Archive for the ‘conferences’ Category

Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee was the first speaker at the Spring Dialogue for the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. You can see his, and all of the other speakers’, talks here.

Tabbernee discussed the death penalty and its role in separation of church and state.

I should say from the outset I have a fairly lawyerly approach to separation and Establishment Clause questions, so I wasn’t overly inclined to be convinced that we should consider the death penalty an issue relevant to this topic. I don’t see an obvious application of the Lemon Test to the death penalty.

That said, Rev. Tabbernee makes an interesting case. He points out that all of the secular utilitarian justifications for the death penalty just aren’t supported by the data. He outlines three historical justifications: deterrence, closure for families and safety to society.

I don’t consider the second a compelling reason at all. Whether families get more closure from the death of a criminal isn’t a major concern to me, but deterrence and safety are both good justifications for a law…if they are true.

Tabbernee doesn’t go into a lot of detail on deterrence and safety, but it seems obvious to me that the astronomically small number of criminals who get the death penalty compared to the overall number of crimes, makes the deterrence argument pretty weak. Amnesty International points out that if you compare states with the death penalty to those without, you so no significant difference in the data. The overwhelming consensus of criminologists is that death penalty, at least as it exists in the United States, has no real deterrence effect above the threat of incarceration.

As for the safety question, I see no difference between the safety effect provided by life in prison without the possibility of parole and the death penalty. Granted, there is always the astronomically low possibility of escape or pardon, but that can’t possibly be enough to justify the negative effects associated with the costs of the death penalty.

Tabbernee misspoke in his talk when he said that California had spent $4 billion on executing 13 people over the last fifteen years. It is actually since 1978. Nevertheless, it is the case that California spends something like $130 million a year to keep the institution alive. A ballot measure that would have ended the death penalty and put all of the current California death row inmates in prison for life failed by 4% last November.

Since nobody in their right mind is advocating for a streamlining process that would make the death penalty cheaper, it seems that the economic argument against it is quite compelling, at least in California. I haven’t looked at the costs in Oklahoma. That might make for a pretty interesting article.

Tabbernee gets into the separation of church and state element of the discussion when he looks at the only justifications really left for the death penalty, and those are basically religious. Particularly, in the United States the death penalty is justified using the Bible. Basically, the chain of logic is that the King, or in our country the state, derives its authority from God. This actually makes a lot of sense Biblically. In the Old Testament, the king is chosen by God and anointed by the prophet. In the New Testament, there are passages that explicitly admonish Christians to submit to governing authorities, because those authorities wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t God’s will (Romans 13:1-7).

Tabbernee argues that the death penalty is a carryover of this concept and is an example of the state acting as God’s judgement on earth. He points to a speech by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia before the Chicago Divinity School to demonstrate as much.

Here is the most relevant passage:

This is not the Old Testament, I emphasize, but St. Paul. One can understand his words as referring only to lawfully constituted authority, or even only to lawfully constituted authority that rules justly. But the core of his message is that government—however you want to limit that concept—derives its moral authority from God. It is the “minister of God” with powers to “revenge,” to “execute wrath,” including even wrath by the sword (which is unmistakably a reference to the death penalty). Paul of course did not believe that the individual possessed any such powers. Only a few lines before this passage, he wrote, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” And in this world the Lord repaid—did justice—through His minister, the state.

Scalia, a devout Catholic, later in the speech articulates why he disagrees with the current church doctrine, which is almost always opposed to the death penalty.

Tabbernee rightly points out that the United States was founded upon a rejection of the divine right of kings, and the separation of church and state outlined in the constitution enshrines that reject in our law and history.

Scalia would probably object that it is only when a nation legitimately represents its people that the divine right of kings applies. He explicitly frames Paul’s passage in Romans as meaning as much. How that squares with Paul’s passage being an admonishment to submit to the rule of a pagan Roman government that routinely oppressed and murdered its own subjects, with no recognition of basic human rights, qualifies as the kind of government that fits this description, I couldn’t say. Why Rome would qualify as a legitimate state under which divine authority was justified, but Christian England which by every measure was more civilized than Rome with respect to its treatment of its subjects would not, seems slightly insane. Then again, I’ve never considered Scalia particularly intelligent or cogent.

Tabbernee’s argument is that it isn’t up to the state to enact vengeance. Leave that up to God. Where that leaves nonbelievers or those who don’t believe that there is a god that punishes, I couldn’t say. Scalia actually articulates a possible secular moral justification for opposition to the death penalty in his speech.

Abolition has taken its firmest hold in post–Christian Europe, and has least support in the church–going United States. I attribute that to the fact that, for the believing Christian, death is no big deal. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a big deal: it is a grave sin, which causes one to lose his soul. But losing this life, in exchange for the next? The Christian attitude is reflected in the words Robert Bolt’s play has Thomas More saying to the headsman: “Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God.” And when Cranmer asks whether he is sure of that, More replies, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to Him.” For the nonbeliever, on the other hand, to deprive a man of his life is to end his existence. What a horrible act!

I don’t find this line of thought particularly compelling. Mind you, it is just as easy for someone who is a nonbeliever to take other stances on the value of human life. The Soviet Union and Mao’s China certainly did. For a less obviously wrong stance, you might look to the work of the atheist moral philosopher Peter Singer, who thinks that some human life is of less value that the lives of some animals. Mind you, Singer is an opponent of the death penalty as it exists.

Tabbernee argues that capital punishment is “unnecessary, morally unjustified…, fallible…, ineffective at its goals… and exorbitantly expensive.”

I asked him to expand on this fallible point in the Q&A, because it is the basis for much of my opposition to the death penalty. Like Singer, I don’t find the death penalty inherently immoral. I’m opposed to it for epistemological reasons. The state is acting on behalf of me. To the extent that the state is likely to make a mistake and execute an innocent person, I’m opposed to it. It is as if I’m executing an innocent person, something I’m willing to take pretty drastic measures to avoid.

There is a lot of reason to think that we’ve executed innocent people. I’m strongly in favor of, for example, legislation that would mandate that any execution must involve DNA evidence. No person should ever be executed based on circumstantial or eye witness evidence. Both are notoriously unreliable.

Even this wouldn’t solve the problem of corrupt testing labs like we had have here in Oklahoma.

Mind you, I’d still oppose capital punishment even if I was convinced that the system got the right person every time. The economic argument is pretty devastating. Oklahoma probably doesn’t pay nearly as much per death row prisoner per year as California, but I’ll bet you a Thunder ticket that it is more than the cost of life without parole.

All of this is to say that, while I agree with Tabbernee in his opposition to capital punishment, I don’t agree with his assessment that it should be framed within the context of separation of church and state. The economic and innocents executed argument is much more compelling to me than the sanctity of life opposition. It isn’t to say I wouldn’t come around to it given enough time, but it seems probable to me that Tabbernee is finding his opposition to the death penalty in his faith as much as proponents find it in theirs.

It is superficially compelling that the only justification left on the table for the death penalty is a religious one, and the courts should remove that justification from the table. I’d agree if I was convinced that most people who support the death penalty are aware enough of the cost and lack of deterrence data. It is probably the case that the public advocates for the death penalty are religious ideologues for the most part, but the average voter probably isn’t tuned in enough on the issue to consider the religious argument the primary reason for favoring legal executions.

This isn’t like creationism, where it is clear to everyone involved that religion is the issue being debated. With creationism, it is the rank and file that appeal to religious justifications, while the ideologues try to frame their arguments in the veneer of science to gain plausibility with the courts. It seems likely to me that it is the other way around with capital punishment. Cranks like Scalia recognize that the only justification left is a religious one, but your average person on the street isn’t likely to cry religious oppression if the death penalty gets ruled unconstitutional.

The Raindrop Turkish House is located on north Classen a few blocks south of the Expressway. This is in the same neighborhood as Lee’s Sandwiches, which I’ve blogged about before. I couldn’t pass up the chance. Dinner finished, my wife, daughter, and I headed for the dialogue.

The Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s annual Spring Dialogue is explicitly billed as a discussion, not a debate. They do have debates, but this wasn’t one of them. In a way, this added an extra element of pressure for me. I can handle playing an adversarial role in a hostile audience, but finding a way to say something unique and interesting to a crowd that already largely agrees with me on policy positions adds an extra element of anxiety. So, I walked in the door with my adrenaline high and nerves on edge.

It doesn’t help that I’d rewritten the outline for my talk three times in the last five days, and still wasn’t happy with it. I also wasn’t sure what to expect from the crowd. If it skewed heavily toward Turkish immigrants, my talk, which focused on the Enlightenment and American history, might require a little more historical context. I wasn’t sure how to cram all of the information I needed to get out into the seven minutes I had available. My stomach was in knots.

The venue was very nice. There was an elevated stage for the speakers to sit at, and miked podium. The audience was situated at circular tables scattered throughout the room, much like you might find at a wedding reception. At the back, the east and south walls were lined with additional chairs, and the west end featured several tables with Turkish dishes, including some of the best baklava I’ve ever eaten. The stuff you get in restaurants around here doesn’t even come close, not that I was dumb enough to eat any before my talk. I was too nervous once I set foot in the door.

I meandered around with my wife and daughter, introducing them to the OK-AU leadership and meeting the other speakers. To my relief, I was neither under- or over-dressed. I’m not a tie and blazer guy, and I’d never be allowed in the Magic Castle. It isn’t that I’m opposed to them or anything, I just don’t own a tie that is less than ten years old, and I’ve outgrown any of the blazers from my college days. I don’t work in an office setting, and the best I can bring myself to get up to is a buttoned shirt and a pair of black slacks. It worked out okay.

Damion, who blogs over at Background Probability, set up a camera to record the whole thing. When the video goes online, I’ll be sure to post it.

A few minutes after seven, we took our seats on the stage. Our moderator, Chas Stewart, welcomed everyone and introduced Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee.

I’ll have a summary and discussion of his speech on the next post.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally a set of photos and comments on my visit to the OPERA Fair. It was brought to my attention that OPERA has a no photography policy. I unknowingly violated this policy. The posts have been removed.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally a set of photos and comments on my visit to the OPERA Fair. It was brought to my attention that OPERA has a no photography policy. I unknowingly violated this policy. The posts have been removed.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally a set of photos and comments on my visit to the OPERA Fair. It was brought to my attention that OPERA has a no photography policy. I unknowingly violated this policy. The posts have been removed.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally a set of photos and comments on my visit to the OPERA Fair. It was brought to my attention that OPERA has a no photography policy. I unknowingly violated this policy. The posts have been removed.

Gun Culture and My Critics

Posted: December 17, 2020 in conferences

Note: This post, and the rest of the Gun Culture series, was written prior to the tragic shootings in Connecticut. As a father, and the husband of a school teacher, my heart goes out to the families affected by this event. Nothing in this series should be read as making light of what has become an all-too-common part of the American experience.

After my first post in this series, the one on race, I got a number of responses from people claiming that I wasn’t giving gun culture a fair shake. This post is to respond to some of those criticisms directly. Many of these criticisms came in private, or at least not entirely public, conversations on places like Facebook. Because of that, I’m going to quote the authors of these criticisms without naming them directly. They are welcome to respond here or in private. I won’t out them either way.

I’m not entirely convinced that a gun show is a reasonable representation of Oklahoma’s “gun culture.”

I couldn’t disagree with this more. It may not be the most balanced representation, but it makes up for it by catering to the broadest possible section of that community. I think of it kind of like Comic-Con. Comic-con covers all aspects of geek culture, the good and the furry underbelly. You may not like how some of the people at Comic-con make the broader geek community look, but that doesn’t mean that they are not legitimate and vocal elements in the geek community.

I think those are more of a symbol of conservatives and not the general gun culture. I am very much pro-gun but not a racist.

Let’s face it. The general gun culture leans conservative. The NRA, which is the accepted defender of gun rights in American culture, is a bipartisan organization in the same way that Planned Parenthood is a bipartisan organization. Neither is explicitly affiliated with either party, but both are clearly aligned with a party on policy and membership.

These next three are all from the same post, but I’ve broken them into parts to respond to each argument.

You could look at in some ways. The Tennessee battle flag is not really a racist symbol any more than the Glasden flag is. The KKK coin could be a collectors item which doesn’t make it racist.

The Tennessee battle flag (Confederate flag for people who aren’t steeped in ‘rebel’ culture) is a symbol or racism. You can deny this all you want, but this picture really says it all.

Not a symbol or racism.

The KKK coin could be a collectors’ item. It also just happened to be placed with the Nazi coins (as opposed to other coins that had also never been put into circulation as actual legal tender), because the vendor seemed to assume that someone interested in one symbol of racism might be interested in another.

The knives are a bit much but again if they are collector items. Even if they are replicas then it could be used in reenactments of the events. I know many people who love playing confederates but don’t have a racist bone in their body.

What the hell kind of event are you going to reenact with a knife with a swastika on it? Gassing Jews?

I have seen black people at the shows and I assume Jews are probably there too. What would concern me more is the attitude of the people and no so much what they were selling.

I think we’ve found a variation on this.

Another poster decided to challenge the Confederate flag’s ties to racism by claiming the Civil War wasn’t about slavery.

Don’t let the Rebel thing autonomously equal racism. I know for a fact there are far more proud southern rebels that don’t hate then there are that do.

Also The history of the civil war has been somewhat hijacked by a single issue. Slavery. That is not what really started it at all. Taxation was the first reason. The south was paying taxes but getting nothing back from the feds. All the money stayed up north. Also crops like cotton were being imported cheaper then what could be done here costing the southern farmers even more money.


H/T to Damion for pointing me to that link.

For your next entry you should go to a predominately black neighborhood in an inner-city that has gang violence. That would provide another perspective to the gun culture.

Yeah, but it wouldn’t be funny or odd. It would just be sad, and not the making fun of redneck racists kind of sad. It would be the poor people who want to escape their surroundings kind of sad. Also, that is not a culture that fetishizes guns. It is one that primarily uses them as tools. It would be the same reason I wouldn’t visit a military base to write about gun culture. Guns aren’t the primary defining thing about that culture.

Those are the main thrust of the criticism I received from others. Now, here is some from myself.

1. I should have covered the zombie angle better. I still can’t believe I didn’t take photos of all of the Zombie Response Team stuff. That is clearly becoming a mainstream element of gun culture in Oklahoma.

2. It is obvious that alternative medicine isn’t a big element in gun culture. I included the two alt med posts because I stumbled across the stories there, but they could have been just as easily found at a mall kiosk or booth at the annual State Fair. That being said, the fact that these people are infiltrating the gun show community speaks to the level of gullibility of some segment of that community. Probably no more so than the broader populace, but it is interesting that these hucksters specifically targeted this niche community. You almost certainly wouldn’t find these people at a comic convention, for example.

3. It is impossible to give something as big as the gun show an entirely fair shake on a website dedicated to pointing out weird stuff. Just because there is a lot of weird stuff in the gun-loving community, doesn’t mean that the gun-loving community is weird. Nevertheless, remember that this website is as much about celebrating the odd, but not all that is odd is worthy of celebration. Boo racism.