WASHINGTON, May 29, 2015 — Most conservatives support the death penalty.
That’s been true for years of most Americans and even most liberals; in 2004, 66 percent of Americans and 54 percent of liberals favored the death penalty for murder. A majority of people in every age group and major religious group also supported it. Only one important demographic group opposed it: 44 percent of black Americans supported the death penalty, while 49 percent opposed it.
By 2015, national support fell 10 points to 56 percent. That decline has been in every group—including conservatives. The nation and courts have gone back and forth on the issue. Use of the death penalty was curtailed in the ’70s, but its use was affirmed in 1976 in Gregg vs. Georgia. Since then, some states—notably Texas and Florida—have performed numerous executions, while 18 others have abandoned the practice.
Social conservatives—still one of the largest political blocs on the right—point to the Bible as a basis for the death penalty. Between an “eye for an eye” in the Old Testament and the government’s right to “bear a sword” in the New, the Bible permits executions. Christians, who consider the New Testament more important, note that scripture permits the death penalty but does not require it. And increasingly, social conservatives have become comfortable with that reality.
On Wednesday, the conservative-dominated Nebraska legislature voted overwhelmingly to repeal the death penalty, making it the first conservative state to ban the death penalty in over 40 years. So strong was the vote that it survived a veto attempt by the governor with a solid override. A coalition of strange bedfellows came together to vote for the end of the death penalty. It was an impressive political feat.
So what happened in Nebraska? Why the rise of groups like Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty?
For years, people of all political persuasions have been concerned about the rapidly rising rate of incarceration. Former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb notes that the U.S. has “5 percent of the world’s population … and 25 percent of the world’s known prison population.” It is increasingly obvious that national and state governments are in the conviction business rather than in the justice business. This has certainly made a case for caution.
The dramatic increase in the use of DNA evidence has revealed numerous false convictions that have been overturned, but for some, the proof has come too late. The fallibility of our justice system has become far too apparent. Sloppy crime scene investigations, disorganized labs and simple human error make a powerful case for stopping short of the death penalty. Life without parole can be reversed in the case of error.
Many in the modern conservative movement are actually “conservatarians.” This group is often described as people who “feel like libertarians around conservatives and like conservatives around libertarians.” Many are libertarians who are attempting to push their agenda by working with the conservative movement. Others are conservatives who have become more libertarian over time. Regardless of how they became conservatarian, they all have a healthy suspicion of government.
For years as a foot soldier in the conservative movement, I advocated support for the death penalty. And like millions of other Americans, I became suspicious of a government that has an inconsistent track record when it comes to crime, punishment and liberty itself.
What concerns conservatives of all stripes is that government has become altogether abusive and intrusive. In recent years the numbers of conservatives who blindly support the U.S. as the world police force has narrowed to a swath called neoconservatives, and that group is shrinking in numbers.
Richard Viguerie, the godfather of the modern conservative movement, may have put the conservative position against the death penalty best: “The fact is, I don’t understand why more conservatives don’t oppose the death penalty.” He believes that the death penalty “is, after all, a system set up under laws established by politicians (too many of whom lack principles); enforced by prosecutors (many of whom want to become politicians—perhaps a character flaw?—and who prefer wins over justice); and adjudicated by judges (too many of whom administer personal preference rather than the law).” He adds, “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.”
The conservative movement against the death penalty is not illogical. It actually makes perfect sense for people who claim fundamentally to distrust government.