Being against abortion but for the death penalty isn’t contradictory at all, for Christians whose theology has the following specific characteristics:
1) Life is a test. The sum total of everyone’s thoughts and behavior during life will determine whether he or she merits salvation or perdition.
2) God ensouls each fetus at the moment of conception.
3) Presumably, God makes allowance for the great number of zygotes that never complete their development; perhaps their souls are “recycled” into newly conceived fetuses until they finally manage to get born. But in the case of abortion, where a fetus that otherwise would have lived to be born fails to be born, due solely to human action, God makes no exceptions. Cheated of its chance to take the test of life, such a soul can never earn salvation.
There are a great many problems with this theology, yet it is probably held (if often in a naive and inarticulate way) by a great many Christians. Substitute the moment of baptism for the moment of birth, and it’s a pretty good sketch of the theology that underlay the old Catholic doctrine of purgatory, with all its fretting about the “problem” posed by babies who died unbaptized.
Once one holds this theology, there’s no contradiction in opposing abortion (being “pro-life”) and supporting capital punishment (being “pro-death”). The meaningful distinction is that the souls of aborted fetuses are being unjustly denied their shot at the test we call life. The “post-born,” on the other hand, got to take their test. Whatever happens to them is what they deserve.
If we ascribe this view of theology to conservative Christians, a whole spectrum of otherwise contradictory elements in their rhetoric and behavior suddenly make sense. How can people who make such a fuss about unborn babies care little about the plight of poor or abused children at home or abroad? Suffering children may be piteous, but at least they got to be born -- therefore, if they bear unfair burdens in life God will make it up to them in eternity. How can so many Christian conservatives prioritize abortion above social causes that seem, objectively, far more urgent? Abortion is unique in that it cheats the fetal soul of its one shot to earn salvation, making it quite literally the fate worse than death.
And of course it follows that one can champion the unborn yet be enthusiatic about capital punishment. Death row felons took their test of life, mucked it up, and deserve what’s coming to them. And if you think capital punishment is harsh, wait till you see what God’s gonna do to them!
Spotting a Christian conservative whose thinking runs along these lines is easy. Getting one to admit it, much less articulate it, is harder -- I think many who hold these views recognize, however inchoately, that when they’re put forward in the light of day they strike many observers as, well, creepy. But I strongly suspect that’s how Rick Perry’s mind works. Or it’s how the minds work of the people he’s hoping will propel his candidacy forward in the GOP primaries. I don’t know which prospect disturbs me more.
Tom Flynn | Sep 13, 2011 9:33 AM