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Hickey’s Switch on Death Penalty: Highlights for Non-Christians

Last updated on 2013.06.27

A pox on Steve Hickey for getting me to listen to a 48-minute sermon. But when a conservative Republican pastor-legislator (hyphenate with caution!) reverses his position on capital punishment and declares his intent to float a bill in the 2014 Legislature to repeal South Dakota's death penalty, I have to listen.

Pastor Hickey told his congregation last Sunday that he can no longer support killing convicts. His argument primarily targets conservative Christians (human fallibility, substitutionary atonement, even a little icky Islamophobia), but here are the points he makes that atheists can grok as well:

Bad Company: Pastor Hickey showed his flock a chart of executions by country. The United States ranks fifth for killing criminals, behind China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen. "We are the only developed predominantly Christian democracy in the world that still retains the death penalty," says Hickey. "Two thirds of the countries of the world have abolished it."

Deterrence and Monsters: Hickey says the death penalty has no proven deterrent effect. He thinks it would if we made it "swift, painful, ugly, and public." But then we'd be monsters... or at least violators of the the Eighth Amendment.

Old Testament and Cultural Context: Hickey says the Old Testament authorized the death penalty for all sorts of crimes (kidnapping, adultery, homosexuality, juvenile delinquency, false prophecy...). But those rules were for refugees wandering in the wilderness with no criminal justice system, no police, no prisons. They had to have swift and awful punishment to keep order. Hickey says death penalty rules from 3000+ years ago don't work in a modern, civilized society.

Close Down Closure Talk: I caught all sorts of heck last summer when I suggested that Tina Curl would not get a healthy emotional return on her investment of time and other people's money to watch the execution of her daughter's killer. Rev. Hickey now agrees that the "closure" of watching a killer die is illusory: many victims' families, he says, witness executions, only to find that they don't feel better when it's over.

Those are the main takeaways for my fellow non-believers. If you'd like the full treatment, you too can listen online to Pastor Hickey's June 23 sermon, "If God Relents, Why Can't We?" If you're more sensible than I and just can't stand a 48-minute sermon, I'll have a summary of Hickey's Christian case against the death penalty on South Dakota Magazine later today. (Update: here's my full SDMag article on Hickey's switch.)

Update 04:35 MDT: We the people of the State of South Dakota will kill South Dakota prison guard Ron Johnson's other murderer sometime between January 12 and 18, 2014, the same week that the 2014 Legislature convenes.


  1. Rorschach 2013.06.26

    I'm a churchgoer, but I couldn't take 48 minute sermons.

  2. Veldy 2013.06.26

    Yet if your favorite team has a game go into overtime......

  3. Steve Hickey 2013.06.26

    I bet you can easily sit through a movie or a policy presentation on Medicaid, Ed Funding or a variety of others things that go far longer. It always gets me that people seem to only have enough spiritual hunger to take in short sermonettes. No wonder people are Biblically illiterate, they can't sit still long enough to be taught. We welcomed 28 new members last Sunday on the day I gave that message. There are many today who are tired of fluffy inspirational soundbites and they don't watch their watches. It's a spiritual maturity issue. I gave this message knowing it would be heard by churchgoers as yourself around the state. If there ever was an issue we need more than a morsel, this is it.

  4. Rorschach 2013.06.26

    I'm not criticizing the thoughtfulness involved with your change of heart, Reverend Hickey. But a 48 minute sermon is not for me. Many would agree with that sentiment, but it doesn't matter if anyone agrees or not. Church preferences are strictly personal. Unlike a sports game requiring a certain minimum amount of time to complete, most messages can be conveyed in less than 48 minutes. Of course that may vary depending on the message. But the more filler added, the more one loses the audience. Maybe you have noticed that with house floor speeches much shorter than 48 minutes.

    I also don't go to church to be instructed on political issues, whether the politics be capital punishment, abortion, or anything else. Your congregation arrives knowing you are a politician, and that's just fine.

  5. Barry Smith 2013.06.26

    I applaud Rep. Hickey for his change of heart. Hopefully someday the death penalty will be in the dustbin of history where it belongs.
    The above conversation reminds me of the old adage-- A long winded preacher will wear out his listeners long before he wears out the subject. :-)

  6. Anne 2013.06.26

    Like many, I have long been disturbed about the fact that the death penalty seems to serve a need for some kind of vengeance that has little to do with any concept of justice. And I have also wondered about whether a nation that thinks with bumper stickers can survive. College professors say that the day of the 50-minute lecture died long ago, and a debate of the kind that Lincoln and Douglas conducted is not even conceivable. We do not live in an age of intellect.

  7. Barry Smith 2013.06.26

    Owen- I would rather listen to my neighbors dog bark than read about what Bob Ellis thinks.

  8. Troy Jones 2013.06.26

    Anne is right. If we can't examine issues (especially issues of life and death) with an attitude of study (which is more than a tweet), we are not intellectually analyzing the issue or giving its due.

    48 minutes seems to me to be just an introduction and not a comprehensive study. 144 characters in a tweet is not even a real sentence.

  9. Owen Reitzel 2013.06.26

    "Owen- I would rather listen to my neighbors dog bark than read about what Bob Ellis thinks."

    I normally agree but everybody should see the right at its best


  10. Rorschach 2013.06.26

    With the executions that have been carried out in SD recently, I can't help but wonder how much time Rev. Hickey's congregation spent listening to him sermonize about capital punishment being endorsed by the bible? Now they spend time listening to him say, "forget what I told you before. The bible was written at an earlier time, and some of the words in it are not applicable to the times today." Could that same argument also apply to the United States Constitution?

  11. DB 2013.06.26

    "We do not live in an age of intellect."

    Of course not, we always cater to the lowest common denominator. We reward failure and punish success. Listening to Bob is about as bad as watching lefties at their best taking dumps on the street to spite "wallstreet".

  12. Barry Smith 2013.06.26

    Owen - Even folks on the right would be upset with a characterization of Bob Ellis's bilge as the "best" . I stay away from his website for the same reason that I don't pay good money to see the freak shows at the fair. :-)

  13. Steve Hickey 2013.06.26

    Hard to respond to you because you obviously haven't heard the case I made. In the comments over at Ellis' blog I tried to sum it up.

  14. Bill Dithmer 2013.06.26

    Big Wheel Bobby Ellis writes."When I was coming out of a lifestyle of sin and Godlessness, I changed my mind to accept that sexual immorality was wrong, that abortion was indeed murder, and abandoned a number of other lies."

    There is absolutely nothing worse then a "born again bigot.!

    Yes I'm still alive and kicking. Any rumors of my passing were false. Any prayers that I was dead have gone unanswered, and I'm still the same SOB that I always was.

    I now know that what I told Cory was not true. I'm not in the premortuary part of life "yet." The doctors aren't ready to stop charging me money, and the funeral home hasn't sent my calendar.

    Folks the reason the the Rev. Hickey has changed his mind on this subject was to strengthen his position on abortion. The other way didn't even make sense to him. Now he can point to his sermon and say "see now I'm the moral one here."It is more about buying votes from the conservative right, it's not about integrity.

    For what its worth. I still believe in the death penalty for some crimes. But there has never been a time when someone that watches another person die has come away from it with a positive outlook on life. It has never brought another person back to life, and it wont make the person being put to death feel any worse. It's fun to talk about on the radio TV and the net, but other then that it serves no purpose.

    The night club called "The Heart Doctors" is a fun place. All kinds of entertainment but no drinks.

    The Blindman

  15. Steve Hickey 2013.06.26

    Bill - You're lucky. I'm holed up for a bit here in a hotel in Detroit and can reply quickly. You don't seriously think this is some move on my part to gain Conservative votes? That's nutty. I probably cost myself some, if anything. Regarding abortion - the issues have always been related but there too... a person can still make the case that you can be pro-life and pro-death penalty because the one involves shedding judicially innocent blood and their other judicially guilty shed blood. The position that is incongruous is the position that abortion is ok and while the death penalty is wrong. People who afford the judicially guilty mercy but the judicially innocent no mercy, no due process, no anesthesia, etc... perhaps those people will have a change of mind. It's their turn.

  16. Bill Dithmer 2013.06.26

    " Bill - You're lucky. I'm holed up for a bit here in a hotel in Detroit and can reply quickly. You don't seriously think this is some move on my part to gain Conservative votes? "

    Luck has nothing to do with what I said. Sense I don't believe in any god, sorry folks the proof isn't in the pudding , or in the sky or in a book of fables like the Koran, or the Bible, it's just the truth and nothing more. Life is life and death is death.

    Any implication that a women's body is not her own is just hogwash and nothing more. As long as that clump of tissue inside her is a part of her it isn't anyone else's business what she wants to do with it.

    No amount of money will change that. No amount of legislation will change that. God if there is one has spoken. R. V. W. is the law. Unless you are like Bree. She is a strict constitutionalist that only believes in the constitution if it swings her way. Funny how that goes isn't it?

    Strict constitutionalist my butt.

    The Blindman

  17. Ron Giedd 2013.06.26

    I sat in my normal seat at the Gate, to listen to the message Pastor Hickey shared with us last Sunday and it seamed like about 15 minutes to me. Pastor Hickey is a brave person due to the fact that he shares controversial messages even though he knows he will be challenged by some. Rorschach, I wonder if and when you reach the pearly gates, God says, "Rorschach you can only stay here 20 minutes, that is all the time I have for you!"

  18. Rorschach 2013.06.26

    Don't confuse Reverend Hickey with God, Ron Giedd. How much time did Reverend Hickey tell you one thing about the death penalty before he told you the other? If he was wrong about this, what else is he wrong about?

    If there is a God, I doubt if her criteria for allowing a person to pass and remain within the pearly gates is "how long a sermon he/she wanted to hear." Do you really believe God is that petty?

  19. Barry Smith 2013.06.26

    So let me see if I have this right--- because Rorschach doesn't care for long sermons he:
    1. May have a spiritual maturity issue
    2: May be Biblically illiterate
    3: May enjoy presentations on Medicaid.
    4: And God may only give him 20 minutes of his time.

    Seems to me to be an awful lot of negative assumptions from the simple post of "I'm a churchgoer, but I couldn't take 48 minute sermons."

    Your a heathen Rorschach, get your butt in the pew and keep it there!

  20. Bill Dithmer 2013.06.26

    Fundamentalist faith, and it doesn't matter what that faith is, like inebriation, promotes a self sense of enlightenment. The needle, the bong, or the bottle, have nothing over those that choose to believe without question. If there is a God, I highly doubt if she would like anyone that follows blindly.

    But then you caught me on a bad day, so what the hell do I know?

    Come on down to the CHURCH OF BILL where you don't have to fit a mold, you just have to bring money.

    The Blindman

  21. Steve Sibson 2013.06.26

    "Fundamentalist faith, and it doesn't matter what that faith is, like inebriation, promotes a self sense of enlightenment."

    Bill, it is clear your faith is in yourself. How can that get any more fundamental and any more of a "self sense of enlightenment"?

  22. Rorschach 2013.06.26

    I think Reverend Hickey is also wrong on gay marriage. His congregation will probably listen to another 5-10 years of his opposition to gay marriage before they get the 48 minute sermon on his change of heart on that issue.

    Once again, I'm not condemning his thoughtfulness on his death penalty change of heart. I'm just suggesting another issue for him to be thoughtful about, and hoping that the spirit will move him sooner rather than later.

  23. Bree S. 2013.06.26

    "I'm a churchgoer, but I couldn't take 48 minute sermons."

    "If there is a God, I doubt if her criteria for allowing a person to pass and remain within the pearly gates is 'how long a sermon he/she wanted to hear.' Do you really believe God is that petty?"

    Rorschach, do you attend Christian Church, and if you do what denomination is it?

  24. Bree S. 2013.06.26

    Still waiting for the Agnostic Church of Goddess to pop up in South Dakota, so I assume that isn't the one you attend.

  25. Rorschach 2013.06.26

    I'm the guy you see in the back pew in your church from time to time Bree. You never greet me.

  26. Bill Dithmer 2013.06.26

    Steve I never claimed a " "self sense of enlightenment" for myself. Those are your words not mine. After all if I get drunk, or stoned, I don't have anyone else to blame but me.

    "Bill, it is clear your faith is in yourself."

    Yup, without that kind of faith, and resonsibility to ones self what the hell are you left with? Oh that's right then we go right back to someones God. Looks like an easy out to me.

    Now for those of fundamentalist faith to say "well it was Gods will, somehow doesn't cut it in my book. You take responsibility for your own actions. You cant pray it away, You cant pay it away. And you cant legislate it away.

    I'm a realist, I will take the blame, or the credit, for what I have done. Now if you want to follow a God, be it man, woman, or the goat down the street, that's your business. Just don't expect me to kneel at your alter cause it aint going to happen.

    The Blindman

  27. Bree S. 2013.06.26

    I don't currently attend church Rorschach. I have never believed that my Father kept office hours and have never needed the intercession of a man other than the Son of Man. And the fact that the churches are filled with hypocrites who don't believe in God and only attend for looks and the approval of men doesn't increase the likelihood of my engaging in such social occasions.

    Churches these days spend too much time building buildings and not enough time building faith in God.

  28. Rorschach 2013.06.26

    I don't need to defend my faith to you Bree, but I will say that I do sometimes entertain the possibility that I am wrong, much like Reverend Hickey seems to be doing in this instance. It's the sign of a thinking person to question things.

    Do you ever entertain the possibility that you are wrong about anything Bree, or are you entirely comfortable with your self-righteousness?

  29. Bree S. 2013.06.26

    Defend what faith to me Rorschach? Are you pretending you believe in God now?

    You clearly have never known that leap of faith that can only be experienced and not logically explained to those who don't know God exists. My mind is not capable of entertaining agnostic thought, I can't even make myself type what you typed, because I know the truth of God's existence and my mind is built within the framework of that universe reality. It is not possible that I am wrong as regards the knowledge of my Father because such deluded thought would make me unreal.

  30. Bree S. 2013.06.26

    Did I bring up any books in the discussion of the existence of God?

    A Father has three children and loves all of them dearly. These young children each decide to draw a picture of their Father. "Look, Father, here I am holding your hand" says the first child. "See, Father, I have drawn you with a smile" says the second child. "Here, Father, I have drawn you in your favorite shirt in front of our house" says the third child. This loving Father can recognize Himself in the pictures they have drawn and understand through the eyes of His children how they have drawn them. He is proud of their attempts to know his image, and does not chide them for their inability to perfectly represent His image. Like any proud Parent he puts each of these pictures on the family fridge to display, loving each child equally and seeing Himself in each of their images of Him.

  31. Bree S. 2013.06.26

    What dirt worshipers? You mean Larry and the Mother Earth thing? I'm not really interested in trashing the relative values of certain philosophies over others. There is truth in any religions that teach basic morality. Larry wants to think of God as a Mother rather than a Father. A maternal aspect of Diety isn't entirely absent from major monotheistic religions as Catholics essentially worship Mary and some Christians consider the Holy Spirit to be feminine. I of course think of the Eternal God and First Source of reality as a Father.

    There are mad people in all religions who would excuse their murder of God's children as God's will. I certainly don't support crazed Islamic terrorists. That doesn't mean the entire religion of Islam has no spiritual value.

    The only "religion" I hate is the cult that murders children.

  32. Bree S. 2013.06.26

    Anyone who pointlessly hates someone else's image of Our Father only handicaps their own spiritual growth. You don't have to agree entirely with someone else's view of God in order to see relative spiritual value within it.

    When you do plan on snapping out of your dark delusion Grudz? Or shall you nurse your hate forever?

  33. Bree S. 2013.06.26

    It's never too late to live, Grudz. Keep that in mind.

  34. Rorschach 2013.06.26

    Blah, blah, blah. Bree S. types to see her ramblings on the net. 8 comments here and nothing about either capital punishment or even Reverend Hickey.

  35. Jana 2013.06.26

    Wait a minute! Ellis, in his zeal for Bible based justified death, may have solved our education problem and opened up a whole new area for economic development in funeral homes.

    Heck, our school enrollment could drop by half!

    What does Ellis and Hickey's Bible tell us about disrespectful children?

    Leviticus 20:9 For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.

    Proverbs 30:17 The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures.

    Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (too long...spoiler alert...the elders stone the Newland...not get stoned with the kid)

    Matthew 15:4 ESV For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’

    Mark 7:9-10 ....‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’

    Exodus 21:17 ESV “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death."

    I'm guessing that there are parents out there who have either followed man's law or defied God's law when it comes to disrespectful children.

    Don't worry though, I don't take the Bible literally and all my children are loved, cared for, prayed for and thriving...but shouldn't we be checking on some of the flock? Ellis?

  36. Bree S. 2013.06.26

    I'm not a churchgoer like you Rorschach so I'm sure your opinions are more worthy of space in this thread.

  37. Bree S. 2013.06.26

    And if I want to talk to myself I should be allowed to.. lol.

  38. Douglas Wiken 2013.06.27

    Bree, be careful listening to yourself.

  39. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.06.27

    Saying that Bree says a lot does not refute what Bree says.

  40. kurtz 2013.07.01

    As Hickey comes out of the closet to oppose capital punishment curious about his position on force-feeding detainees in occupied Guantanamo.

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