Following last week’s botched execution in Oklahoma, religious leaders began to weigh in on the moral quality of capital punishment. One of these, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler, argued that Christians should support capital punishment, despite the problems associated with it. Jonathan Merritt has already responded capably to Mohler on the Biblical points, but to me the most interesting aspect of his argument is extra-Biblical. After citing a few verses early in the essay, Mohler launches what might be called an argument from imagination. His is a Utopian stance, based in reality as it should be, ignoring reality as it is.
This portion appears toward the end. After conceding the glaring race- and class-based disparities plaguing the process, Mohler writes:
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.
The verbs are striking in their ambiguity. Christians must “hope, pray, and strive” for a society in which the death penalty “would make moral sense,” and then they should “work” to bring that society into existence. That sounds very nice. But if the death penalty does not make moral sense currently, why should Christians support it here and now?
Mohler does not answer this question, and in fact his post raises far more questions than it even attempts to address.
For instance: what, specifically, should his Christians readers being doing to address the horrific injustices he concedes? Does he believe they will do these things, despite his failure to identify them? If so, does he anticipate their quick success? Does he really think they will soon create the type of society in which the death penalty will be administered with virtue?
Unfortunately, if Mohler does believe these things, he’s probably wrong. But I suspect he’s grounded enough to know that they aren’t going to happen. He just doesn’t really care.
Mohler doesn’t trouble himself with details. Instead, he calls upon Christians to support the death penalty in light of his “considerations,” with evidence drawn straight from his own imagination – from a Utopian America that we do not and will not soon inhabit. Doing so allows him to take a position on a policy question. But it’s not a serious position. Here in the real world, executions will continue, under real world circumstance.