As a life-long opponent of the death penalty, I have attended my share of prayer gatherings and rallies on this issue and other issues linked to it. That final clause -- "and other issues linked to it" -- is crucial.
What I have learned is that, in contemporary American life, there are basically two groups of people who are opposed to the death penalty.
The first group is made up of political progressives who oppose the death penalty and that's that. The second group (which would include me) consists of pro-life religious believers -- left and right -- who oppose the death penalty as well as legalized abortion, euthanasia and other life issues. The goal in this camp is to consistently apply a standard that all life is sacred, from conception to natural death.
In my experience, it's relatively rare to see mainstream press coverage of this second group, especially coverage that discusses the role that faith and doctrine plays in this stance. So I did a double-take the other day when I saw that Washington Post headline that proclaimed, "Meet the red-state conservatives fighting to abolish the death penalty."
Yes, this piece by New York magazine writer Marin Cogan is labeled "opinion." However, it's about as newsy as 80 percent of what runs as hard news in major newspapers today.
Let me confess that this is, in effect, a "Kellerism" piece that just happens to support a cause that floats my own boat. If you are looking for fair, accurate arguments in favor of the death penalty then this is not the piece for you. However, I wanted GetReligion readers to know about it because it does a pretty good job of handling faith-based material, while dealing with a group of believers that rarely gets much news coverage. So why an "opinion" piece?
Here is the overture:
Colby Coash can point to the moment his evolution in thinking about the death penalty began.
It was Sept. 3, 1994, and Coash -- now a conservative senator in the Nebraska legislature but then a freshman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln -- decided to go with some friends to the state penitentiary. Willie Otey, convicted of first-degree murder, was set to be executed at midnight, and people were gathering in the parking lot outside. Coash can still remember the scene: the live band, the grilling meat, the revelers popping cans of beer and chanting, “Fry him!”
At first, all Post readers learn is that viewing this ugly scene, as Coash described it, "changed my heart." Thus, it made him reconsider his support for the death penalty.
Readers have to go a long, long way into this story hit the faith element. Still, it's there -- eventually.
Times are changing for conservatives -- but for markedly conservative reasons. In the past year, Republican lawmakers in red-leaning Nebraska, Utah, Missouri, Kentucky, Kansas, Ohio, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota and New Hampshire have all sponsored bills to repeal the death penalty. They’re organizing themselves in places like North Carolina, Tennessee and Washington state, too. Coash is now part of a small group of activists who argue that the best case against the death penalty is a conservative one -- and that the best way to make progress on the issue is to convince other Republicans in red states where the death penalty is, for the most part, uncontroversial.
After that night in Lincoln, Coash decided he couldn’t support the death penalty as a pro-life Catholic. But it wasn’t until he made it into the Nebraska legislature in 2008 that he could do anything about it.
This leads us to quotes on the issue from St. Pope John Paul II and from Pope Francis, as well. I thought is was interesting that readers were not provided a URL to the crucial John Paul quotes, while the Francis material got that nod. Might there have been room for a short quote from John Paul II, such as this one from a 1999 sermon in St. Louis?
"The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. 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. ... I renew the appeal I made ... for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."
This essay actually gives more ink -- very late in the text -- to the crucial growth in a consistent pro-life stance among evangelicals. Obviously, this trend will have to grow if this issue is to gain traction in Sunbelt states.
The key figure here is 31-year-old Heather Beaudoin of Conservatives About the Death Penalty.
Beaudoin was raised in an evangelical family. She likes to say that her opposition to the death penalty is “of the Lord,” because it’s something she’s felt passionate about since she was a little girl. After a brief stint in Washington, D.C., after college, Beaudoin moved to Montana to work for AmeriCorps, and one day, outside her office, the Montana Abolition Coalition held a rally with exonerees and their family members. Beaudoin landed a job with the coalition by suggesting that she lead outreach to evangelicals and the law enforcement community. After a few years, she went to Equal Justice USA, a group that works on criminal justice reform issues, to launch a national organization aimed at conservatives. That turned into Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. ...
“For me, it’s about redemption,” Beaudoin says. “I think that is true for most evangelicals as well. That’s at the center of our faith. We believe in grace, we believe that God can do wonderful things. How can we say, ‘You are the worst of the worst, you are not worthy, and we will dispose of you?’ What does that say about us and what we believe?”
Now, a lot of religious conservatives will immediately note the reference that she was "raised in an evangelical family." Does this mean that Beaudoin no longer considers herself an evangelical? Of course, the Post piece could have noted that she is a Calvin College graduate and a veteran of crisis pregnancy center work. This Life Matters Journal Q&A with Beaudoin is also helpful.
To sum things up, this "opinion" piece has some obvious holes and, at times, suggests that the Post editors took it on because (a) they were shocked to learn there are conservatives who take this stance and (b) many journalists are always intrigued when they find "conservative" people voicing beliefs that support allegedly "liberal" positions on "political" issues.
However, if journalists are truly interested in this debate they will need to dig a bit deeper to understand what these Catholics and evangelicals (and Eastern Orthodox Christians, I might add) are saying about the value of human life. Journalists will also have to pay serious attention to the counter arguments from their critics.
In other words, this is a valid topic for news coverage, as opposed to op-ed work. Journalists may want to give that a try.