Wednesday, December 18, 2013

On Ron Ramsey, the Death Penalty and the Separation of Church and State Executions

Posted By on Wed, Dec 18, 2013 at 3:05 PM

Today's fish wrapper contains an op-ed piece from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, in which the Blountville Republican argues that it's "time to get serious about the death penalty."

By "get serious" he means the state needs to resume executions, and get to work on putting to death the 79 people currently sitting on death row in Tennessee.

As Ramsey notes, after being slowed down by disputes over the drugs used in lethal injections, Tennessee has recently made an effort to get back in the game. Earlier this month state officials sought execution dates for 10 death row inmates. Soon after, the Tennessee Supreme Court delayed the execution of convicted rapist and murder Billy Ray Irick, who had been scheduled to die on Jan. 15, 2014, due to issues raised about the state's new one-drug lethal injection protocol. His new expiration date is Oct. 7, 2014.

The state will soon resume the practice of executing some of its citizens, and Ramsey says "the return of the death penalty to Tennessee is a good thing."

For the most part, Ramsey's argument for the death penalty is boilerplate stuff. He says that "for some of the most violent offenders who commit some of the most heinous crimes, death is truly the only just punishment." We must have the "moral courage," he says, to "give taxpayers and victims the justice they demand and deserve."

Ramsey doesn't run his Twitter account — that duty falls to spokesman Adam Kleinheider who, for all we know, might have written the op-ed — but the folks here at Pith Central directed some questions that way, with the hope that he might see them and maybe even respo...ok we're just kidding about that last part.

We haven't heard from Ramsey or his office. We don't really expect to. Politicians prefer to be asked questions in private, through their staffers. This is advantageous for them. Primarily because if the public doesn't clearly see an elected official being asked a question(s), then the public won't clearly see the elected official avoiding said question(s). Maybe we should start asking them more questions in public.

But I digress.

As anyone who's debated the death penalty knows, there are many angles from which to approach it. Moral, political, social and fiscal issues are all wrapped up in the argument. Ramsey's op-ed touches on these issues, but instead of presenting arguments and backing them up, he essentially makes a number of assertions. This is no doubt a side-effect of the limited space available in an op-ed piece, but when the issue in question is one of life and death, it's frustrating nevertheless.

Upon repeated readings of the piece — this is our job, folks, what can we say — another aspect of Ramsey's rhetoric sticks out. Twice in the piece, he refers to his Christian faith.

While we are all God’s children and no one should wish for the death of another, from a policy perspective, the return of the death penalty to Tennessee is a good thing.

And just a few paragraphs later:

Compassion is an important value to me. And, as a Christian, I believe redemption and salvation are available to us all. But in order to protect innocent human life from sociopaths and predators, we as a society must have the moral courage to take action.

For Christians, it's worth having a discussion about whether the death penalty contradicts the Bible's teachings. For our purposes here, we'll set that aside. And what's interesting to note is that Ramsey seems to do just that.

He doesn't cite his Christian faith to bolster his argument but rather to soften it. In other words, "I'm not a monster. These guys (and one woman) are God's children. But as a society, we have to kill them anyway."

But Ramsey's apparent (and somewhat surprising) willingness to separate the teachings of his church from the actions of the state is a naked ploy to have it both ways.

His words imply a belief that support for the death penalty can coincide with belief in the teachings of the Bible and of Jesus Christ. No doubt, there are people who hold that view. But Ramsey doesn't even suggest an argument as to how that's true. Instead he's content to claim "compassion," invoke "redemption" and "salvation" and cite the idea that "we are all God’s children and no one should wish for the death of another," while also standing under the banner of retributive justice at the hands of the state.

He wants to introduce theology into the debate, and then set it aside, on his own terms. He wants to wield God's love and the state's sword at the same time, without explaining how he can hold both.

It's not our purpose to decide whether someone is theologically sound on the death penalty question. What rankles is that Ramsey seeks to use Christian teaching to his rhetorical advantage, without earning the right to do so. If he's going to invoke the name of the Lord, and the words of scripture, he should explain how those things lead him to his conclusion on the death penalty — or why they don't. If he's not willing or able to do that, he should leave God out of it.

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