Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 102 (April 2000): 9-10.
On February 24, the State of Texas executed Betty Lou Beets, age sixty–two, for the murder of her husband in 1985. Ordinarily, the death of Ms. Beets by lethal injection would not have drawn particular attention. The death penalty is now common in the U.S., especially in Texas, where Ms. Beets’ execution was the 121st in only the five years that George W. Bush has been Governor.
The case got the publicity it did for a number of reasons. Few women receive the death penalty (Ms. Beets is the fourth, and the second in Texas, since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976). In addition, a number of women’s groups took up the case because Ms. Beets was allegedly beaten by her husband. Most notably, of course, Gov. Bush, who refused to grant her a stay of execution, is currently running for President, and a number of critics saw his failure to intercede as a contradiction of the "compassionate conservatism" that is the theme of his campaign.
Her gender aside—she was regularly identified in the media as a grandmother—Ms. Beets is an unlikely poster–person for opponents of capital punishment. Of her five husbands, she shot three of them, the fourth and the fifth fatally (the second recovered from a stomach wound). She was convicted only of the murder of her last spouse, but the penultimate one was found buried next to him in her front yard. Both had been shot in the back of the head. Even if one grants the charges of domestic abuse (her defenders raised the claim, years after her trial, that she was beaten not only by all her husbands but by her father as well), hers is, on its face, a less than fully sympathetic case. It seems obvious, then, that Ms. Beets’ execution received the limited notoriety it did mainly because of Gov. Bush’s involvement.
Of the criticisms occasioned by the Governor’s (non)action, none is more peculiar than that of James Wood, Senior Editor of the New Republic ("Playing God," TNR, February 21). Wood, it is true, does not refer specifically to the Beets case, but his ferocious attack on Bush’s overall record on the death penalty obviously includes her case in its purview. In brief, Wood argues that Bush’s attitude toward the death penalty not only makes of his claim to be pro–life "an affront to language and morality," but brings into question his professed Christian commitment. What really ought to be called into question is Wood’s ability to construct, on this issue at least, a coherent argument.
To begin with, Wood is shaky on the facts of the situation. He grandly claims that Bush "has life–and–death command of the inmates on Texas’ death row." Bush, he says, "has executed  people in his five–year tenure, more than a sixth of all the Americans executed since 1976. In one week in 1997, the pro–life Governor had four prisoners put to death; in January of this year, he polished off another seven." Wood’s reckless rhetoric obscures how Texas law works.
The Governor of the state "polishes off" no one. As Wood finally admits (without noting the contradiction to his argument), "the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles decides each case." The Governor has pardoning powers, but he has no authority on his own to commute death sentences to life imprisonment. He can do so only on the Board’s recommendation. The most he can do otherwise is issue a thirty–day stay of execution. (Bush did not do so in the Beets case, he said, because he was convinced of her guilt and because she had already, in the fifteen years since her conviction, exhausted her appeals. It is difficult to know what a thirty–day appeal could have achieved. As Bruce Buchanan, a professor of political science at the University of Texas, noted, "If he had given her that thirty days, then he could be seen as pandering.")
Doubly peculiar is Wood’s theological argument. In the first place, Wood is not, by his own repeated insistence in the New Republic and elsewhere, a Christian. He was reared in a conservative Christian home, and has apparently been rebelling against that traumatic experience ever since. In any case, he writes regularly, and vehemently, of his categorical disagreement with Christian orthodoxy. Yet he does not hesitate to lecture Gov. Bush on his duties as a Christian. That circumstance does not in itself invalidate Wood’s argument—the provenance of an argument does not determine its correctness—but it does make it more than a little odd.
What invalidates Wood’s case is its substance. The heart of Christian piety, Wood (correctly) insists, is love and forgiveness. From that starting point he concludes that a Christian pro–life position must not stop at abortion but must entail as well opposition to capital punishment. It follows, therefore, that Gov. Bush’s refusal to pardon condemned murderers contradicts the Christian’s necessary devotion to "forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness."
One wonders if Wood’s ignorance of the Christian tradition is as great as his argument suggests. Throughout Christian history, the overwhelming testimony of church teaching—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—has affirmed the compatibility of support for capital punishment with orthodox belief and practice. It is the case that in relatively recent times questions have been raised within Christian circles concerning the death penalty, but it is simply incorrect to maintain, as Wood does, that for believers the duty to forgive cannot coexist with support for capital punishment.
Indeed, the logic (so to speak) of Wood’s argument would prohibit not just penalties of death but punishment of any kind. There is nothing in the structure of his argument that stops at the execution block. If forgiveness of sin means, as Wood seems to say, that there can be no social punishment for sin, then Christians should have nothing to do with criminal sanctions of any sort. One imagines a Wood–instructed Christian judge, recalling Jesus’ mandate to forgive seventy times seven, not merely sending convicted murderers back onto the street but emptying prisons wholesale.
Wood himself shows fleeting awareness that he has argued himself into a corner. Toward the very end of his piece, he lamely concedes that "personal forgiveness of sins is somewhat different from the due process of the state." (Somewhat different, indeed.) But it’s too late for him to back down, and he promptly, if feebly, goes back on the attack. Jesus required of his followers "be ye therefore perfect," Wood reminds us, and he woozily concludes that Bush’s "hardheartedness" on capital punishment "is far from perfect." On that inglorious note, he gives up, as it were, the ghost of his argument.
This is not the place for an extended discussion of how Christians today should think about the death penalty (see my "An Unwonted Uncertainty," FT, April 1998). There are far more cogent arguments than Wood musters for opposing capital punishment. But his essay is by no means untypical of its genre, and its lack of seriousness reminds us that as a society turns against the death penalty, it may become not so much more humane as more sentimental.
In thinking about what it means to be pro–life, Christians must, to begin with, distinguish between protecting innocent life and protecting society against murderers. People incapable of making so elementary a distinction have no place in determining where the argument goes from there.