Buffalo Law Review

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This Article is an interdisciplinary response to an entrenched legal and cultural problem. It incorporates legal analysis, religious study and the anthropological notion of “culture work” to consider death penalty abolitionism and prospects for abolishing the death penalty in the United States. The Article argues that abolitionists must reimagine their audiences and repackage their message for broader social consumption, particularly for Christian and conservative audiences. Even though abolitionists are characterized by some as “bleeding heart” liberals, this is not an accurate portrayal of how the death penalty maps across the political spectrum. Abolitionists must learn that conservatives are potential allies in the struggle, who share overlapping ideologies and goals. The same holds true for Christians—there is much in the teachings of Jesus to suggest that he aligned more with forgiveness than capital retribution. As such, abolitionists would do well to focus on these demographics more earnestly than in the past. The notion of “culture work” underscores these groups as natural allies in the quest to end the death penalty.

A great irony in abolitionist messaging inspires this Article, namely, that abolitionists have failed to get much mileage out of the “Greatest Story Ever Told.” The narrative of Jesus of Nazareth stands as a powerful message to convey the problems inherent in capital execution, yet its explanatory power has gone largely untapped. Jesus was, by today’s standards, wrongfully convicted, tortured, and executed by the state. The simplicity of the story is breathtaking and sits at the core of abolitionist concerns: An innocent man was put to death. Like these religious considerations, there are others that reveal how political conservatives share overlapping space with their religious counterparts. For example, it is arguable that being anti-death penalty is both a religious and politically conservative posture. The Declaration of Independence suggests as much: “all men . . . are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The meaning here is clear—life is sacred—the Creator gives humans life, and nothing can alienate that right. Furthermore, the actual cost of taking a felon all the way to execution is a huge financial burden on taxpayers as well, which represents the epitome of big government spending and the most physically maleficent power the state can exercise over an individual’s life. Today’s death penalty embodies much of what conservatives disavow, and abolitionists must work to build upon these natural affinities and interest convergences to help bring the death penalty to its demise.