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January 29, 2008

"Religion and the Death Penalty: Can't have one without the other?"

I have long admired the thought-provoking writings of Walter Berns on the death penalty, particularly his great Harper's piece from nearly 30 years ago, titled "For capital punishment: The morality of anger" (excerpts here).  Showing that he can still raise fascinating perspectives on capital punishment, Berns now has this new piece in the Weekly Standard with the same title as this post.  Here are just a few excerpts from a piece that deserves to be read in full:

[I]t can be said that the death penalty is more likely to be imposed by a religious people.  The reasons for this are not obvious.  It may be that the religious know what evil is or, at least, that it is, and, unlike the irreligious, are not so ready to believe that evil can be explained, and thereby excused, by a history of child abuse or, say, a "post-traumatic stress disorder" or a "temporal lobe seizure."  Or, again unlike the irreligious, and probably without having read so much as a word of his argument, they may be morally disposed (or better, predisposed) to agree with the philosopher Immanuel Kant — that greatest of the moralists — who said it was a "categorical imperative" that a convicted murderer "must die."  Or perhaps the religious are simply quicker to anger and, while instructed to do otherwise, slower, even unwilling, to forgive. In a word, they are more likely to demand that justice be done. Whatever the reason, there is surely a connection between the death penalty and religious belief.

European politicians and journalists recognize or acknowledge the connection, if only inadvertently, when they simultaneously despise us Americans for supporting the death penalty and ridicule us for going to church.  We might draw a conclusion from the fact that they do neither.  Consider the facts on the ground (so to speak): In this country, 60 convicted murderers were executed in 2005 (and 53 in 2006), almost all of them in southern or southwestern and church-going states — Virginia and Georgia, for example, Texas and Oklahoma — states whose residents are among the most seriously religious Americans.  Whereas in Europe, or "old Europe," no one was executed and, according to one survey, almost no one — and certainly no soi-disant intellectual — goes to church....

As for the death penalty, it is not enough to say that they (or their officials) are opposed to it.  They want it abolished everywhere....  Thus, the European Union adopted a charter confirming everyone's right to life and stating that "no one may be removed, expelled, or extradited to a State where there is a serious risk that he or she would be subjected to the death penalty."  They even organized a World Congress Against the Death Penalty which, in turn, organized the first World Day Against the Death Penalty.  They go so far as to intervene in our business, filing amicus curiae briefs in Supreme Court capital cases.

What explains this obsession with the death penalty?  Hard to say, but probably the fact that abolishing it is one of the few things Europeans can do that make them feel righteous....

Some related posts on religion, politics and the death penalty:

January 29, 2008 at 04:42 PM | Permalink


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Okay... he makes an interesting argument that faith is essential to the death penalty, but I don't see anything in his argument to suggest that the death penalty is essential to faith. He suggests that punishment is essential to legitimizing 'righteous anger,' but how is that a necessary component of faithi? Certainly Mexico seems to have a healthy religious community without Capital punishment. Perhaps they simply look elsewhere for their righteous anger.

Posted by: jg | Jan 29, 2008 5:47:23 PM

Similarly, Brazil and much of South America seem to do fine in having robust communities of faith without the death penalty, as do Spain, the Philippines, and Turkey.

Another strong counterexample is Japan, which has a popular death penalty, despite being generally characterized as a highly secularized society. China was similarly an atheist state until recently.

Even within the US the argument doesn't hold up. California, Ohio, and Delaware are apparently more religious sates than Utah and Mississippi, if capital punishment serves as any indication.

This argument only seems to hold up when one restricts its application to a very narrow slice of humanity, namely the US and Western Europe. Perhaps this is the only slice of humanity that the Weekly Standard finds relevant.

Posted by: jg | Jan 29, 2008 6:14:41 PM

Who would Jesus execute,one wonders?

Posted by: anon | Jan 29, 2008 6:56:13 PM

Doug. I love your blog. But this must be the silliest excerpt you've ever quoted.

The excerpt reads:"[I]t can be said that the death penalty is more likely to be imposed by a religious people." Except as jg points out that the death penalty is most often imposed by the non-religious people running the Chinese government, and is never imposed by the rather religious peoples of Latin America.

In Europe, apparently: "almost no one... goes to church." Tell that to the 60% of Irish who attend church regularly (without executing anyone). Poles and Italians go quite often as well -- by many counts, as often as Texans, though he calls Texas a "church-going state". One doesn't have to dig very deep to see this guy is peddling gross generalizations and exaggerations.

"'[P]erhaps the religious are simply quicker to anger and... slower, even unwilling to forgive." Who, like Buddhists? Or the Amish who attended the funeral of the milkman who killed five of their children in Pennsylvania? Members of MVFR? The Quakers?

"There is surely a connection between the death penalty and religious belief." Well, he has that right. Just not sure he's done anything to illuminate it.

Posted by: dm | Jan 29, 2008 7:46:49 PM

> [I]t can be said that the death penalty is more likely to be imposed by a religious people.

I sure would like to see the sample of non-religious peoples upon which this generalization is based.

> Whatever the reason, there is surely a connection between the death penalty and religious belief.

Yes, but only in the sense that there is surely a connection between the death penality and serious attempts at creating ordered societies.

Posted by: P.S. Ruckman, Jr. | Jan 29, 2008 8:10:57 PM

Any connection between being religious and being pro-death penalty is likely explained by the fact that the most ardent religious believers are theologically conservative, and consequently derive many of their beliefs from time periods where the death penalty was widely accepted by both religious and non-religious people alike.

Posted by: Chris | Jan 29, 2008 9:18:03 PM

When Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptised in 988 he abolished the death penalty. Hardly an example of secularisation.

Posted by: Steve Hayes | Jan 30, 2008 1:19:54 AM

This article has so many flaws that it sad that there are people who would believe it.

First flaw - Eurocentrism. Only looking at Europe and the US may lead to the conclusion that The Weekly Standard wants (and that their readers likely believe anyway), but it doesn't provide a full picture. Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa all provide

Second flaw - he apparently is from the Jack T. Chick School of Religion because he completely ignores the Catholic Church. Not that the Catholic Church is important or anything - it is only the World's largest Christian group and is opposed to the death penalty. Go figure, majority Catholic countries like Mexico, Italy, Spain, France, and Ireland do not have the death penalty.

Third Flaw - he ignores the Islamic countries which almost universally have the death penalty with a notable exception in Turkey (and some of north Africa).

Fourth Flaw - he ignores Northern Europe which is heavily influenced by the Lutheran and Orthodox churches and the countries heavily influenced by Great Britain and the Anglican Church. Most of them have abolished the death penalty.

Fifth Flaw - as mentioned, no look at the countries where eastern religions dominate in Asia. Most have the death penalty.

So, a fair look at religion and the death penalty would conclude that there is a link based on certain types of religion and the death penalty. The link appears to there is a connection between having the death penalty and having a certain religions, especially Islam and conservative and/or evangelical Protestant Christianity (e.g. the Southern Baptist Convention) as well as some of the more eastern religions. A look at the U.S. would also seem to provide support - states where conservative and/or evangelical Protestants are dominant tend to be ones where the death penalty is strongest. States where Orthodox, Lutherans, non-evangelical Protestants, or Catholics are stronger have a weak death penalty or no death penalty at all. Countries where those religions dominate tend to have no death penalty.

Asia is more difficult to see a link - countries like India may be influenced to have the death penalty by the Hindu belief in reincarnation (where death isn't such a bad thing) or due to having a large minority Moslem population or even due to the threat of terrorist attacks.

Thus, while there seems to be a particular link between having a death penalty and having particular religions, there is no link between religion in general and the death penalty.

BTW, if anyone is interested, most of these conclusions were based on viewing this map - http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?scid=30&did=140 which shows the death penalty globally and based on my general understanding of world geography and religion. Of course, anyone who tries to claim there is a link between religion and the death penalty, but completely ignores the influence of Catholicism in order to engage in cheap Europe bashing in a right wing hack publication is not worth taking that seriously. Interesting topic which someone could probably write a fascinating book on, but that author would actually have to engage in some actual research.

Posted by: Zack | Jan 30, 2008 9:51:53 AM

Doug, in my last capital trial I saw an interface between religion, race and death views that I had not noticed before. 85% of the prospective black female jurors were excused for cause due to opposition to the death penalty. When we asked the basis for their beliefs, most said it was based on their religion. This is not only interesting to a practitioner but I think also is significant under the Sixth Amendment fair cross section component.

bruce cunningham

Posted by: bruce cunningham | Jan 30, 2008 10:24:17 AM

Don't quite get the point of the article. Other than the Southern Baptists and Mormons, every major religious organization in the US has come out against the death penalty. That would seem to contradict both the author's premise (that you can't have a dp w/o religion) and his apparent conclusion (that we still have the dp in the US because we're more religious than elsewhere).

Posted by: Scott Taylor | Jan 30, 2008 3:59:20 PM

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