Supreme Court considers case of conversion and death penalty
All eyes are on the Supreme Court this week, at least indirectly, and it's not even June. There's Rehnquist's cancer, internet rumors that Bush is considering Thomas as chief justice, debate on the influence Sen. Arlen Specter might have over nominations, speculation on whether Alberto Gonzalez is now out of the running … and even an actual court case—the federal government's request that the Supreme Court take up the case of Oregon's assisted suicide law.

But yesterday, the justices considered another interesting case that has something to do with religion: Brown v. Payton. Weblog summarized this case back in May: It has to do with a California prosecutor's telling a jury not to consider murderer William Payton's conversion to Christianity when it sentenced him.

The legal aspects of the case are rather interesting. Everyone pretty much agrees that the prosecutor made an error — California law at that time instructed juries in capital cases to consider "any other circumstance which extenuates the gravity of the crime even though it is not a legal excuse for the crime." That would apparently include Payton's repentance. The question is over whether the prosecutor's mistake was big enough to give Payton a new hearing. The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled last October that it was, and California appealed to the Supreme Court. The Associated Press reports, "The justices were divided over whether the errors made a difference in sentencing," with Justice David Souter saying it did. "The prosecutor stands there and twice said, 'You can't legally consider this evidence,' and the judge never corrects it," Souter noted. "Why isn't this a reasonable likelihood of error?"

Those interested in the legal aspects should check out Goldstein & Howe's SCOTUSblog, which has published several bits of analysis and summary. Those interested in the bloody details of the crime and an argument for why Payton should be executed can read the press release of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which filed an amicus curiae brief.

Weblog, however, is more interested in the religious aspects of the case. Should repentance and conversion make a difference in sentencing, capital case or not?

Back in 1998, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and others petitioned George W. Bush (then governor of Texas) to halt the execution of Karla Faye Tucker. (Those "others" include Pope John Paul II, who has more respect among evangelical Protestants than either Robertson or Falwell). Tucker had hacked two people to death with a pickax, but converted to Christianity in prison.

Article continues below

"She is not the same person who committed those heinous ax murders," Robertson said then. "She is totally transformed, and I think to execute her is more of an act of vengeance than it is appropriate justice."

But Weblog has searched in vain for any comments from the broadcaster or from evangelical leaders on behalf of Payton.

Weblog should note that CT hasn't said much either, though during the Tucker controversy we ran an editorial calling for the abolition of the death penalty. We had hoped that the discussion sparked by Tucker's execution (and later, by exposés in Illinois and elsewhere about dramatic problems in the system) would lead evangelicals to reconsider their support for capital punishment.

Instead, the opposite may have happened since 1998. Most notably, Prison Fellowship Ministries founder Charles Colson abandoned his earlier opposition to capital punishment, calling it "an essential element of justice." (Colson's essay detailing his change of heart has recently been circulating as if it's new. It's actually from 2002.)

In the wake of 9/11, could it be that evangelical support of the death penalty is growing? If so, how do evangelicals' beliefs on justice fit with their hopes that all come to repentance? One key argument from Christian opponents of the death penalty, especially from Roman Catholics, has been that it cuts short the opportunities of the executed responding to the gospel. Supporters have sometimes responded that being faced with imminent death provides a good impetus for repentance.

But if a murderer does turn to God, should they receive mercy from the jury, or should it in fact be a factor in moving ahead with their execution? There's an old Wizard of ID cartoon where the king asks a priest, "Do you believe in the death penalty?" and the priest responds, "If you believe right, it's not a penalty."

Flippant? Maybe, but here's the irony: It turns out that the 1982 jury in the Payton case did discuss his conversion and came to the same conclusion. Juror Lorraine Rhoads told The Orange County Register in 2001, "We felt that if he has found God, then he is ready to go to heaven."

Oops! Never mind yesterday's Gonzalez commentary
Yesterday, Weblog speculated that religious conservative groups would be upset by the White House replacing Attorney General John Ashcroft with Alberto Gonzales. Weblog's guess was based on earlier opposition—rather strong opposition at that—to gossip that Gonzales might be chosen as a Supreme Court justice.

Article continues below

Actually, religious conservative groups are pleased as punch.

"We know the great personal regard President Bush has for Mr. Gonzalez, and we wish him well in his challenging new assignment," Focus on the Family Action's Tom Minnery says in a press release. He says he expects Gonzalez to "defend the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act … [and] aggressively prosecute obscenity cases … with excellence."

"We are confident as the nation's top lawyer, Mr. Gonzales will offer a strong defense of these measures which protect marriage and the unborn," Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said.

"Alberto Gonzales is an outstanding attorney," said American Center for Law and Justice chief counsel Jay Sekulow. "Gonzales is the perfect person for this demanding job."

The Washington Post and The New Republic say these guys are so happy because the AG position will probably keep Gonzalez off the Supreme Court

Gonzalez doesn't have "strong pro-life beliefs," Minnery told the Post, so "putting someone like that in such an independent role as a federal judge is a problem for us. But as attorney general, the social issues are not as prominent as the law enforcement issues."

Actually, that's more or less what Weblog said yesterday, so give us a little credit. But we were way off on the Specter battle being over. Focus, FRC, Concerned Women for America, World's Marvin Olasky, the American Family Association, and other groups are still going strong on this one, as are less religious conservative groups like National Review. Not all religious conservatives are anti-Specter (See the Stones Cry Out blog for too much information), especially as Senate leaders seem likely to keep him as chairman of the judiciary committee. But for those who see this as the first big prolife battle after November 2, it's "in for a penny, in for a pound."

More articles

Religion & politics:

  • Bush makes inroads with black Christian voters | Drawn by issues of family values, many black conservative Christian voters joined their white brethren in the faith at the polls to return George W. Bush to the White House, political analysts said (South Florida Sun-Sentinel)

  • Bush has mandate, says ex-drug czar | Bennett offers views at local appearance (Pasadena Star News, Ca.)

  • German radical Christians look to US | While fundamentalist Christians played a vital role in the re-election of US President George W. Bush, their German counterparts have so far failed to gain any political significance. Some experts say that could change (Deutsche Welle, Germany)

Article continues below
  • Rejecting the gospel of either party | During a year in which religion and politics constantly made headlines, Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre published an essay that frayed nerves on the religious left and right (Terry Mattingly, Scripps Howard News Service)

  • Is there a 'Christian' tax code? | To reverse their inclination to elitism, liberals must study at the feet of the heartland's Christian conservatives, the only people on Earth who know what God wants and therefore possess a mandate to make all creatures conform to His will (Jac Wilder VerSteeg, Palm Beach Post)

  • More muscle, more God, less Shrum | Strong, God-fearing candidates with innovative ideas will be rewarded at the ballot box (Dan Gerstein, The Wall Street Journal)

  • Our faith-based values transcend our differences | But with the onslaught of post-election attacks on religious fundamentalists, it remains questionable whether Democrats will receive the prodigal voices of faith within their ranks (Charles H. Darrell, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.)

Whose 'moral values'?

  • Religious people both red and blue | Much is being made of the so-called religion gap in American politics. It's a false and contemptuous divide, created by exit pollsters who wouldn't know an evangelical from a Pentecostal (David Waters, Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.)

  • Shades of purple in the red states | Commentators run amok needed a theory to explain the swath of red states in the middle of the country. And so, they quickly highlighted Karl Rove's successful strategy of energizing evangelical Christians who had stayed away from the voting booths in 2000 (Mary Sanchez, Kansas City Star)

  • Michael Eric Dyson on politics and moral values | The debate over the separation of church and state is not new. But it resurfaced during the presidential election with the fight over gay marriage and other selective moral issues (The Tavis Smiley Show, NPR)

  • How can forgiven sit in judgment? | There appears to be, at least, two strands of those who call themselves evangelicals (Larry Malaney, Springfield News-Leader, Mo.)

  • We must reclaim morality from reactionary fetishists | In a rapacious, polluted world, ethics are about more than sex and drugs (Jackie Ashley, The Guardian, London)

  • Real moral values | They're not the exclusive territory of the religious -- nor should they be seen as the Next Big Thing (Arianna Huffington, Working for Change)

Article continues below
  • These 'moral values' aren't what I learned | Assuming that Christians form their values from the Bible and its tradition's teachings, I'm wondering how I could read the same Bible and hear many of the same teachings and have such a different view (Tom Carney, Des Moines Register, Ia.)

  • Just how separate are church and state? | Since values can easily be seen as having a religious base, the claim is made (with a little bit of spin and slippage) that God is on our side (Richard Randerson, The New Zealand Herald)

Democrats & religion:

  • Why religion is a losing issue for today's Democrats | Nancy Pelosi's dilemma is instructive. She desperately wants to be more accommodating to "so-called religious issues," but she can't put down her ACLU talking points about how dangerous religion is (Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online)

  • Hill at Tufts: Use Bible to guide poverty policy | Hillary Clinton got religion yesterday, calling it a mistake for the Democrats not to engage Evangelical Christians on their own turf - essentially ceding the vote to President Bush (David R. Guarino, Boston Herald)

  • Values-based shift in loyalties provokes soul-searching | As George W. Bush goes about the task of appointing new cabinet members, Democrats in the US are searching their souls and revisiting their party's defeat. Superficial parallels with John Howard's re-election and the ALP's post-mortem abound (Dennis Shanahan, The Australian)

  • Pray to Malcolm and Martin, Kurt and Jimi | From Donna Gaines, author of the classic book Teenage Wasteland, an open letter to the Election Day brokenhearted (New Haven Advocate, Conn.)

  • John Kerry's talk with black clergy a portent of fate | When you're telling clergy folks that things many Christians regard as sins don't matter, you might not want an admitted philanderer to be the guy introducing you (Gregory Kane, The Baltimore Sun)

Evangelicals & politics:

  • G.O.P. adviser says Bush's evangelical strategy split country | Arthur Finkelstein, a Republican consultant, has said in an interview published in Israel that the campaign strategy to court evangelical Christians has divided the country as never before (The New York Times)

  • Latino evangelicals swing to (and pray for) Bush | President Bush enjoyed an increase of the Latino vote in last week's election. Dolores M. Bernal of the DC Radio Coop brings us this report on the impact that growing Latino Evangelical movement is having (Free Speech Radio News, Pacifica)

Article continues below
  • Understanding evangelicals: Tips from the son of a preacher man (and woman) | Journalists should have a better understanding of evangelical Christians; but it might not help in understanding elections (Steve Buttry, Poynter Institute)

  • Focus on the wrong families? | While I hope that the president does nominate judges who respect the Constitution, instead of remaking it in their image - and that the Senate confirms them - I worry about the priorities of those values voters who regard themselves as Christian conservatives (Cal Thomas)

  • The lowest ignorance takes charge | Having helped Bush to office, the religious right is exerting its power (Sidney Blumenthal, The Guardian, London)

  • Team Bush's 'November surprise' | Karl Rove's army of evangelical Christian 'values voters' put President Bush over the top (Bill Berkowitz, WorkingForChange)

  • Subordinating nation's secular values to zealots' will | Now that their theology has become an engine of public policy and national purpose, it's fair to return to the basics of Enlightenment strategies, to tackle theology head-on, to ridicule its political presumptions and condemn its public grabs, where necessary, and to demolish its doctrinaire assumptions when appropriate (Pierre Tristam, Daytona Beach News-Journal, Fla.)

  • Religious conservatives lose ally in Ashcroft | Attorney General John Ashcroft has been the most visible Evangelical in the President's cabinet and for the most part, conservatives say he has ardently followed a conservative social agenda (Morning Edition, NPR)

Falwell's new political organization:

  • Falwell to form 'Faith' coalition | Mathew Staver, president of the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, will be the vice chairman. The Rev. Jonathan Falwell, Mr. Falwell's second-oldest son, will be executive director. Tim LaHaye — co-author of the best-selling apocalyptic "Left Behind" fiction series — will be the board chairman (The Washington Times)

  • Group targets 'values' voters | The Rev. Jerry Falwell and other evangelical Christian leaders hope to capitalize on the steady "moral values" drumbeat still echoing from the election to push a three-pronged social agenda aimed at judges, gays and future state and national elections (The Orlando Sentinel)

Oregon's assisted suicide law:

Article continues below


  • 'Dumped fetus' protests in Kenya | The various groups involved in the debate over abortion in Kenya collided on Wednesday outside a Nairobi court (BBC)

  • We kill babies | The abortion debate provokes mixed feelings, but leaving late-term babies to die in dishes or bins is wrong. Silence is no longer an option (Andrew Bolt, Herald Sun, Melbourne, Australia)

  • Abbott to mums: adopt out, not abort | Tony Abbott has called for an end to the stigma attached to women who give a child up for adoption as he urged society to consider it as an alternative to abortion (The Australian)

  • Executing abortionists? | Dana Milbank's crazy talk (The Volokh Conspiracy)

War & terrorism:


Article continues below

Abuse & crime:

  • N.H. says it can't prosecute Mass. bishop | New Hampshire authorities said Wednesday they cannot prosecute former Springfield Bishop Thomas Dupre on charges he abused two teens in the 1970s because it wasn't a crime at the time to have sex with youths their age (Associated Press)

  • Parishes advised to help fund sex abuse settlements | Catholic parishes in southern Arizona have been advised by bankruptcy attorneys to put money now into a settlement fund, whether or not their clergy have been accused of sexual abuse (Tucson Citizen, Az.)

  • No charges against priest who admitted stealing church funds | A Catholic priest who admittedly stole $226,000 from an Edwardsville church to support a gambling habit is off the hook, at least as far as criminal charges are concerned (The Telegraph, Alton, Ill.)

Spokane diocese to file for bankruptcy:

Closing Catholic parishes:

  • Parishes to get more time before closings | Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, after weeks of wrestling with how to respond to Catholics upset by his effort to shut scores of churches, plans to offer a temporary reprieve today to the parishes slated to close in coming weeks (The Boston Globe)

  • Church asks O'Malley: Why us? | St. Thomas works to avoid closing (The Boston Globe)

Church life:

  • Brothers make a crew into a congregation | Two warring crew leaders stood before the Fort Washington congregation of thousands, hugged, bawled and signed a truce (The Washington Post)

  • Church aide was censured for law work | Court papers show Robert G. Whiteman, whose job it is to enforce a professional code of conduct for the New York Archdiocese, was once publicly censured for improper handling of money (The New York Times)

  • Immigrants find what they could not in China: Faith | Yang Meng grew up in communist China with no concept of God, though she vaguely remembers hearing a story about a "wonderful man" named Jesus (The Union Leader, Manchester, N.H.)

  • Heavenly bodies give churchgoers a shock | The young men of a Church of England cathedral choir have dismayed traditionalists by stripping off their shirts for a charity calendar (The Telegraph, London)

Article continues below
  • NH: Ripe for conversion | Modern-day evangelist Curt W. Nordhielm uses census data and the Bible to bring Christ's teachings to New Hampshire, considered part of a vast unchurched wasteland ripe for conversion (The Union Leader, Manchester, N.H.)


  • Reaching out, church hires Muslim | St. John's Episcopal Cathedral appointed Ibrahim Kazerooni, a Shiite cleric, to direct the church's fledgling Abrahamic Initiative, a bridge-building effort among Christians, Jews and Muslims (The Denver Post)

  • 3 faiths build bridges | Christians, Jews, Muslims unite for an annual Thanksgiving dinner (The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Ky.)


  • Pa. school district mandates "intelligent design" in curriculum | Last month, the Dover Area School District became the only one in the nation to specifically mandate the teaching of "intelligent design," which holds that the universe is so complex that it must have been created by an unspecified higher power (Associated Press)

  • Evolution on trial | Ignorance of science hazardous to next generation (Editorial, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.)

  • University looks beyond white | SPU today opens national conference of multicultural Christian students (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

  • Baptist school issue rejected | Measure stopped short of asking parents to pull children out of public schools (Associated Press)

  • Seminary president to retire in January 2006 | Carnegie Samuel Calian, arguably among the most successful seminary presidents in the nation, will retire in January 2006 after 25 years at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Sex & marriage:

  • Sex-ed critics intend to fight | Pastors and parents of Montgomery County said yesterday they are uniting in opposition to a new sex-education program in high schools that they think promotes homosexuality (The Washington Times)

  • Sex education, Texas-style | Here it is, just days after the red states gave their presidential seal of approval to the man from Texas, and we've already been treated to another skirmish in the culture wars. The Texas Board of Education has given its educational seal of approval to what may soon be dubbed Red Sex Ed (Ellen Goodman, The Boston Globe)

  • Conservative groups denounce 'Kinsey' film | Indignant conservative groups are protesting this week's opening of the film "Kinsey," denouncing it as propaganda seeking to glorify the researcher they blame for inspiring the sexual revolution (Associated Press)

Article continues below
  • Marriages of convenience | What a military fraud case tells us about the future of marriage (Jennifer Roback Morse, National Review Online)

Television and film:

  • KOCE sale officially over | But Daystar still appealing case (The Independent, Huntington Beach, Ca.)

  • Brandon Davidson a believer | Amazing Race contestant Brandon Davidson has faith in the way he's portrayed (Herald Sun, Melbourne, Australia)

  • A test of faith | A priest is granted a nine-day furlough from the Nazi camp Dachau, but is forced to make a terrible choice. The film "The Ninth Day" explores tensions between the Church and the Nazis, betrayal and the will to survive (Deutsche Welle, Germany)


More articles of interest:

  • Mass. legislators back work on embryonic stem cells | House and Senate leaders respond to Calif. initiative (The Boston Globe)

  • A salute to First AME's Rev. John Hunter | The Rev. John Hunter of Seattle's First African Methodist Episcopal Church to Los Angeles, where he will head one of the country's most influential black churches (Editorial, The Seattle Times)

  • Banking on their faith | A growing bank near Elk River is part of a movement that melds conservative Christianity into the workplace (Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.)

  • Little town | Bethlehem (Pa.) residents follow their own Christmas star (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

  • Religion news in brief | Women bishops in the Church of England, Episcopal Church's Pittsburgh Diocese votes leeway to disregard national church, United Methodists cite racism in Colorado seminary president's retirement, and most U.S. Protestant ministers believe salvation comes only through Jesus (Associated Press)

Related Elsewhere:

Suggest links and stories by sending e-mail to

What is Weblog?

Check out Books & Culture's weekly weblog, Content & Context.

See our past Weblog updates:

November 10
November 5 | 3b | 3a | 2 | 1
October 29 | 28 | 27 | 26 | 25
October 22 | 21b | 21a | 18b | 18a
October 15 | 13 | 12 | 11
October 8 | 7 | 6 | 5 | 4
October 1 | September 30 | 29 | 28 | 27

Launched in 1999, Christianity Today’s Weblog was not just one of the first religion-oriented weblogs, but one of the first published by a media organization. (Hence its rather bland title.) Mostly compiled by then-online editor Ted Olsen, Weblog rounded up religion news and opinion pieces from publications around the world. As Christianity Today’s website grew, it launched other blogs. Olsen took on management responsibilities, and the Weblog feature as such was mothballed. But CT’s efforts to round up important news and opinion from around the web continues, especially on our Gleanings feature.
Ted Olsen
Ted Olsen is Christianity Today's executive editor. He wrote the magazine's Weblog—a collection of news and opinion articles from mainstream news sources around the world—from 1999 to 2006. In 2004, the magazine launched Weblog in Print, which looks for unexpected connections and trends in articles appearing in the mainstream press. The column was later renamed "Tidings" and ran until 2007.
Previous Weblog Columns: