Richard Viguerie was driving last Tuesday morning to Washington, D.C., where the 80-year-old founder of ConservativeHQ.com would be meeting with about 100 like-minded leaders as part of a summit on the right’s approach to criminal justice policy. Newt Gingrich would be in attendance, along with Texas Senator John Cornyn and former attorney general Ed Meese. Given the influential guest list, you might have expected Viguerie to use the occasion to try and spread the word about one of his most deeply held ideas about criminal justice reform.
But Viguerie, who was closely involved in the recruitment of evangelicals into the Republican Party during the late 1970s and ’80s, was planning to do no such thing. Though many of the attendees were friends he’d made over the course of his long career in conservative politics, he knew most of them would not be receptive to what he had to say. The fact of the matter, Viguerie said, is that most conservatives just aren’t ready to accept his belief that the United States should abolish the death penalty.
This is not a typical position for a devoted conservative to hold. But Viguerie feels strongly about it, having arrived at it more than 35 years ago by way of his Catholic faith. Since then he has come to see the issue in broader terms, and now believes that capital punishment constitutes a violation of conservatism’s most basic principles.
Viguerie is part of a small but expanding group of conservatives publicly arguing that true conservatism points away from, not toward, the death penalty. One former NRA employee helps lead an organization called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, and has been giving speeches promoting abolition at right-wing gatherings around the country. A Republican state representative in Kentucky has introduced a bill to get rid of capital punishment in the state. Conservative commentator S. E. Cupp recently devoted her column in the New York Daily News to the idea that “conservatives...should lead the charge to abolish” the death penalty.
The argument they put forward is, overall, extraordinarily straightforward: People who share a deep worry about government overreach, who believe in the sanctity of life, and who place great importance on fiscal responsibility should not support a policy that empowers the state to spend large sums of money killing people.
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