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Is There a Carefully Reasoned Christian Critique of Capital Punishment? A Response to Mark Tooley

America’s debate over the death penalty was reignited recently with the execution of Troy Davis by the State of Georgia. The case itself was swamped in controversy and religious leaders on both sides of the issue spoke out with regard to the Davis case in particular and to the validity of capital punishment in general.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley, president of The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and a United Methodist layman, wrote an article summarizing some of the religious debate surrounding Davis’ execution that appeared on the websites both of the IRD and American Spectator. Tooley’s summary featured especially the commentary of Dr. R. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who argued strongly in favor of capital punishment saying, “The death penalty is intended to affirm the value [and] sanctity of every single human life, and thus by the extremity of the penalty to make that visible and apparent to all.” After quoting Mohler extensively, Tooley went on to cite a few contrasting examples of Protestant denominations, including our own United Methodist Church, that are opposed to capital punishment, though he gave little to no attention to the rationale behind such opposition. He rounded off the article by pointing out that, while the Roman Catholic Church is often popularly portrayed as being opposed to the death penalty, the late Avery Cardinal Dulles has “insisted that Roman Catholicism has ‘never advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty.'” Mr. Tooley concluded his essay with this peculiar statement: “Absent a few voices like Mohler’s, such careful reasoning rooted in Christian tradition is mostly absent in today’s religious debates over the death penalty and likely will remain so.”

This statement is peculiar because it ignores those thoughtful and carefully reasoned Christian voices that have argued against the death penalty on the basis of Christian scripture. One need not look long to find the work of the late John Howard Yoder, who was Professor of Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame. A number of Professor Yoder’s previously unpublished writings critiquing the death penalty have been made available just last month under the title The End of Sacrifice: The Capital Punishment Writings of John Howard Yoder (edited by John C. Nugent). Among his other published work against the death penalty is Yoder’s contribution to The Death Penalty Debate (Issues of Christian Conscience Series), which includes an annotated bibliography pointing the interested reader to many more thoughtful perspectives on both sides of the issue. One might disagree with Yoder, but one cannot disagree with the reality that his arguments are not only carefully reasoned but grounded in Christian scripture and tradition.

Mr. Tooley unfortunately paints a misleading picture of the capital punishment debate. He appears to prefer bestowing the liberal label upon those who disagree with him rather than respectfully pointing to and interacting with those thoughtful, detailed, and articulate Christian advocates of the position contrary to his own. If Mr. Tooley is unaware of these voices, then his qualifications to speak to the issue are in question; if he does know of them, then his seeming suggestion that the only thoughtful position is that which favors capital punishment is not only erroneous, it is deceptive. And the quickly locatable volumes of literature on both sides of this issue easily bear the weight of my assertion. Sadly, Mr. Tooley’s refusal to engage seriously with dissenting voices within his own Christian tradition undermine the credibility of his writing and leave it with the odor of propaganda. Indeed, one is left with the impression that Mr. Tooley has forgotten to make use of the “careful reasoning” he claims to value. 

With issues as serious as capital punishment, mere name-calling  and propaganda simply will not do. When human life is on the line, we are obliged to responsibly and carefully weigh all of the arguments on both sides of the issue. Perhaps, in the future, Mr. Tooley and the Institute on Religion and Democracy will find it possible to contribute to that responsibility rather than merely distracting us from it.

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