The Death Penalty remains a controversial subject in American life. A large majority of Americans support it either on the basis of its alleged deterrant effects or on the basis of justice. This view is held in spite of the fact that it runs counter to Roman Catholic teachings and that of many Protestants as well. Although capital punishment remains popular there are signs of change -- in part because people in leadership are paying attention to their own faith traditions. In today's Sighting's posting, Martin Marty interacts with the recent signing of a bill to end capital punishment in Illinois by the Governor, who cites the influence of words written by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. I invite you to consider these thoughts and add your own. For my own perspective (I'm a strong opponent of the death penalty), click here.
A Governor, a Cardinal and the Death Penalty
-- Martin Marty
“On that decisive morning of March 9, [Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois] laid aside the secular factors and opened his Bible to a passage in II Corinthians about human imperfection,” Samuel G. Freedman wrote in the New York Times. “He prayed. And when he signed the bill striking down the death penalty, he cited one influence by name,” the late Cardinal of Chicago. It was a shock to be reminded that Joseph Bernardin passed away almost fifteen years ago, since he remains such a presence to so many of us and such an irritant to others, including many Catholics who never took to his example and writings on life, peace, and reconciliation.
Freedman, who wrote of this praying and signing, listed as “the several secular factors” some arguments from prosecutors who spoke of the death penalty’s deterrent effect, which is a secular factor, and also of “the grieving relatives of murder victims who saw in it fierce justice,” which Quinn took seriously, aware of their grief and himself a former proponent of capital punishment as “fierce justice.” He knew that three-fourths of polled Americans still favor the death penalty. They lost one favorer, however, after Quinn’s prayer and his reading of Bernardin. Some of us would like to think that his signing is part of a slow but epochal shift away from executing horribly guilty and sometimes utterly innocent Americans.
Empathizing with and supporting Democrat Quinn is not a signal of a partisan commitment. His predecessor twice removed, former Governor George H. Ryan, a Republican now in prison, also made strenuous moves against capital punishment. In an autobiographical address to the Pew Forum at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2002, Ryan told how as a legislator he had voted for the death penalty but as governor, who quite literally had the power to have over 150 convicts killed, he changed. Religion played a large role in his decision. Be it noted that religion also plays a part in the decision of some civil leaders who continue to support capital punishment.
Where does this leave us? Those of us who observe and comment on our sightings of explicit religion in public life, including in its focused political forms, have to know that there is no neat line to draw as to what is acceptable in a republic which distinguishes between religion and civil authority and what is not. A teachable moment, one of millions since, occurred when President Reagan, televised before the presidential seal, named 1983 “The Year of the Bible” for Americans. Some days later I was one of four guests on a now-forgotten television show hosted by now-forgotten Phil Donahue. We disoriented Mr. Donahue and perhaps some viewers. He had invited an ACLU critic of the President, expecting him to represent hard-line secularist opposition to such blurring of lines—only to find that the guest was a Southern Baptist minister.
I think I was expected to speak against the President, but chose, on James Madisonian grounds, to defend the President’s right, arguing that one does not and cannot and should not leave behind the religious bases of one’s ethics. Next, I got to say, had the Congress voted, as some saw it poised to do, to make that designation legal, hosts of us would have stepped up to oppose it. So now with Governors Ryan and Quinn, influenced by scriptures, church teachings, and in this case by Cardinal Bernardin, they acted out of informed conscience—risking their action in politics. Still and always: handle with care!
Samuel G. Freedman, “Faith Was on the Governor’s Shoulder,” New York Times, March 26, 2011.
“Governor George Ryan: An Address on the Death Penalty,” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, June 3, 2002.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at http://www.illuminos.com/.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.