Honored dead, religious liberty and the death penalty: The week in review

Some weeks there’s just too much going on to pick one topic.

With North Korea returning Americans’ remains, the federal government launching a “religious liberty” task force and the Pope denouncing the death penalty, it has been such a week.

A return long overdue

Last Friday, North Korea returned 55 sets of human remains believed to be of American service men.

It wasn’t the first such exchange. Between the 1990s and 2005 North Korea returned the remains of more than 400 Americans and accounted for about 330 more, according to the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).

The exchanges stopped in 2005 due to deteriorating security conditions along the DMZ.

Last week’s resumption of repatriating remains is, without dispute, the fruit of President Trump’s June summit with Kim Jong-un. The president deserves credit, and thanks, for making that happen.

Reclaiming our fallen service members should not be a partisan issue, nor should be the rightful praise when a president can accomplish it.

But, the real praise belongs to our service members and their families. More than 82,000 families still await the return of their loved ones’ bodies, from World War II to present.

Most, especially those whose sons were lost at sea, never will know the closure of proper burial.

For most of those honored dead, their only epitaph is etched on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

Cloaking discrimination in religion

I am all for religious liberty. I wholeheartedly support the Framers’ intent that each of us be free to determine our own faith. I do not want the federal government dictating the terms of my relationship with God.

If the intent of Jeff Sessions’ new religious liberty task force were to protect individual liberty to choose and practice religion, I would support it. But, the AG’s own words reveal a different intent.

Sessions spoke Monday of a “dangerous movement” of secularism and a “changing cultural climate” that must be “confronted and defeated.” His words stir fear among evangelical Christians, as if the Body of Christ needs Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to stand between the faithful and those scary sinners out there (i.e., the people Jesus Christ preached to and led in his ministry).

Add in this administration’s ardent animus toward Muslims and members of the LGBTQ community and it becomes clear this task force exists solely to justify discrimination under the guise of religious liberty.

The notion that government should define culture is anathema to our Constitution. The notion that we need Caesar to protect Christ from the masses is anathema to the Gospel.

Those who favor this task force should remember any power given to the federal government is not easily revoked, and often proves a double-edged sword. What you favor today will remain in force under a future administration less amicable to your beliefs, and will prove injurious to liberty for us all.

Death of the death penalty?

On Thursday Pope Francis declared the death penalty “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” impermissible in all cases.

The declaration removes a longstanding contradiction in the church’s teachings on capital punishment and abortion, removing the need for awkward theological wrangling to justify taking life in the former while holding human life as an inviolate reflection of God in the latter.

And, whether we value life on religious or secular grounds, we cannot escape the fact that capital punishment results in innocent people being murdered by the state.

According to the Washington D.C.-based non-profit Death Penalty Information Center, more than 1,400 people were executed in the U.S. between reinstitution of the death penalty in 1976 and the end of 2015.

Between 1973 and 2015, 156 death row inmates were exonerated — meaning roughly one person was found innocent and released for every 10 executed during that time frame.

Conservative politicians and judges have long willfully ignored the ethical conundrum of executing innocent people, aided by Christian theological twisting that made capital punishment permissible as a matter of faith.

Their choices now are far more complicated, as Christianity’s largest denomination has categorically denounced the death penalty. The situation is particularly difficult for conservative Catholic politicians and judges who have supported the death penalty — long a prerequisite of their conservative pedigrees.

Among these soon-to-be conflicted Catholics are the core of the Supreme Court, including President Trump’s nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor.

It’s unlikely those justices will yield to their Catechism over the Constitution. But, the Pope’s influence with 70 million American Catholics — and more importantly, with their children yet to take Catechism class — could yet spell the death of the death penalty in America.

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