Thursday, September 22, 2011


I look at the still-popular and clearly ineradicable death penalty in America, especially after the execution of Troy Davis, and I see a connection to the American views and values teased out by a recently published poll on religion in America. The link isn't obvious, and what I'm about to say may seem illogical, but I'll stand by it:

About one in five Americans combine a view of God as actively engaged in daily workings of the world with an economic conservative view that opposes government regulation and champions the free market as a matter of faith.

"They say the invisible hand of the free market is really God at work," says sociologist Paul Froese, co-author of the Baylor Religion Survey, released today by Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

"They think the economy works because God wants it to work. It's a new religious economic idealism," with politicians "invoking God while chanting 'less government,'" he says.

"When Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann say 'God blesses us, God watches us, God helps us,' religious conservatives get the shorthand. They see 'government' as a profane object -- a word that is used to signal working against God's plan for the United States. To argue against this is to argue with their religion."

Now, you'll say that the death penalty is "big government," just like government intervention in the marketplace, so America's dominant religious conservatives should oppose capital punishment. But we know how that works when it comes to foreign policy -- military intervention (at least when initiated by conservatives) isn't "big government," either. It's morality. It's God working through government. It's barely seen as "government" at all. So it's OK.

What America's dominant religious conservatives oppose, I think, isn't government per se, but government showing mercy. What the free market does is God's will. What the criminal justice system does is God's will (at least when it's punishing people). So don't mess with it.

Elsewhere in the survey, there's this (PDF):

Most Americans believe that God has a plan for them.

... Even though Americans who believe strongly in God's plan earn less and have less education, they are the most likely to believe that the United States' economic system is fair without government intervention. Specifically, Americans who believe strongly in God's plan are much more likely to believe:

• The government is intrusive (Fig. 4)
• Healthy people don't deserve unemployment benefits (Fig. 5)
• Anything is possible through hard work (Fig. 6)
• Success = ability (Fig. 7)

If you think we all get what we deserve, and you think government social-service programs are "big government" intervention but the criminal justice system isn't really government at all, then you'd assume that all the people who end up on Death Row belong there -- they put themselves there (success = ability, therefore failure = lack of ability). A wrongful conviction isn't intrusive government. Reversing a wrongful conviction is intrusive government. God's way is for you to wind up where you deserve to be. Whereas human mercy, whether it's unemployment insurance for the "undeserving" or a pardon from the clemency board, is sinful.

And so we're a nation of Rick Perrys, executing without doubt.

(Survey via Balloon Juice.)