Excerpted with permission from The New RepublicLike his father, George W. Bush sounds hesitant when he is actually most convinced. His father, who had charm, made this hesitancy sound like the battered modesty of the powerfully born; his son makes it sound like the perfected arrogance of the born impotent. William Gass jokes in a recent novel that if America ever had a dictator, it would nickname him Coach. But how much more American, really, it would be to elect a president who acts like a coach. George W., whose chief expertise before becoming governor was hanging around a baseball team he partly owned, is just the man. In one area, however, Bush is extremely convinced, not at all hesitant, and more dictator than coach: in his life-and-death command of the inmates on Texas's death row. One of the vilest things Bush likes to say is that, in opposing abortion, he has been a "pro-life governor." This is really an affront to language and morality. This pro-life governor has executed 113 people in his five-year tenure, more than a sixth of all the Americans executed since 1976. In one week in 1997, the pro-life governor had four prisoners put to death; in January of this year, he polished off another seven. The question here is not the rights and wrongs of the death penalty. The question is whether Bush has the right, figuratively speaking, to his title of pro-life. And whether these actions, by a man who claims Jesus Christ as his greatest political influence, can be called Christian. For the truth is that, when the state kills, it is not some murderous abstraction but actual human beings doing the killing. People design the chair or manufacture the chemicals (the designer of the Tennessee electric chair was a Holocaust denier called Fred Leuchter), judges sentence, pro-life governors refuse appeals, and people press the switch. When the event is over, the hangman goes home to his bed. So how are things done in Texas? When defendants cannot afford lawyers, judges appoint their cronies. The quality of this defense is not thought to be very high: In one celebrated case, a court-appointed lawyer fell asleep during his client's trial. But the pro-life governor vetoed a bill that would have created a new public defender's office and spoke against, thus dooming, a bill that would have banned the execution of the mentally retarded. (Twelve states with capital punishment have already adopted this prohibition; Illinois is considering it.) One of Texas's own federal district judges, Sam Sparks, found that "the Texas clemency procedure is extremely poor and certainly minimal." The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles decides each case. The pro-life governor's first general counsel, Al Gonzales, reckons that some cases before the board took 15 minutes to decide, and most took about half an hour, a process doubtless speeded up by the fact that the board does not actually meet but--as with the Academy Awards--telephones or faxes in its "votes." "It's difficult to say those kinds of things were routine, but we had become quite efficient," Gonzales cheerily told The New York Times. The pro-life governor has the right to order a stay of 30 days, but he doesn't much like to do this, and he famously refused to in the case of Karla Faye Tucker, a killer who had married a chaplain, committed her life to Christ, and asked to be spared so that she could minister to sinners in prison. The pro-life governor said at the time, "I have concluded judgments about the heart and soul of an individual on death row are best left to a higher authority." So it is permissible to judge simple matters like life and death, but those ticklish matters of heart and soul are best left to God. The pro-life governor wrote that the Tucker case, the fifty-ninth he had handled, "put a face" on the death penalty for him. This was after 58 faceless people had already been dispatched.
Is this remotely Christian? The strongest theme of Jesus's ministry was that we should not piously announce our great devotions, like the Pharisees he saw as hypocritical and rule-sodden, but quietly devote ourselves to repentance--and forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness. Jesus was zealous about this. He is always requesting from us a love and forgiveness that is superhuman, that goes beyond anything ever known before. It is a revolutionary love, and it runs throughout the Gospels. When, in chapter nine of Matthew, the Pharisees asked Jesus why he spent time with sinners, he replied that only those who are ill need a physician. "Go then and learn what this meaneth," Jesus continued, "I will have mercy and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the just [meaning the self-righteous] but sinners." The pro-life governor stepped into hot water when, in the words of Matthew, he suggested that the only route to God the Father is through his son, Jesus Christ. Bush may know the Book of Matthew, then, and know that, in the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, in which he asks his listeners who would not, if he had 100 sheep and one went astray, leave the 99 in safety and seek the stray. Likewise, "there shall be joy in heaven upon one sinner that doth penance, more than upon 99 just who need not penance." Elsewhere, Peter once asked Jesus how often he should forgive his brother if he sinned against him. Seven times? No, said Jesus, "seventy times seven times." All sinners shall be forgiven, Jesus says in Mark 3:28, except he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit. And we shall be judged by our forgiveness, Jesus promised. Those who are taken into paradise will be those who minister to their fellow humans in sickness, poverty, and prison: "Naked, and you covered me, sick and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me" (Matthew 25:18). No theme in the New Testament is more pronounced than the injunction that those who have themselves been forgiven of their sins should forgive others. We hear much about how Bush has been "redeemed." At the very minimum, one can say it was Bush's Christian duty to pardon Karla Faye Tucker. It is true that one of the two robbers crucified along with Jesus said, according to Luke, "We receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man [Christ] hath done no evil." And it is true that personal forgiveness of sins is somewhat different from the due process of the state. But Christ also enjoined believers, "Be ye therefore perfect, as my Father in heaven." And the pro-life governor's hard-heartedness on this issue is far from perfect. Is it possible to read the Gospels and not conclude that the true Christian challenge is not to plume oneself up over the spotless rectitude of one's "position" on abortion but quietly to go and forgive others?
On January 21 of this year Larry Robison was executed in Texas. His crimes were horrific; but he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 21 and never treated, because he lacked medical insurance. The execution was overseen by Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry, the acting executive. The pro-life governor, for whom a stay of execution required perhaps a phone call from a hotel suite, was on the campaign trail.