The Common Good
January 2013

Who Would Jesus Execute?

by Jim Wallis, Richard Viguerie | January 2013

Jim Wallis interviews Richard Viguerie, a law-and-order conservative, on the death penalty and prison reform.

RICHARD VIGUERIE is as responsible as anyone for the success of the conservative movement in this country. A pioneer in political direct mail, Viguerie has been involved from the radical edges of the Right in every Republican campaign from Goldwater to Romney; he's been called the "funding father of the conservative movement." He helped start hundreds of entities from Conservative Digest to Gun Owners of America, from the National Conservative Political Action Committee to the Moral Majority—spanning the political spectrum from Right to Far Right. Just before the 2012 election, he launched MyOwnSuperPAC because of "frustration at how weak and ineffective the Romney campaign's ads have been with its soft approach to Barack Obama—hardly ever mentioning Obama's radical, neo-Marxist vision for America's future," and insisting that "Obama is NOT failing. He's succeeding at doing exactly what he set out to do—and that's destroy capitalism and destroy the America you and I grew up in." So no one is going to mistake Viguerie for a squishy liberal.

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And yet Viguerie's Catholic faith has led him to a surprising position on the issues of capital punishment and prison reform. The conservative icon talked with Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis in September about why he thinks an unexpected Left-Right alliance might turn the tide against the death penalty.

Jim Wallis: As you and I both know, we're often stuck in political straitjackets. There are issues that we could work together on, particularly as people of faith, that would help politicians do better than they sometimes do. I'd like to start with this: You've said that, as a Catholic, you're against the death penalty. Why is your faith as a Catholic central to this, and how has that turned you against the death penalty?

Richard Viguerie: My own road to Damascus on this issue came many years ago. When I was a young Republican in Houston in the late '50s and early '60s, I was a very hard-core, law-and-order type: "lock 'em up, throw the key under the jail so they never get out." In those days, law enforcement agencies were kind of immune from criticism. Over a period of time, I and many other conservatives have been disabused of the fact that people in law enforcement are above any mistakes or abuse of power.

I'm one of these people who has never really had a strong rebellious element in my makeup. I was an altar boy in Pasadena, Texas, outside of Houston. My faith was very important to me as a youngster and as a young adult. Like so many of us—you, me, many of our friends—we're Christians; we want to model our life, as best we can, after Christ. So I thought, would Christ want to protect society from people who are dangerous? Certainly. Would Christ pull the lever to execute somebody? I don't think so. That was a real revelation to me as I'm trying to adjust my life as best I can to what Christ would do in a similar situation. So, it was an easy decision, once I began to think about it.

Christ would also, as he told us, be concerned about prisoners. Are prisoners being abused? That would concern Christ. I've known a number of people who have run afoul of the law. Whether they were innocent or guilty, they've been abused by the system. These are people who, for the most part, society has forgotten, and there certainly is not much of a constituency out there looking after these people. Almost everybody in our society has people who lobby for them, who organize to protect their rights. But that doesn't seem to be true of prisoners. As we know, power corrupts. And people in prison—the guards, officials—have pretty much absolute power. I'm aware that far too many times they have abused that power.

What have you learned about the death penalty system? How does that system work to abuse people? Well, I'm certainly not an authority on the death penalty. There are people who have spent their life focused on trying to change the death penalty laws. I've become aware that throughout history, many innocent people have been convicted of crimes and executed. There are few things more horrendous than that, taking an innocent life by the power of government. The state is all-powerful in these matters, and it's a very terrifying thing. People do make mistakes.

Conservatives—and much of society, I think—feel that when a horrendous crime has been committed, the perpetrator of that crime needs to be punished. I've always thought it was a far more severe punishment that they spend their life in prison rather than be executed. I think a life sentence without a chance of parole is maybe the worst penalty they could receive.

When a person is sentenced to life in prison and they're innocent, they have a chance to prove their innocence, as has happened numerous times. But once the death penalty has been carried out, there's no opportunity for a person to prove their innocence. I just don't see how a society such as ours can justify a death penalty.

It's interesting that, with few exceptions, most of the people who have been interested in this subject on the conservative side have been Catholics. I've found it difficult to get my Protestant friends to support this issue.

Why do you think that is? Almost without exception, my Protestant friends, if you try to pull out of them their reasoning, quickly refer to the Old Testament: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Christ said that he came to teach us a new way. He said, in essence, Moses gave you a law, which I am changing. You were a stiff-necked people and your heart was hard, and I've come to teach you a new way now. Christ is the model going forward. It's not the Old Testament, it's the New Testament. To me—whether you're Catholic or Protestant—that should be an easy call. If you really are focused on modeling your life along Christ's example, it's very hard for anybody to visualize Christ approving the execution of anyone.

On the Catholic side, the bishops have made a connection between their opposition to abortion and to the death penalty. They call it a consistent ethic of life. Right. There are very few people in politics and public policy that are consistent on the life issue. Most liberals say you can kill them before they're born, but you can't kill them afterward. The conservatives say you can't kill them before they're born, but you can kill them after. My position is you shouldn't be killing anybody before or after they're born. There are very few people on the Left or the Right who take that position. I'm committed to trying to convert my fellow conservatives to be consistent on the life issue.

What's the best way to make the argument to conservatives that they should be against the death penalty? I know lots of Catholic priests and Protestant leaders in the country who are active in the conservative policy arena. They seldom, if ever, talk about the moral issues from the pulpit. I think that's a serious problem for our society. We're going to continue to have serious problems, in terms of the moral issues in this country—whether it's divorce or criminal justice problems—until we get a stronger moral foundation.

We need lots of things, but we lack leadership. As a conservative, I feel that's our number one issue. In the moral issues of the death penalty and prison reform, the leadership is not out there. It's not in the pulpits. It's not with the lay people. Once the leadership is there, the people, organizations, political will, and legislation will soon follow.

What does it take to offer that kind of leadership? This is maybe not directed to your point, but it's an interesting observation. All of the people that I have known who have been in prison felt they were abused by the system. But I've only known one who, after he got out, stayed with the cause of promoting prison reform—our friend Pat Nolan at Justice Fellowship, one of the organizations that the late Chuck Colson set up. People that have been in prison, understandably, want to put it behind them. They're occupied with a job and family, but there's almost no leadership that comes from people who experienced the abuses firsthand.

Also, our society does not reward people who provide leadership in that area. This is something that people feel is kind of dirty, and they just don't want to get involved [with prisoners]. That's exactly who Christ told us we should be involved with. We shouldn't just focus on those who have nice clothes and rings on their hands and invite them to dinner and places of honor. But we should reach out to the least of our brothers and sisters.

How do you convince conservatives to be against the death penalty and for prison reform? I actually don't think it is that difficult a task. It's quite frankly a matter of focus. As conservatives become more fearful of big government, sometimes we forget that law enforcement and the prison system are part of the government. If we can just prioritize and set aside a significant amount of time to focus on this issue, hopefully it could get traction. One of the things people like you and me could do is identify the low-hanging fruit. What are the issues that the Right and Left can come together on? There are certain issues we're just not going to be able to agree on, but there's low-hanging fruit out there.

What would be some of the issues or low-hanging fruit that we should start with? Sometimes we can address issues and agree on a solution without agreeing on the reasons why. We have too many people in prison. We could address it—from the conservative standpoint—as a cost issue. It's very expensive to keep people in prison. What are the reasons why we have so many prisons? There are any number of reasons, but one would be the unions for prison guards. In California, they have an enormous amount of influence on the governor and legislators, and they want more prisons and guards. If you have more guards and prisons, you need more prisoners. There are people on the Left and the Right who could identify issues for different reasons they want to address. Once you begin to work together and find out that the person on the other side doesn't have horns—even though we disagree on a lot of issues—then working together can become habit forming.

Do you think we should call for a new moratorium on the death penalty? It's a good way to start. Conservatives feel having the death penalty mentioned in the Constitution several times, by definition, makes it constitutional. Liberals would like to declare it unconstitutional. Be that as it may, we're not going to be able to solve that issue any time soon. But a moratorium gets around that disagreement that conservatives and liberals have. I think a moratorium of a finite period of time, perhaps five years, is an excellent idea where we begin to focus and see if we can make some progress.

What else could we be doing on this issue? I think that a lot of the leadership on these issues that we've talked about will probably need to come from the conservatives. We need to make it acceptable to discuss this in the public square. Once conservatives provide that cover for this issue to be an acceptable issue to discuss, debate, and legislate on, I think things can move forward.

The problem right now for me and most of my conservative friends is that we feel under assault by the Left, in terms of issues of importance to us. We feel threatened as a movement. It's forced the prison issues to a back burner, unfortunately.

I think it would be good for the political process if we could finally get conservatives and liberals to agree that these things are both moral and common- sense issues. Don't you? Now that the election is behind us, it's time for leaders on the Right and the Left to come together. Let's identify the low-hanging fruit and work on multiple issues at the same time. We have an obligation to do that. To whom much is given, much is expected. It's expected of us to provide that leadership, so I'm anxious to do that.

The death penalty and prison reform could be one of those issues we could work together on. Absolutely. Once we move into this area, make progress, and bring a lot of allies to the table who agree with us, we can probably move on to some other important issues as well.

In my 51 years of being involved in public policy at the national level, I've noticed that, with few exceptions, the issues that are dealt with [by Congress] start outside of politics. It starts with private citizens. The civil rights movement did not start in Congress. On the Left, opposition to the Vietnam War did not start in Congress. The pro-life battles did not start in Congress. Most were started by people outside of politics. There's no reason to think that this issue would be any different. We're not going to see the leadership on this issue come out of the political arena. It will have to come from the private sector. There are not a lot of profiles in courage, quite frankly, in elected officials on the Right or the Left.

That's true. I want people to know that people like you and me, who are often perceived to be on different sides of politics, can really respect one another and work together. I've got an awful lot of liberal friends, and I think it's very healthy. I learn a lot from that interaction, and I'm a better person for it.

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