At the inaugural Life/Peace/Justice Conference in Philadelphia this past March, I had the opportunity as a representative of Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty (CCATDP) to join Kristen Day of Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) for the panel “Going Against the Political Grain for Peace and Life.” Both DFLA and CCATDP seem, at least to some, to be unlikely advocates for the issues they champion. When CCATDP launched at CPAC in 2013, some news outlets expressed surprise that a group of conservatives was drawing attention to flaws in the death penalty (1). Similarly, DFLA breaks the mold for what we are conditioned to expect in our sharply partisan political environment (2).
Yet one thing stood out at this year’s Life/Peace/ Justice Conference: attendees never expressed the least bit of surprise seeing groups like DFLA and CCATDP. This attitude reflected the commitment of attendees to work across the political spectrum in promoting a culture of life. The strong support for and interest in CCATDP from attendees was incredibly encouraging. Fortunately, we have met similar encouragement in our outreach efforts across the country. A number of recent developments in particular give us reason to be hopeful regarding efforts to end the death penalty in the US. First, a number of conservatives are casting aside the stereotype that they need to support capital punishment, as they champion efforts to end it. From Kansas to South Dakota to Kentucky, Republican legislators are emerging as leading sponsors of bills to repeal the death penalty. One such example is Kentucky Republican Representative David Floyd. He makes a simple but powerful case why conservatives like himself are calling for repeal: “Conservatives value innocent life and should not support a state government program that can kill innocent people (3)."
Second, support for the death penalty has ceased to be a litmus test issue among conservatives. As more Republicans with impeccable conservative credentials have become vocal in their opposition to the death penalty, it no longer is tenable to claim that to be a good Republican you must support it. This point is especially evident in Kansas, where the state party stripped its pro-death penalty plank from its 2014 platform. The move came after some party leaders argued that the current platform failed to reflect the growing number of Republicans in the state committed to a consistent life ethic.
Third, young people are increasingly rejecting the death penalty. An informative recent poll found that Christian millennials are significantly less likely than older Christians to support the death penalty (32% v. 42%) (4). This poll backs up our own experience talking to students with campus pro-life and conservative groups, who often need little persuading when it comes to opposing the death penalty. Increasingly for them, pro-life means consistent life.
This last point is especially instructive, for the attitudes of young people today will be policy tomorrow. In our outreach to conservatives, and young conservatives especially, we see an undeniable interest among them to consider alternatives to the death penalty. Wesley Pruden, former editor of The Washington Times, has observed that if this trend continues we will arrive at a point where “death gets no sanction and the executioner is banished for all (5)."
All these developments bode well for the consistent life movement. Conservatives’ changing attitudes toward capital punishment point toward a growing commitment to make sure that political labels do not get in the way of promoting a culture of life. And for those committed to a consistent life ethic, that is strong reason to be hopeful about the future.
1. Elizabeth Flock, “Small Government Conservative? Group Says You Should Oppose the Death Penalty,” US News and World Report, March 22, 2013, http://www.usnews.com/news/ blogs/washington-whispers/2013/03/22/small-government-conservative-group-says-you-should-oppose-death-penalty. 2. For more on DFLA, see Kristen Day, Democrats for Life: Pro-Life Politics and the Silenced Majority (Green Forest, AR: New Leaf Press, 2006).
3. David Floyd, “A Case for Repealing the Death Penalty,” The Courier-Journal, March 2, 2014, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo. org/node/5707.
4. Jonathan Merritt, “Poll: Younger Christians Less Supportive of the Death Penalty,” The Washington Post, January 18, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/ poll-younger-christians-less-supportive-of-the-death-penalty/2014/01/17/157a854a-7fb9-11e3-97d3-b9925ce2c57b_story. html.
5. Wesley Pruden, “When Capital Punishment Gets No Sanction,” The Washington Times, April 10, 2014, http://www. washingtontimes.com/news/2014/apr/10/pruden-when-killinggets-no-sanction/#ixzz2ybOgIb4i.
Photo by Scott Lenger, some rights reserved.