It is not surprising that capital punishment--which, along with abortion, is one of the most powerful issues at the boundary between religion and politics--came up at the second presidential debate in Winston-Salem, N.C. George W. Bush strongly endorsed the death penalty, and Al Gore, who mildly supports capital punishment, said nothing to disagree with him. All that was expected. But the actual exchange was strange at many levels.

First, the strangeness exhibited by Bush. Gore raised the general topic by suggesting there was something wrong with Texas justice because the murderers of James Byrd--the black man dragged to death behind a pickup truck by three white men--had not been charged with a hate crime. The way in which Bush responded to Gore was odd, at the very least.

Leaning back and half-smiling, Bush said, "Guess what? The three men who murdered James Byrd, guess what's going to happen to them? They're going to be put to death. A jury found them guilty. It's going to be hard to punish them any worse after they get put to death." Bush's demeanor as he spoke these words was unmistakably almost lighthearted.

It was not the first time Bush has exhibited a strange inappropriateness in discussing the ultimate penalty. Once, in a television interview, he made fun of murderer Karla Faye Tucker's plea for clemency, which was based on her lengthy record of religious conversion. "She says, 'Please don't kill me,'" Bush mimicked, teasing out the phrase please don't kill me in a silly, mocking voice.

Considering that Bush describes himself as a practicing Christian and Jesus as his favorite philosopher, many have questioned how he can support the death penalty with such apparent glee.

Whether capital punishment can be justified in Christian theology is a matter of debate: The Catholic Church says no, but some Protestant interpretations say yes. The death penalty clearly was accepted in Old Testament times. According to the Old Testament accounts, God executed many people, including many Hebrews: The Deuteronomic Code, found mainly in Deuteronomy, prescribed death not only for mortal sins but for adultery and juvenile delinquency.

For Christians, the ministry of Christ amends the Old Testament, and on this point Jesus' principal teaching was his restatement of the Commandments. Some translators render what Jesus said as, "You shall not kill," which would forbid capital punishment. Rendering the phrase as "you shall not kill," together with Jesus' admonition to the disciples in the garden to put down their swords, are the main grounds on which Catholics reject capital punishment. But many translators render what Jesus said as, "You shall not murder." Murder is illegal or sinful killing, or the taking of life for some reason other than self-defense or to prevent a greater evil. (Even Catholic theory allows for killing that represents the lesser of two evils, such as in a just war.) Thus, execution, to some Christians, is not murder and can be endorsed. Theological debate is unsettled on this point.

But even if what Jesus said was "You shall not murder," Bush's attitude regarding capital punishment is still puzzling. On the campaign circuit, he often speaks of how he wishes to see "a culture of life" in which abortion and assisted suicide are banned and all life is respected. In last night's debate, Bush said the root cause of the Columbine tragedy was not guns but "a culture that somewhere along the line we've begun to disrespect life," leaving even children willing to kill. But if "disrespect" for life is one of the plagues of our age, why does Bush both authorize so many executions and speak of them so lightly? Those executed under Bush, like Tucker, are criminals who have done horrible things; they must be punished, and society must be protected from them. But to boast and even make small jokes about playing God with their lives is disturbing behavior on Bush's part. A conscientious Christian may be able to favor capital punishment; but not to make light of it.

Gore, who also describes himself as a practicing Christians--"faith is everything in Al Gore's life," his running mate Joe Lieberman recently said--also came off strangely on the theme of crime and punishment. Gore favors capital punishment, though he says he only has an opinion on federal use of the death penalty for federal crimes (terrorism or the killing of a law enforcement officer), while individual states should decide whether to impose capital punishment for murder, which is usually a state offense.

But in the debate, rather than make that point, Gore returned three times to his contention that it was somehow offensive that James Byrd's killers had been sentenced under a state murder statute rather than a state hate-crimes statute. He seemed more interested in this constituent-politics point--the exact wording of state statutes--than in the larger issue of capital punishment, about which he said nothing.

Gore also describes himself as a devout Christian, yet, toward the end of the debate, he invoked the Sermon on the Mount to justify pollution control but said nothing about the Sermon's many teachings that bear directly on whether anyone, even an awful person, should be executed--for example, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy...do not judge, so that you may not be judged, for with the judgment you make you will be judged...love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

Watching the Winston-Salem debate made it hard not to think that both Bush and Gore want to depict themselves as religious without facing the religious questions posed by the death sentence. Perhaps a Christian can support capital punishment, but he ought to give his reasons in plain words; and he ought to find it inconceivable to smile when doing so.

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