Talking to Each Other in the Dark: The American Abolition Movement and the Christian Opportunity

Chapter 3
Talking to Each Other in the Dark: The American Abolition Movement and the Christian Opportunity

Jeanne Bishop and Mark Osler


Within the United States, the organized movement to abolish the death penalty has many advantages: it is relatively well-funded, is co-ordinated, faces no similarly unified group of opponents, and has a strong core of articulate and committed activists. It has also won a string of victories, as five states (Connecticut in 2012, Illinois in 2011, New Jersey in 2007, New Mexico in 2009, and New York in 2007) have gone from embracing to rejecting the death penalty in just the last six years (Death Penalty Information Center [DPIC], 2012).

These recent successes will continue if abolitionists can appeal to those (in and out of government) who currently are not on their side. To continue their winning streak, abolitionists will have to broaden their appeal to those who are not now on their side – fiscal conservatives, those who distrust government, and Christian churchgoers. Given that the death penalty is brutally expensive, reflects a near complete trust in government and runs contrary to the central narrative of the Christian faith, abolitionists should welcome this task enthusiastically.

In this chapter, we argue that faith appeals to Christians must be part of any effective death penalty advocacy. The authors are both Christians who have taken this message to bastions of the death penalty such as Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia and found receptive audiences. It can and should be done, but doing so will require that we adopt new tactics and language that have not been embraced widely thus far in the abolitionist effort.

We will begin by describing the significant continuing challenges for death penalty abolitionists. If the abolition movement wants to actually abolish the death penalty, it must move people from supporting or being undecided about capital punishment. That means that the message of the movement cannot be aimed merely at the progressive sensibilities of those within the movement, but rather must appeal to the more conservative views of those who are either for the death penalty or undecided.

The first step towards doing so is creating a dialogue with those individuals, either directly or through the media. Sadly, too few of the resources available to abolition organizations go towards this effort. Instead, they too often focus on their ‘base’ (those who already agree with their goals) by hosting rallies or conferences amongst themselves, sponsoring ‘debates’ in friendly territories, or publishing advocacy pieces in left-leaning newspapers and magazines.

Both authors admit their own faults in this regard. Professor Osler has, for example, written against the death penalty in the left-leaning Huffington Post, a forum whose readership is unlikely to disagree with him. Ms Bishop and the murder victims’ organization with which she is affiliated have spent resources sending speakers like Bishop to places like South Korea and Mongolia – meaning that they almost literally flew over active death penalty states such as Texas and Oklahoma to get to places on the other side of the world which have gone years without carrying out a single execution.

In the subsequent section, we will describe the dynamic that makes Christian churches the next key battleground for the American death penalty. Among churchgoers, those who engage their faith with this issue tend to come out against the death penalty. Seizing this opportunity, however, may be awkward for a movement which has been largely secular and based in areas which are culturally and religiously distinct from the heartland of the death penalty.

Finally, before drawing some conclusions, the authors will describe their own efforts to reach out to death penalty supporters within their faith communities. Starting from the premise that for many in states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee the source of their principles is the Christian faith, we conclude that it is necessary to reach them in churches and other religious institutions and within the context of that faith. As trial lawyers, one a prosecutor and the other a defence attorney, we are well-suited to recreate an unjust capital trial – that of Christ himself – and we are doing exactly that in churches and conservative religious colleges in death penalty states. This project puts in juxtaposition the support many Christians have for the death penalty and the narrative about the death penalty that is at the heart of Christian faith.

Focusing on this real, relevant audience will force some changes on the death penalty abolition movement. It will have to become better at listening, more open to faith issues, and (most importantly) willing to strive for a tone of confident humility rather than moral and educational superiority. The abolition movement has the talent, the resources and the support to reach new audiences; it now must find the will to do so.

The Problem of Closed Circles

It is much easier, and affirming, to meet with our friends than our enemies or strangers. Sadly, what is easy and affirming is rarely effective in the field of advocacy. Yet, consistently, death penalty abolition activists and groups in the United States have spent substantial resources on meetings with friends and giving rousing speeches to one another.

For example, for the past several years a coalition of anti-death penalty groups has held a series of large rallies in Austin, Texas titled ‘The March to Abolish the Death Penalty’.1 The marches are held on a Saturday on the grounds of the State Capitol, prominent opponents of capital punishment are asked to speak, and local news outlets cover the event on television and in print.2 The event is sponsored by 16 organizations, including most of the major death penalty abolition groups in Texas.3 Hundreds of people attend each year.

While ‘The March to Abolish the Death Penalty’ is certainly a rousing and well-intended event, it is nearly useless as advocacy against the death penalty. It would be hard to construct a less effective vehicle for changing minds.

First, the march (at least in recent years) is held in virtually the only part of Texas where there is already strong opposition to the death penalty. The city of Austin, despite being the State Capitol, is an anomaly within that state in nearly every way.4 This is particularly true in politics; National Geographic has described Austin as ‘the lone blue outpost in an overwhelmingly red state’ (Chambers, 2010). This culture is fed by the presence (very close to the Capitol Building where the March is held) of the University of Texas. While the Capitol has symbolic importance, that symbolism is lost if it is never conveyed to the audience that really matters – those who might change their minds.

The media coverage described on the event’s website is almost exclusively local, sending images to other Austin residents within a few miles of the event.5 While the media coverage is largely sympathetic, in terms of advocacy it is irrelevant unless it reaches those outside the circle of agreement.

Thus, the effects of the march and its media coverage are effectively limited to Texas residents who already agree with the goals of the marchers. One suspects that one reason for holding the march there is for the convenience of death penalty opponents themselves, many of whom live close by.

Moreover, holding the march on a Saturday at a place that doesn’t do business on weekends nearly guarantees that few other than the marchers themselves will be present. Some people, of course, might wander over from the nearby University of Texas, but those students likely already support the cause. The passionate chants and speeches are met with cheers and broad acceptance because of self-selection – the audience already agrees. That’s why they came, after all.

Austin is a strikingly illogical choice for the rally. Texas offers three other metropolitan areas much larger than Austin (Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio),6 and all of them are more target-rich environments for death penalty activists, as a Texan might say.

In other words, ‘The March to Abolish the Death Penalty’ is held in a doughnut hole inside of a doughnut hole – right in the most liberal part of the most liberal city in the state. Despite being organized by activists working in a very conservative jurisdiction which leads the Western world in executions, the march is unlikely to affect the views of more than a handful of the millions of Texans these abolitionists need to reach. It is effectively held within a closed circle, and that is stunningly ineffective as advocacy.

The authors empathize with the planners of ‘The March to Abolish the Death Penalty’, as too much of our own advocacy has followed a similar path.

For example, when Professor Osler’s book against the death penalty was released (Osler, 2009), the largest event was a signing at his favourite bookstore in Austin, Texas. The reasons were probably very similar to the reasons for hosting the march about eight blocks away from the Bookpeople shop on 6th Street. That location guaranteed a sympathetic audience, and one that would actually show up. It sold a lot of books – but probably they all went to people who were against the death penalty in the first place.

Likewise, Ms Bishop’s work against the death penalty has involved a good deal of ‘preaching to the choir’. Giving speeches at universities and to human rights groups whose audiences already oppose the death penalty may energize people to work for abolition, but it does little to change the hearts and minds of death penalty supporters.

Similarly, Ms Bishop has spoken against the death penalty in places like Mongolia, a country with a small death row and a moratorium on executions firmly in place, at the same time as US jurisdictions such as Virginia were regularly executing prisoners and the death row in California stood at more than 700 people.