For decades, conservatives have generally supported the death penalty as a way of maintaining law and order. The nation itself has gone back and forth on the issue, seriously curtailing it in several court cases and affirming it in Gregg vs. Georgia in 1976. Since that time it has been the craze in a few states (with Texas and Florida as the most obvious examples) and not practiced at all by others.
With concerns of war with North Korea, accusations of an epidemic of scandals in the Trump Administration, and natural catastrophes (and unnatural ones like the mass shooting in Vegas), there does not seem to be a great deal of interest in the death penalty debate. Excuse the distasteful pun, but we seem to have “bigger fish to fry.” Yet, there is a movement among some conservatives away from death penalty.
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 law, or the government's right to "bear a sword" in the New, the Bible definitely deals with the topic. For most Christian religions the New Testament is considered the basis of Christian theology, since the "new law" fulfilled the old. In the New Testament, the scripture says the death penalty is allowed but not required. Increasingly, social conservatives have become comfortable with that latter view.
In a conservative dominated Nebraska Legislature, there was an overwhelming vote against the death penalty. So strong was the vote that it even survived a veto attempt by the governor with a solid override. A coalition of strange bedfellows – individuals who would never support each other on most issues came together to vote for the end of the death penalty. It was an impressive political feat and one that is gaining momentum around the country. Recently I received a press release stating “Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty will host a news conference featuring state Republican lawmakers who have sponsored bills to repeal the death penalty in Montana, Utah, Nebraska, and Washington State. They will unveil new findings about the GOP’s role in state-level efforts to repeal the death penalty in a report called The Right Way.” That’s right, now conservatives in Montana, Utah, and the state of Washington are chiming in on ending the use of the death penalty.
So what has led to such strange voting behavior in Nebraska and the rise of groups such as Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty?
For years, people of all political persuasions have been concerned about the incredible number of Americans that have found themselves incarcerated. Former U.S. Senator Jim Webb, has stated that the U.S. has "5 percent of the world's population..." and "25 percent of the world's known prison population." This statement has been verified by PolitiFact and others. It is increasingly obvious that governments are in the conviction business rather than in the justice business. This has certainly made a case for caution.
Over the last few decades there has been a dramatic increase in the use of DNA in convicting individuals of crimes. Often these convictions were proven false and overturned. For many of those, the overturning of those cases came too late. It is bad enough when governments warehouse people who are not guilty, but it is unconscionable for anyone to die for a crime they did not do. Sloppy crime scene investigations, disorganized labs, and innocent human error alone make a powerful case of stopping short of the death penalty. Life without parole makes so much more sense.
Many who are part of the modern conservative movement are actually, "conservaterians." This group is often described as individuals who "feel like libertarians around conservatives and like conservatives around libertarians." Many are libertarians who simply are looking to develop some political clout by working in the conservative movement. Others, like myself, are conservatives who have simply become more libertarian over time. Regardless of how they fell into the conservatarian numbers, they all have a healthy suspicion of government.
For years, as a foot soldier in the conservative movement, I long advocated support for the death penalty. 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 conservatives of all types have become uncomfortable with is the fact that the government has become abusive and intrusive. In recent years the numbers of conservatives that 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, stating: "The fact is, I don't understand why more conservatives don't oppose the death penalty." He continued saying 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 goes on to say that "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 reactionary or illogical. It actually makes perfect sense for a people that fundamentally claim to distrust government.