Rick Perry, the frontrunner in the Republican presidential candidate race, created a bit of a stir during a recent debate, by boasting that as governor of Texas, he had sent 234 inmates to their death.
But while the mediator seemed to be a little shocked by this claim, the Republican audience cheered. He had set a new record in the United States, the previous one held by George W. Bush, who had enacted what Perry called "ultimate justice", on a mere 152.
While clearly this gave Bush and Perry a feeling of power, it was actually something more. European monarchs believed that their powers came directly from God, meaning that they governed by "divine right".
The new Religious Right/Neoconservative/Republicans, feel the same way. God has entrusted them to rule over the people, and they would do that using "God's Law", as appearing in the Old Testament.
However, this is more than just "an eye for an eye", but punishment for creating "mortal sins" that are a "grave violation of God's law" that "turns man away from God", causing his "exclusion from Christ's Kingdom".
They had to be dealt with severely and since God had bestowed the "divine right of kings" on Perry and Bush et al, it was up to them to enact His law in their earthly kingdoms.
George Bush defended his position, by saying “I take every death penalty case seriously and review each case carefully…. Each case is major because each case is life or death.”
Yet when journalist Alan Berlow, used the Public Information Act to gain access to confidential death penalty memos from Bush’s legal counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, he discovered that there were no such reviews conducted.
The name was presented with a briefing on the crimes they were convicted of, and then rubber stamped "die sinner". Those weren't the words used of course, but it was with that sentiment.
Had they actually reviewed the case of Terry Washington, a mentally challenged man of thirty-three, with the communication skills of a seven-year-old, Bush might have shown mercy. (1)
But there is no mercy for those banished from Christ's Kingdom.
Rick Perry not only refused to weigh evidence before putting people to death, but tried to stop an investigation into the wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, a father convicted of murdering his children when he "set fire" to his home. Scientific evidence suggested that this was not an arson case and therefore, not a murder case.
The Texas Tribune reports that the Willingham case was not the only one that warranted scrutiny. Perry allows his religion to guide him, ignoring rational thought and common decency.
When questioned he just uses his fall back position. It was what God wanted and his divine duty to carry it through.
In 1998, a survey was conducted in the United States concerning the death penalty. It revealed a high level of support for it, from Evangelical Christians. When broken down further, those Evangelicals who believed in a vengeful God were more apt to agree with putting people to death, than those who believed in a loving God.
Not surprisingly, the lowest level of support came from black respondents.
This speaks to the fact that blacks are more likely to be convicted of crime, and less likely to receive justice. The same can be said for poor people.
In his book, Crazy for God, son of Francis Schaeffer, the architect of the Religious Right, tells us that the movement was as much about race as religion.
In their book, Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, argue that "Evangelicals desire to end racial division and inequality, and attempt to think and act accordingly. But, in the process, they likely do more to perpetuate the racial divide than they do to tear it down." This is because of a "theological world view that makes it difficult for them to perceive systematic injustices in society."
Therefore, when it comes to their penchant for the death penalty, it would stand to reason that they would feel that they would be more likely to receive justice, and less likely to be wrongly accused.
Criminal Justice and Purgatory
American conservative, William F. Buckley Jr., once wrote of punishment for crime, or more specifically community service as a punishment for some crime, as being a kind of purgatory, a place where it is believed that some sinners go to be cleansed before entering heaven.
And since punishment for crime, is a kind of penance, why not treat it as such? Invoking the views of Irving Kristol, Buckley ponders spiritual punishment. As an example, he says that if a young man is caught defacing a synagogue, he should be assigned a "half-dozen books of Jewish literature to study". (2)
I was raised Catholic and remember my weekly "confessions" before I could receive Holy Communion. I'd memorize my little speech before entering the confessional. "Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession, and since then I have lied three times, hit my brother twice and stole a cookie". Most of this I made up, not because I was without sin, but because I honestly couldn't account for them all. I would be excited if there was one particular one that stood out.
As contrition, I would then be told to say a number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers, which I dutifully carried out, and the cycle would begin again.
However, it meant nothing. Just rote and ritual.
If a "sinner" is assigned biblical passages or divine literature as penance, there is less of a chance for true remorse. Yes, a few might be converted, but on the whole, I think it is a weak strategy for crime prevention.
Besides, clearly Buckley misunderstands the purpose of Purgatory. It is not merely a resting place. Those sent there were required to feel the pain of the fires of Hell. Though temporary, pain is a requirement. Does he really want pain associated with scripture or divine literature?
No doubt those believing in a vengeful God would.
Necon Tim Hudak wants to bring back chain gangs in Ontario. Repent! Repent! Repent!
In the documentary Memorandum, filmed twenty years after the liberation of prisoners from the death camps in Germany, they speak of a Nazi tormentor, who would break from torturing Jews to recite scripture aloud. Purgatorial Justice reminds me of that Nazi officer, who obviously believed that he was "cleansing" their immortal souls.
Stephen Harper's Divine Right
In January of this year, Harper made headlines when he told Peter Mansbridge that he believed in the death penalty. This wasn't news to those who had followed his career. He drafted policy for the Reform Party, and reinstating the death penalty was high on the list of priorities.
In fact, they also believed that children as young as ten should be sent to prison. Fortunately, when they presented a motion to that affect, it was turned down with a resounding "NO".
Another Reform MP, Art Hanger, planned a visit to Singapore to study the art of "caning", to deal with young offenders. When it was made public, he cancelled his trip. (3)
Harper's Reformers believe in swift and absolute "justice" to enact God's law.
The media is missing his agenda. While he claims that he won't reopen debate on abortion, roll back women's rights or reinstate the death penalty, he is in fact doing all of those things under their radar.
Facing criticism for his silencing of the press, he held a media event, allowing young people to ask him questions. Of course, all had to be presented in advance, so his answers could be scripted.
But not only were the answers penned by the boys in the backroom, but the questions were also being tweaked.
Youths who participated in a question-and-answer session with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Monday say their questions were edited by the Prime Minister’s Office. Other youths had earlier explained that the questions were selected by Vision Internationale, a non-profit Christian group, and then edited by Harper’s office. (4)And when Anna Fricker, a young ambassador for the group, discovered that her question on maternal health had been edited, to remove the mention of abortion, she spoke out:
Fricker was then interrupted by an organizer who would not identify herself except to say, "I’m supposed to be handling the media." "I would appreciate if you could just work with us so that we can keep this consistent message," she said. "I’m just supposed to keep this under control." (4)A Christian organization hired to stifle dissent and suppress free speech.
A Manitoba judge appointed by Harper, allowed a rapist to go free because he claimed that the victim had dressed "too sexy". Another in Ontario contemplated that drunkenness could be used as a defense against some crimes, presumably domestic violence and "date rape".
Stephen Harper doesn't have to get his hands dirty. All of this is being done behind the scenes, incrementally.
"All lasting change is incremental" - Richard Nixon (from his memoirs Seize the Moment)Mark Warner, a former Conservative candidate who was replaced because he refused to remove the fact that he had attended an International Aids Conference from his campaign literature, believes that Harper is using backroom machinations to bring back the death penalty to Canada, by setting precedent.
What would have happened if Harper had been prime minister when David Milgaard or Donald Marshall were falsely convicted of murder? Would he simply do what Bush and Perry did, suggest that he had carefully reviewed their cases before implementing his "divine right"?
When the Harperites speak of Christian government and God's law, it's important that we understand what that means, before we all end up in Purgatory.
1. Death in Texas, By Sister Helen Prejean, The New York Review, January 13, 2005 .
2. Happy Days Were Here Again: Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist, By William F. Buckley, Jr., Adams Publishing, 1993, 1-55850-471-0, p. 262
3. Caning trip cancelled. (Reform Party justice critic Art Hanger cancels trip to Singapore to evaluate the caning of criminals), Maclean's Magazine, April 1, 1996
4. The Chronicle Herald, May 18, 2010