Archives for April 2012

From a Reporter’s Notebook: Values and Votes in 2012

TheoPol has been out in fora land this week, attending two public forums and a few less-public discussions in Washington and Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. The public highlights were “Election 2012: The Values Behind the Issues,” a forum sponsored by Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center on Tuesday night; and “Is Religious Liberty Under Threat in America?” held one night later at Boston College under the auspices of BC’s Church in the 21st Century Center and Law School. Here are some noteworthy remarks by the notable speakers at those events.

Heard in Georgetown

E.J. Dionne of Brookings Institution and the Washington Post: The Catholic Church’s job in the political order is “to make us all feel guilty about something, to force liberals to think about the life issues and force conservatives to think about the poor. The Church now may be falling down on about half its job, making only half of us [the liberals] feel guilty…. I worry very much that the focus is on attempting to push Catholic social teaching and social justice to the back of the bus.”

Amy Sullivan of Time magazine, referring to explanations by spokesmen for the bishops that they haven’t the time to address both social issues like abortion and matters like peace and justice: ”The bishops are certainly skilled enough to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

David Gibson of Religion News Service, adapting a witticism often heard in relation to American Jews: “Mormons really are like everyone else, but only more so…. They’re clean-cut, clean-living. They lead upstanding lives. They’re the perfect amalgam of the American dream and the Protestant ethic.”

Tom Roberts of the National Catholic Reporter, after citing an Illinois Catholic bishop who compared “extreme secularist” President Obama with Hitler and Stalin: “When you’re using the most extreme language, there’s no way to step back, no way to admit nuance or different ways to think about an issue…. Religion in the public realm is almost destroying itself, because it isn’t real religion. It’s politics.”

… in Chestnut Hill

The Rev. J. Bryan Hehir of Harvard Divinity School, speaking of the mandate for contraception coverage in President Obama’s healthcare reform law and efforts to reach a compromise with Catholic institutions that oppose the mandate: “You go for the [negotiated] common ground, but if you can’t get to common ground, you keep the law and allow a broad exemption” for all religious institutions.

Cathleen Kaveny of Notre Dame Law School, on that same point: “We’ve got to protect religious institutions, but I keep thinking of the people who work for them and who might not agree with them [about the alleged immorality of artificial contraception]. What do we owe to the people who disagree with them?”

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, on the largely ignored question of religious liberty worldwide and the estimated 150,000 Christians who die in sectarian violence each year: “In the past hour, 17 Christians have been killed on this planet.”

Vincent Rougeau, dean of Boston College Law School: “We need to think about how we could engage [and support] Christians and other religious believers around the world,” in a genuine campaign for religious freedom. …read more

Last Rites for Capital Punishment?

Model of a late 19th century French guillotine

On September 10, 1977, France raised the 88-pound blade of its guillotine one last time and let it drop on a Tunisian immigrant who had sexually tortured and murdered a young French nanny, lopping off his head in just a fraction of a second. After that, a cry of “off with their heads” heard anywhere in the Western world would likely suggest little more than a taste for metaphor, not a thirst for blood. And soon, all manner of executions, not just the heads-roll variety, would be declared illegal throughout Western Europe. In due time scores of countries elsewhere—from Mexico and the Philippines to Cambodia and Rwanda—would put away their death penalty statutes. Only the rare developed nation would kill to show that killing is unacceptable.

The United States would be rare. Lethal injections, electrocutions, and other means of judicial death would offer an eye-popping display of American exceptionalism. The death penalty is still all too with us in America, and only eight other countries, with not a democracy among them, executed more than two or three people last year. That said, in recent years we have become less exceptional on this score.

The latest case in point is Connecticut, where lawmakers voted yesterday to abolish new death sentences. Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has vowed to sign the measure, which will make Connecticut the fifth state in the past five years to forsake punishment by death. (The others are New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Illinois; California voters will probably have their say at the ballot box in November.)

The biggest story, however, is not about the handful of states that are shuttering their death houses altogether. It’s about the slow death of capital punishment throughout the country, though I’d lay emphasis on slow. The numbers of executions as well as new death sentences have been falling steadily in recent years. In 2011, 43 people were executed nationwide, a 56-percent drop since 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Even Texas has been less eager to administer the heart-stopping potassium chloride and other lethally injected drugs. Texas extended the death protocol to 13 inmates in 2011, compared to 24 two years earlier. That’s just one way of sizing it up, though. Another way is to note that if Texas were a country, it would rank eighth in reported executions worldwide, right behind North Korea and the rest of the United States, but way ahead of countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan.

Moral Principle, Political Reality

For decades many in the United States have opposed capital punishment on moral and religious grounds. Such a culturally conservative force as the American Catholic hierarchy has repeatedly denounced the practice as a violation of the sanctity of human life. To me, one of the most cogent moral arguments against the death penalty came from Pope John Paul II. He argued time and again that the only possible justification for capital punishment (or any use of deadly force) would be strict self-defense—which rules out the death penalty in almost every conceivable circumstance. That’s because, as John Paul noted, there are many other ways of protecting society against a killer, ways known collectively as the modern penal system.

As someone who dislikes capital punishment for more or less those reasons, I’d be happy to give the credit for its decline to the abolitionists and their excellent principles. But I’d be kidding myself.

It’s not moral revulsion against the whole idea of capital punishment that has thinned the execution ranks. It is the well-founded fear of executing the innocent, a real possibility brought to light not by moral arguments but by the evidentiary wonders of DNA, which has led to multiple exonerations in recent years. Polls show that most though a declining number of Americans still support capital punishment at least in theory, and the basic reason is that most inmates on death row are not innocent. They’re guilty as hell.

So, Americans haven’t yet had a moral conversion on this issue. And that’s okay. In a pluralistic society, citizens—even those on the same side of an issue—will bring diverse values and considerations to the table of public conversation. When it comes to the death penalty, some worry about faulty procedures that could lead to wrongful execution or simply about the costs of seemingly endless appeals. It’s the job of others including the theologically motivated to add moral principles to the mix, and to do so with humility and what the Declaration of Independence refers to as a “decent respect” for the opinions of humankind. It’s fair to say that many different opinions have coalesced to put the greatest pressure on capital punishment in decades.

Counting on Conservatives

What might eventually tip the scales toward abolition is not liberal outrage but conservative caution. True, many conservatives have taken the untenable view that government—which, in their minds, is incapable of adequately performing a simple task like creating a construction job or an affordable housing unit—is somehow so adept and infallible that it can be trusted to make ultimate decisions about life and death. This logic is no longer flying with increasing numbers of Americans, however. And they include many who lean right.

The last words here go to Richard Viguerie, a father of what used to be called the New Right, now known as the Tea Party.

Conservatives have every reason to believe the death penalty system is no different from any politicized, costly, inefficient, bureaucratic, government-run operation, which we conservatives know are rife with injustice. But here the end result is the end of someone’s life. In other words, it’s a government system that kills people (his emphasis)….

The death penalty system is flawed and untrustworthy because human institutions always are [my emphasis]. But even when guilt is certain, there are many downsides to the death penalty system. I’ve heard enough about the pain and suffering of families of victims caused by the long, drawn-out, and even intrusive legal process. Perhaps, then, it’s time for America to re-examine the death penalty system, whether it works, and whom it hurts. …read more

Penitence and Politics

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998

Some recent political volleys invite another go at the much-parodied line from Love Story that love means never having to say you’re sorry. The 2012 take might be that loving the United States of America means never saying we’re sorry for its misdeeds. Thus we have Mitt Romney’s campaign book No Apology: Believe in America, and the accusation by him and others that President Obama has flown off on “apology tours,” which is by and large a fantasy but involves a few instances in which Obama—like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him—has tendered apologies to people abroad for things done in America’s name. In February Rick Santorum chided the president for apologizing after the U.S. military inadvertently burned Qurans in Afghanistan. Weeks later, Santorum popped up on the apology circuit himself, telling interviewers that America owed one to the families of 16 Afghan civilians massacred by a U.S. soldier.

Contrition can be as dishonorable from a certain patriotic view as it is desirable from a theological perspective. But as the Christian season of Lent draws to a close, it’s worth noting the times when a spirit of penitence has helped transform relationships at various levels of fractious societies.

The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, which fashioned a peace there in 1998, was built in part on myriad acts of apology. Catholic and Protestant religious leaders helped set the tone by exchanging mutual apologies for atrocities committed historically by their communities. Paramilitary leaders on both sides followed with their own gestures of repentance, some more heartfelt than others.

In a number of strife-ridden countries, apology and its near twin, acknowledgment, have lighted paths to justice and social healing. In South Africa, those who committed human rights crimes during decades of white minority rule were given a choice: tell the truth for all to hear or face prosecution. In Rwanda, repentance became the signature piece of national reconciliation efforts following the tribal genocide in 1994.

Ritualized Lamentation

At times theological resources have helped bring crucial acknowledgments to the surface. In one of the longest-running efforts at post-conflict reconciliation, people who took warring sides in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s have come together for ecumenical and interfaith seminars in church basements. These are mostly laypeople from the Croatian Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, and ethnic Albanian Muslim communities. With the help of third-party facilitators, they have dug deeply into the tradition of laments, the communal expressions of grief and distress in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Rev. David Steele, a United Church of Christ minister and an American conflict-resolution expert, led many of the original seminars in the wake of brutal ethnic cleansing campaigns in the Balkans. He explained to me recently that the purpose of ritualized lamentation in ancient Israel was to “offer up to God all injury and hurt so that God could heal the pain and bring justice.” Steele’s own purpose is not simply to help people voice their grievances against other communities. He also brings them to the verge of acknowledging wrongdoing by their own groups. This too is part of the lament motif. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, identifies the suffering of the Jews but also asks his people to critically examine themselves and their society.

In another conversation I had with Steele almost a decade ago, he related that during one Serb-Croat seminar, it was time for the Croats to acknowledge how they as a community have afflicted the Serbs. One Croat man reversed the dynamic, however. He began recalling a horrible atrocity committed by Serbs during the war, in which soldiers dragged patients out of a hospital in eastern Croatia and executed them en masse in a field nearby.

As he was talking about it, he was getting more and more agitated, more angry. Finally, one Serb who had been a soldier during the war, a layperson, simply spoke up and said: “That happened. I know it happened. And it was wrong.” And there was silence at that point. And what happened was, even though this Croat was turning the whole thing around, attacking the other group rather than his own group, this Serb man was sensitive and courageous enough to recognize that this needed an acknowledgment that it was a terrible crime. And that was enough, at least at that moment, to satisfy this Croat.

The process can be volatile, whether in a post-conflict setting or in the election-year partisan crossfire. Different groups may have drastically different perceptions of the reality surrounding their conflicts. And there’s always a chance of miscalculation: in the Balkans, people were constantly worried that a confession of terrible deeds done to their enemies would only serve to justify retaliation.

Still, a contrite word has often given people what they seem to need the most—not vengeance, not even procedural justice, but a painfully honest telling of injuries they have suffered. And that’s worth acknowledging. …read more