A new Washington Post-ABC poll shows that 53% of the nation now believes that marriage between partners of the same-sex should be legal. This is a dramatic change. Barely 5 years ago, only 35%–just over a third–favored the legalization of same-sex marriage. This is an amazing shift in public consciousness in just five years. The support is strongest among those under 35–which argues for the eventual success of marriage equality.
In the wake of Illinois’ abolition of the death penalty, conservative attorney and author Scott Turow has written an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune called “The Right Has Reason to Applaud.” In the article, Turow advances three (3) politically conservative arguments for abolishing the death penalty.
- Capital punishment is one more government program that has failed. Those of us who are not conservatives can safely ignore the conservative cant that implies that “government programs” usually or always fail–and that therefore we should just do away with government programs (and as much government) as possible. Obviously, if one believes that government exists to make lives better, to promote the common good and help people do together that which they cannot easily do as individuals, then programs and policies are going to be experimental–and can fail. Goals can need to be accomplished via different means. A shift from an impractical approach to good ends (in this case, criminal justice) to a better one is no indictment against government. So, liberals, progressives, moderates and just people with common sense can safely ignore the “government is bad” conservative screed. But we have every reason to agree with Turow that the death penalty is a “government program” that has failed–and failed rather spectactulary. As Turow says, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty (as then practiced) in 1972 as an unconstitutional violation of the 8th Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment,” due to the arbitrary and discriminatory way in which it was applied (Furman v. Georgia). States scrambled to rewrite their capital punishment statutes and in Gregg v. Georgia (1974), the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty could be Constitutional if it could be applied in a just and fair manner. Turow notes that this has been a giant failure of an experiment as states have completely failed to apply the death penalty in a just and fair manner. Instead of death being the sentence for the worst crimes, it has usually been meted out to those represented by inept attorneys, usually overworked and public defenders with little time and few resources to devote to the case or court appointed attorneys with little motivation. Race continues to be a factor in who is and is not executed, especially the race of the victim. . And, as Turow found when he worked for then-Gov. George A. Ryan (R-IL), the innocent still end up on death row in a frighteningly his percentage of cases.
- The death penalty is a huge waste of taxpayer money. As Turow notes, the death penalty is far more expensive than life imprisonment without parole. This may be counterintuitive, but is nonetheless true. It takes longer (and therefore costs more money) to prepare for a capital case. All capital cases must go through two stages, one for finding of guilt and one for sentencing–and that costs money. Usually, those indicted for capital crimes cannot be released on bail while awaiting trial because of flight risks and so must be housed at state expense. Security for capital trials is higher. Prisoners on death row must be housed separately from the general population and either given separate exercise facilities or separate times in the exercise yard while awaiting execution and this is expensive. The appeals process, without which far more innocent people would be executed than even currently, is both expensive and time consuming–so that the average length of time from a death sentence to execution in the U.S. is ten years. Conservatives concerned about saving taxpayer money from waste and inefficiency should naturally oppose the death penalty in the U. S. system of justice. Thurow agrees that if the death penalty could be shown to save lives, by deterring violent crime, it might be worth it. But there has been no credible study showing deterrence and many showing just the opposite, that violence increases in the wake of executions throughout the area in which the execution is published. States and nations without the death penalty typically have lower violent crime rates than jurisdictions with the death penalty.
- The death penalty is incompatible with the conservative notion of limited government. Here is a very strong argument that is seldom heard in conservative circles, surprisingly. The conservative-libertarian view that the powers of government must be strictly limited supports drawing a clear line prohibiting a democratic government from ever taking the lives of its own citizens. That way, a regime that vanquished its political enemies or executed despised minorities, no matter the legal rigamarole, as an outlaw. (As a democratic socialist, I’ve always said that libertarians, while disastrous in their economic views, are excellent partners in the struggle for civil liberties.)
Here is one progressive who hopes that Turow’s arguments find a wide audience with his fellow conservatives. As a Christian, I find the death penalty to be deeply immoral–and I welcome the help of political conservatives in the struggle to abolish this evil from our midst.
What an Ash Wednesday present! As the Chicago Tribune details, Gov. Pat Quinn (D-IL) this morning signed into law the bill that abolishes the death penalty in Illinois. There were 15 death row prisoners remaining and Gov. Quinn also commuted their sentences to life imprisonment!
Illinois has been the center of the 21st C. resurgence of the movement to abolish the death penalty in the United States. In the 1990s, the public support for the death penalty was the highest ever in U.S. history. The federal government greatly expanded the number of federal crimes which would carry the death penalty (although no federal executions have taken place since 1976) and, at the state level, executions were becoming frequent. Even generally-liberal New York, which had not had the death penalty since 1972, reinstated it in 1995 in response to an upsurge in violent crime in the 1980s and 1990s.
Then, in the late 1990s, a group of journalism students from Northwestern University uncovered numerous flaws in the cases of many people on the Illinois death row, finding evidence of innocence in numerous cases. Working with the Innocence Project, and sometimes using the (then-still-new) science of DNA testing, the students managed to show conclusively that several of the inmates of Illinois’ death row were innocent and obtained their releases. A series of newspaper articles followed showing the many grievous errors in the Illinois system of capital punishment and that, since 1976, Illinois had released more false-accused prisoners from death row than it had executed! Calls for a moratorium on executions and an investigation of the entire system were widespread throughout the state–even though Illinois was then dominated by conservative Republican legislators.
In 2000, then-Gov. George Ryan (R-IL) imposed a moratorium on executions in Illinois–the first victory for death penalty opponents in the U.S. in two (2) decades! Ryan’s last act as governor was to commute all the sentences of those then on death row in Illinois. The Illinois legislator attempted to “fix” the system by putting in far more safeguards against accidental execution of the innocent. This was a compromise between pro-death penalty and anti-death penalty forces in the state legislature, which were pretty evenly balanced. The new legislation (compromise) was shepharded through by a young IL state senator named Barack Obama (D)–who has never revealed his opinion as to the morality or Constitutionality of the death penalty per se. Throughout the first decade of the 21st C., bills to abolish the death penalty were introduced into the state legislature, but always died in one chamber or another.
Meanwhile, DNA exonerations across the nation were doing more than any other factor to change public opinion in state after state against the death penalty. Prior to exonerations using DNA testing, most Americans did not really believe that innocent people wee sentenced to death. The average American trusted the reliability of eyewitness testimony far more than is warranted, as studies show.
In 2004, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty violated the state’s constitution which, in certain areas of criminal law, is stricter than the U.S. Constitution. A subsequent movement by pro-death penalty advocates to amend the New York Constitution in order to reinstate the death penalty failed miserably.
In 2007, New Jersey became the first U.S. state in nearly 30 years to abolish the death penalty legislatively.
In 2009, New Mexico abolished the death penalty.
In 2010 the Colorado legislature fell just 2 votes short of repealing the death penalty–and the legislation has been reintroduced this year.
In 2009, Connecticut’s legislature narrowly voted to abolish the death penalty, but the bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Jodi Rell (R-CT). In Nov. 2010, Dan Malloy (D-CT) was elected governor. The death penalty was not an issue in the campaign, but abolitionists hope to pass repeal again this year and have hope that the new governor will sign the repeal.
In 2010, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-MD) introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty in Maryland. He campaigned on it. The MD legislature responded only by passing a law raising the level of evidence for the death penalty. O’Malley plans to reintroduce the legislation to abolish it.
Now, Illinois has become the 16th state (plus the District of Columbia) to abolish the death penalty. This brings the number of states in the U.S. with the death penalty to its lowest level since 1978.
Bills to abolish the death penalty are currently pending in FL, KS, MD, MT (passed the Senate and headed to the House), and Washington State. Of those, the bills in MD, MT, and WA have the most chance of passing this year. Georgia has introduced two bills that would restrict the death penalty. Kentucky has introduced a bill that would disallow the death penalty in cases of mental illnesses (not just mental retardation or insanity).
There are also, I must sadly report, bills to reinstate the death penalty or expand it, pending in several states: NH, which has not executed anyone since 1974 and which, two years ago, fell only a few votes shy of abolition, last November elected a very conservative legislature and governor. There are now 2 bills in NH which would expand use of the death penalty, one which would make it mandatory for all murders. NJ has introduced a bill to reinstate the death penalty for the murder of a police officer, child, or while committing an act of terrorism. NM has introduced a bill to reinstate, but since it would take 2/3 of both houses of the legislature, passage seems unlikely. NY has introduced a bill to reinstate the death penalty for murder of police or corrections officers. Because of the NY Supreme Court ruling, it seems unlikely this will pass–or would be upheld if it did. Utah has passed a bill that greatly restricts appeals and stays of execution–but the governor has not yet said if he will sign it. (It seems unconstitutional.) VA introduced a bill to expand the death penalty to co-conspirators in cases of rape where the victim is murdered, but it was defeated in committee. WV has introduced a bill to reinstate the death penalty, but passage appears very unlikely.
Today’s good news in Illinois gives new energy to the movement to abolish the death penalty nationwide. Joy as we head into the season of penitance!
Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of the liturgical season of Lent. Last year, I gave some reflections on why this Baptist participates in Lent (and the Christian calendar more generally), which is not traditional to my Free Church tradition. You can find that reflection here.
This year, I’ve decided to re-read Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison for my Lenten meditations. Prison writings seem to be a Christian invention, beginning with the Apostle Paul, and I have long been fascinated with both Christian and non-Christian writings from prison. Bonhoeffer’s prison writings, with their deep Christocentric spirituality in the midst of great evil, their painful doubts, and their attempts to formulate of view of God for a “world come of age,” the “beyond in the midst of life,” still speak powerfully to our times of political and economic violence and oppression.
We still need the “acane discipline” of prayer as we seek to spend our lives in service and we still need the experience of suffering to learn to look at history “from the underside.”
So Bonhoeffer will be my companion as I seek to be a companion to Christ as he “set his face to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51-56) and the cross. With whatever your companions, I invite you to accompany Christ on the road to the cross, this Lent as well.
And I suggest that prison writings make excellent resources for spiritual discipline.
The data I’m using comes from a recent poll conducted by NBC and the Wall Street Journal. You can read the entire poll here.
- True or False: Most Americans agree with Congressional Republicans and Beltway pundits that wealthy Americans should not have their taxes raised. FALSE. 81% of Americans believe that the rich pay too little in taxes and should have their taxes raised. 55% are really in favor of this and an additional 26% find this “mostly acceptable.”
- True or False: Most Americans love Big Oil and favor keeping their tax subsidies so that they continue to provide good jobs and cheap energy to American homes and cars. FALSE. 74% of Americans want the tax subsidides (giveaways) to the oil industry eliminated. (Yet House Republicans, supposed deficit hawks, just voted unanimously to keep giving this corporate welfare to the most profitable industry in human history–companies whose quarterly profits are larger than the Gross Domestic Product of many nations!)
- True or False: Despite the Obama-GOP compromise of the lame duck Congress of November-December 2010, most Americans want to eliminate the Bush tax cuts to families making more than $250,000 per year. True. 67% of Americans favor ending those tax cuts. Americans are smart about this, because the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy did more to balloon the federal defict than any other factor, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession of ’08-’10, the TARP banking bailout, the bailout of GM & Chrysler, or the economic stimulus/recovery act. In fact, the Bush tax cuts, the wars, and the recession account for more than 90% of the deficit–not the recovery measures.
- True or False: Most Americans would support eliminating Medicare and turning it into a system of coupons or vouchers for seniors to purchase private health insurance. (This plan is actually proposed by House Budget chair Paul Ryan (R-WI), who gave the GOP response to Pres. Obama’s State of the Union address and recently this plan has seemed to get support from Speaker of the House Boehner (R-OH). ) FALSE. 51% of Americans find this plan completely unacceptable.
- True or False: Americans generally support public employees having a union with collective bargaining rights. True. According to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll 52% of Americans found stripping such rights unacceptable. A USA Today/Gallup poll found 61% of Americans opposing a move to strip collective bargaining from public sector workers in their state. And a CBS/New York Times poll found 62% of the public supporting collective bargaining rights for public employees.
These are generally positions which have been considered politically “liberal.” These are more liberal views than anything coming out of either party in Washington, D.C. right now. It is far more liberal than what the Beltway pundits spew. Specifically, this is “economic populism,” the kind of political liberalism of the FDR-era New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society–policies that help the poor and middle class more than the wealthy. The pundits like to call such sentiments “class warfare,” but, if so, it appears that most Americans think such class warfare is a good idea. Maybe they realize that for 30 years class warfare has been waged by the wealthy against the rest of us (leading to an ever widening gap between the superrich and everyone else) and that the term “class warfare” is only used if the poor and working class fight back. That gap is huge: The top 1% of Americans captured 50% half of all the economic growth from 1993-2007! Income inequality is higher in the United States than in Mubarak’s Egypt!
So, Americans are just as liberal, just as economically populist, as they have ever been, if not more so. But they don’t identify with the term “liberal,” which has been systematically demonized ever since the Reagan years. Only 24% of Americans call themselves “liberal” politically. By contrast, 36% call themselves “conservative” and another 38% call themselves “moderate.”
So, when pundits claim that America is a “conservative” or “center-right” nation, they are asking about labels. But when you ask about policies–Americans are center-left. They are liberal or progressive. What is strange–other than the disconnect in terminology– is that this economically populist, liberal to progressive sentiment has not been able to be translated into a political force that can achieve policy objectives. But the attacks on union workers by Republican governors may have just provided the spark to set that dry tinder ablaze.
On January 11, 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his next to last State of the Union Message to the United States Congress. In that Message, FDR proposed a Second American Bill of Rights
It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth- is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill housed, and insecure.
This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.
As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.
Among these are:
The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
The right of every family to a decent home;
The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
The right to a good education.
All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.
America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.
FDR faced a World War. The year was 1944. Hitler was still in power in Germany. The Allies had yet to invade Normandy. Japan still controlled the Pacific. But, Franklin Roosevelt was secure enough to speak of a Second American Bill of Rights.
The Rights of Every American to a good education, the right to adequate protection from economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment, the right to adequate medical care and good health, the right of every family to a decent home, the right of businessmen to be free from unfair competition, the right to useful remunerative compensation for workers and farmers.
Last night, Rachel Maddow presented a recent poll (NBC/Wall Street Journal–taken between Feb. 24-28) showing what Americans support: 81% support higher taxes on millionaires; 74% support reducing tax incentives to oil and gas companies. Why not provide an option for Americans?
Sorry for the absence, Gentle Readers. I have been deeply involved in trying to stop Republican governors from union-busting in WI, OH, IN, NJ, & FL. I’ve also been ill and am preparing for out of town company. The series on 100 Baptist pacifists will return shortly.
Yesterday, I heard the sad news that Rev. Peter J. Gomes (22 May 1942-28 Feb. 2011) had passed away Sunday from complications arising from a stroke. He was relatively young at 68. I had met him twice at conferences involving churches and peacemaking, but mostly knew him through his writing. Sadly, I never heard him preach–and Gomes had a reputation globally as one of the great preachers of the gospel.
I like people who do not easily fit stereotypes and Gomes was no cookie-cutter African-American preacher. An American Baptist minister, Gomes was an accomplished pianist with a deep love for classical music. He was also an amateur historian focused on the Pilgrims of Massachusetts Bay Colony, serving as past president and trustee of The Pilgrim Society. The stereotype of an African-American Baptist minister is that he is a staunch activist in the Democratic Party, but Gomes was a prominent (if atypical) Republican–participating in the inaugurations of both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. (However, he avoided the inauguration of George W. Bush and was deeply critical of that administration.)
Gomes’ entire ministerial career cut his own unique path and broke all molds. Born in Boston to Peter L. and Orissa White Gomes, Rev. Gomes was proud of his identity as a New England Yankee. A very bright student in the Plymouth, MA public schools, he earned his A.B. at Bates College (Lewiston, ME), a prestigious New England liberal arts college that had been founded by a group of Free Will Baptists who were ardent abolitionists. Bates had long ago relinquished it’s Christian heritage, but not its radical voice for social justice, nor its deep concern for classical education. From there, Gomes went to Harvard Divinity School (S.T.B., 1968) and was ordained an American Baptist pastor in 1968 by First Baptist Church, Plymouth, MA.
Gomes began his career as Instructor of History and Director of the Freshman Experimental Program at the Tuskee Institute in Alabama (now Tuskeegee University), where he also served as organist and choirmaster. In 1970, he began his long association with the chaplaincy program at Harvard, becoming an Assistant Minister at The Memorial Church at Harvard University. In 1972, he was made Acting Minister and eventually became Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church and chaplain of the university. In 1974, he was appointed Plummer Professor of Morals teaching in both Harvard College (the undergraduate program) and Harvard Divinity School. From 1989 to 1991, Gomes also served as Acting Director of the W.E. B. DuBois Institute for African and African-American Research.
20 years later, it is hard to remember the courage that it took in 1991 for this self-described cultural conservative and prominent Republican to “come out” as openly gay. He disliked being “exhibit a,” but the culture war attacks on LGBT persons led him to break his privacy and stand up for LGBT rights in both church and society. There had been gay-bashing incidents at Harvard and Gomes could not be silent. He began to perform “holy unions” in The Memorial Church for lesbian and gay couples–long before anyone was talking about legally recognized same-sex marriages. Not without some squirming, Harvard University backed him, but Gomes was no longer welcome in the prominent Republican circles in which he had once been a favorite invited speaker.
This self-described cultural conservative who enjoyed ministry to soldiers, veterans, and ROTC students also reluctantly spoke out against the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the torture and indefinite detention of suspected terrorists by the Bush administration and erosions of civil liberties. He was also critical of the Obama administration for keeping too many of these erosions of civil liberties, for not keeping the promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and for the 2009 escalation of war in Afghanistan. Gomes spoke out strongly against the rising Islamaphobia in the U. S. and the resurgence of “nativist” demonization of immigrants. The role of prophetic social critic from the left did not come easy for him and he often chafed at it, but Gomes’ loyalty to the gospel compelled him to continue speaking out–though it strained and broke friendships he’d long held in conservative and Republican circles.
Considered one of America’s great preachers and a prominent author, Gomes was honored in numerous ways over the years. He was made an Honorary Fellow of Emannuel College (University of Cambridge) which established the Gomes Lectureship in his honor. In 1998, Gomes delivered the prestigious Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale Divinity School. In 2000, he delivered the University Sermon at the University of Cambridge and the Millennial Sermon at Canterbury Cathedral. In 2003, Gomes delivered the Lyttleton Addresses at Eton College, England’s prestigious 600 year old preparatory school for boys that has educated kings and prime ministers, scientists, and poets laureate. In 2004, he gave the convocation address at Harvard Divinity School, challenging HDS to become anew the place of excitement that Gomes had known as a student, challenging it to connect more with the life of American churches (including Evangelical churches!), without losing its character as a place of academic rigor and both ecumenical and interfaith breadth. In 2005, Gomes gave a series of sermons at St. Edmundsbury Chapel (named in honor of St. Edmund, British king and martyr) . In 2007, he was named to the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, the original “Hospitaler Knights” and the oldest order of Chivalry in the United Kingdom. In 2009, he gave the Lowell Lectures of Massachusetts, and in 2010 he gave the Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church and Culture and Harvard University named him Honorary President of the Alpha-Iota chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. (Phi Beta Kappa, founded at The College of William and Mary in 1776, is the oldest honors society for academic scholarship in the United States.) He had also received numerous honorary doctorates over the years.
In addition to 11 volumes of published sermons, Gomes was also the author of several excellent books in theology that were aimed at a lay or non-academic audience, including the best-selling, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (HarperOne, 1996) which takes on the abuse of the Bible in the U.S. to justify racism, sexism, heterosexism and homophobia, and anti-semitism, before giving several chapters showing a more fruitful approach to biblical interpretation in the areas such as the good life, suffering, joy, understanding evil, temptation, wealth, the relation of faith to science, and to ultimate mystery. The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need (HarperOne, 2002). The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? (HarperOne, 20007).
I like people who break molds, not easily fitting into preconcieved patterns, and Peter J. Gomes was one such person. Our society needs more such persons. Not just Harvard, nor American Baptists, nor the dwindling ranks of moderate-to-liberal Republicans, but the church universal is poorer without Peter Gomes. So are all those who care about a more humane and just society, about education, cultural enrichment, and even good preaching. We are all poorer for Gomes’ passing.
Rest from you labors, now, good and faithful servant of our Servant-Lord.