They're Right, We're not a Christian Nation

I don't believe it makes sense to call the United States a "Christian nation" – not now, and not in the past, however essential you reckon religion's place in America's history and development. Instead, I mean the rhetorical trope of lamenting our fall from virtue when public policy and the broader culture no longer privilege certain Christian teachings. Or rather the teachings some Christians have decided are central to their political project. When gays and lesbians marry, or when a transgender person reveals her struggle, or undercover videos surface, inevitably the disappointed (or outraged) comments on social media emerge, and our Professional Christians take to the airwaves and television studios to furrow their brows.

And yet I never see quite that reaction when a court decision confirms our country's commitment to executing its own citizens as a form of criminal punishment, even if that execution takes place in almost unfathomably cruel and incompetent ways. Compare, say, the hysteria surrounding the Obergefell decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide to what was generated by the Glossip decision handed down just three days later. How many of us even remember that a case involving the death penalty was decided this term by the Supreme Court — let alone it’s details? (If you missed Cathleen Kaveny's excellent column on Glossip decision, by the way, read it now.)

I mention all this because at 3 p.m. today, Richard Glossip was scheduled to be executed in Oklahoma. A state appeals court granted a fourteen day stay of execution as judges consider his latest appeal.

Glossip was convicted of hiring a 19-year-old named Justin Sneed to murder Barry Van Treese, a hotel owner and Glossip’s boss. Many think Glossip is plausibly innocent. Reason magazine’s Lauren Galik, in a helpful summary of the case, explains why:

[T]here was no corroborating evidence tying Glossip to the crime—no fingerprints, no DNA, nothing. He was convicted and sentenced to death based upon the testimony of Sneed alone. What’s worse, there’s video evidence, which Glossip’s lawyer failed to introduce to the court and therefore the jury never saw, that shows Detective Bob Bemo pushing Sneed to implicate Glossip. In exchange for this testimony, Sneed was able to avoid the death penalty.

Even Tom Coburn, the former Republican Senator from Oklahoma who supports the death penalty, has urged Gov. Mary Fallin to stay Glossip’s execution, such is the dubiousness of his conviction.

Not only are those details troubling, but Glossip will be executed using the controversial drug midazolam — the drug the Supreme Court sanctioned in the case that took its name from him. Here are a few of the botched executions related to midazolam:

The drug was used in the highly publicized execution of Clayton Lockett last year. Lockett’s execution was one of the longest in U.S. history; he moaned and writhed on the gurney for 43 minutes before dying of a heart attack.

A state investigation linked the problem to the IV lines not being inserted correctly.

But the state did not deem it necessary to change its controversial three-drug formula. Of particular concern is the use of the sedative midazolam, also used in two other executions that went awry: Dennis McGuire agonized for 26 minutes in Ohio, and Joseph Wood gasped more than 600 times and took two hours to die in Arizona.

This, of course, is not the place to rehearse the case against the death penalty. But really, the still pending execution of Richard Glossip offers a striking reminder of what the death penalty means in practice in this country. Oklahoma is set to execute a man who very well might be innocent using a drug cocktail that could make him feel, as it did with Charles Warner, who was executed in January, as if his “body is on fire.”

This is shameful and a disgrace. It is beneath any civilized nation, let alone a “Christian” one.

I am not arguing that to speak out on other issues, Christians must be death penalty activists. I am not resorting to what Ross Douthat once called “whataboutism”: the habit of saying “Yes, but what about this other issue” during a debate, levelling what amounts to a charge of hypocrisy. (For example, dismissing pro-life arguments by pointing to their purveyors’ views on inequality or poverty; “You say you’re pro-life, but what about…”)

Instead, I’m just noticing that in a country rife with moralizing rhetoric and showy displays of religious affiliation, the Christian response to all this has been peculiarly muted. It is diagnostically interesting to see what elicits our anger and outrage. It is useful to see what beliefs we will go to jail for, and what our Christian intellectuals and political activists find abhorrent. It is telling what we decide is fundamentally un-Christian, or beyond the moral pale.

The United States needs to stop killing people. There are many places we might begin such an effort, but the chambers in which we inject people with poison and watch them die in agony seem like a good place to start.

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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