*H TV series, opposing capital punishment.
Farrell says the vote shows a "lot of anger and fear generated by the Trump campaign … fear of bad people, of illegal people, of Muslim people, of‘the other.’ ” That gives the Times an opening to noodle over the "Trump effect," which it defines as "a wave of mostly white, male voters from rural areas energized by the Republican presidential campaign of Donald Trump."
That sounds spurious. Nationwide, there is almost surely such an effect, as CBS News and others have observed. But in California, Hillary Clinton won both the popular and electoral votes for president. So, shouldn't any spillover effect onto the death penalty issue have gone the other way?
Furthermore, why quote someone from a show that's been out of production for three decades? Because Farrell is one of those "abolitionists," says the Times: a "diverse group of celebrities and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, crime victims and lawyers, some of whom have devoted decades to ending capital punishment in California."
I wonder if Farrell has ever talked like the abolitionists who fought slavery? They were strongly religious people, according to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York:
At the core of their demand for immediate emancipation and citizenship for the freed slave lay a special religious vision, one built upon radical readings of Christianity but rendered in the mainstream vocabulary of American Protestantism and civil religion. Abolitionists deemed slavery a sin at odds with the Christian mission of saving souls and the progress of humanity promised by the Protestant Reformation and the American Revolution. To them, the redemption of America depended upon black freedom.
Such voices don’t get into the L.A. Times article. The only others are a constitutional law expert and the manager of the Prop 66 campaign. No religious leaders, who deal all the time with matters of life and death.
Not that the Times is alone in this flaw. My GR colleague Bobby Ross Jr. found much the same selective blindness in coverage of the other two states, Nebraska and Oklahoma, that voted on the death penalty.
"Nebraska, for example, is described by the World-Herald as 'a conservative, law-and-order state,' he writes. "Might religious beliefs play into that? The Omaha newspaper does not elaborate … In assessing opinions and attitudes on the death penalty in the U.S., the religion angle is a crucial one to pursue."
Would the Los Angeles Times have had a hard time finding religious views? Not if it checked Ballotpedia, which ran a handy summary of the California issue and its progress. The page also lists seven Episcopal bishops, plus Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, all of whom oppose capital punishment.
No time to call them all? Well, how about starting with Gomez? His archdiocese covers 9,000 square miles and claims five million souls. That's a lot of voters.
Even back in September, Gomez called the death penalty part of a "culture of death," echoing Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Gomez added that "every life is sacred and every person has a dignity that comes from God. This is true for the innocent and it is true for the guilty. It is true even for those convicted of the most violent crimes."
Of course, Ballotpedia may be a touch biased, too. I saw no religious supporters of capital punishment on its list. Were the all the supporters "Nones"?
By blessing opponents of the death penalty with a title like "abolitionists," mainstream media conjure up two ghosts. One ignores the influence of religious leaders in the historical context. The other ignores their influence in today's public issues.