Albert Mohler is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention and a professional guardian of right-wing evangelical orthodoxy. He recently penned an editorial for CNN on (his version of) Christianity and capital punishment, the gist of which is:
I believe that Christians should hope, pray and strive for a society in which the death penalty, rightly and rarely applied, would make moral sense.
This would be a society in which there is every protection for the rights of the accused, and every assurance that the social status of the murderer will not determine the sentence for the crime.
Christians should work to ensure that there can be no reasonable doubt that the accused is indeed guilty of the crime. We must pray for a society in which the motive behind capital punishment is justice, and not merely revenge.
We must work for a society that will honor every single human being at every point of development and of every race and ethnicity as made in God’s image.
We must hope for a society that will support and demand the execution of justice in order to protect the very existence of that society. We must pray for a society that rightly tempers justice with mercy.
Should Christians support the death penalty today? I believe that we must, but with the considerations detailed above.
I don’t doubt that there exists a worldview in which all of Mohler’s opinions and points of analysis are internally consistent, so I wouldn’t want to claim that Mohler is acting as a unprincipled, partisan hack or anything like that.
That being said, Mohler’s recommendations are shown to be pretty deeply disingenuous as soon as they’re put into conversation with something resembling reality. Mohler wants a death penalty regime under which “there can be no reasonable doubt that the accused is indeed guilty of the crime” while at the same time bemoaning that “We have also robbed the death penalty of its deterrent power by allowing death penalty cases to languish for years in the legal system, often based on irrational and irrelevant appeals.” Mohler’s “irrational and irrelevant appeals” are, of course, the same appeals that have exonerated innocents. Were it not for the criminal justice system “allowing death penalty cases to languish for years in the legal system” the state of Tennessee would have executed Ndume Olatushani–a mean who was imprisoned 28 years for a crime he clearly and conclusively did not commit.
There are any number of other issues with Mohler’s argument, but these two facets illustrate my current point well enough. In order for the death penalty to carry its desired deterrent effect Mohler wants the appeals process to be quicker and also more accurate. There is, of course, no thinkable social or legal reality in which an appeals process could simultaneously be hastened and made more accurate. So what Mohler is suggesting is that Christians ought to support the death penalty in a society that does not and cannot exist.
But the contradictions that present themselves when Mohler’s argument is brought into conversation with reality aren’t the primary reason his opinion piece is so disingenuous. It’s possible, after all, that Mohler could simply be unaware of certain aspects of America’s death penalty regime that trouble his vision of a moral death penalty to the point of making it impossible.
No, the reason Mohler’s piece is so disingenuous is that neither he nor anyone of his ilk ever make a point of advocating for the types of reforms that might make the death penalty acceptable within their own frame of moral reckoning. Hard-right Evangelical groups, so far as I know, do not spend their time or political capital battling racial or income disparities in the application of the death penalty. Capital punishment is a hot button issue for the majority of Mohler’s flock only in so far as they wish to preserve it in the face of abolitionist politics.
What Mohler has done, then, is to advocate an ideal that may or may not know to be impossible without taking any meaningful steps to seek its possibility. Any talk of an imaginary moral death penalty is little more than lip service meant to support the continuance of an undeniably problematic American death penalty regime.
If Mohler were to practice what he preaches/editorializes, if he were actually to seek out the conditions of his just death penalty, well, then he would likely find himself to be an abolitionist in practice even if still idealizing a certain vision of the death penalty.