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Religion & the death penalty

Our friend RC2 calls our attention to this piece on the death penalty by Walter Berns, one of my professors in grad school. If you’ve read his book on the subject, the argument will be familiar, but he also offers an interesting reflection on how the current spiritual state of Europe might affect its attitude toward the death penalty.

Discussions - 9 Comments

It's a little long, but Berns ties it together very well in the last paragraph. Rarely do you see such a blunt and accurate description of modern Europe's problems.

What a tangled mess.

"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."

Did he ever stop to think why "almost all" of those executions would even be necessary - why would all of those crimes have been committed - in "states whose residents are among the most seriously religious Americans"??? Or are readers to simply (and I do mean simply) assume that it's the non-believers in those states who commit the murders, and the good religious folks who perform the act of ultimate justice?

So, I think per-capita murder rates are relevant here, seeing as you'll probably have fewer people to execute (were it legally sanctioned) if fewer people are commiting murder. Why are the murder rates of those heathen Euro nations typically about 2.5 times lower than the U.S. rate (exception noted for Poland, which is about 96% Catholic, but has a slightly higher murder rate)? How are they able to do it?? - esp. considering that they don't lock up nearly as high of a percentage of their citizens as the U.S. does.

As for his assertions that "it can be said that the death penalty is more likely to be imposed by a religious people" and "Whatever the reason, there is surely a connection between the death penalty and religious belief," he didn't elaborate convincingly on either. In, sheer numbers, China executes more people than any other country, and is officially atheist and not known as a religious country in practical terms. But even looking at the per capita execution numbers, I'm not so sure they support any point he is making or would want to make. The other countries that the U.S. compares to in executing its citizens are places that are seen as evil and Communistic, officially placed on Bush's Axis of Evil list, or are explicitly or implicitly viewed as barbaric nations full of Muslims eager to decapitate infidels. I guess the Right's response to this would be that all of those countries usually perform wrongful executions or political executions, whereas in the U.S. our executions are what Jesus would do.

Another thing that Berns has totally left out, or erased from his world(-view) is that considerable opposition to the death penalty, both in Europe and the U.S., comes from the religious sector. The Catholic nun who authored these books (Warning: her last name appears to be FRENCH, and one of the books was made into a film starring Hollywood liberals!) has been an outspoken opponent of the death penalty for quite a few years.

So, I think Berns is off-base when he suggests that (the hopelessly vague) "religious" societies go for the death penalty and the secular societies do not.

It's also amusing when Berns fumes about Europeans wanting everyone else to abolish the death penalty too - you know , imposing their will on the U.S. and its noble allies in the fight for the righteous death penalty: Iran, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Belarus, Congo, China, Syria, etc. And then, just to the right of Berns's article is Weekly Standard's cover model, George Dubya, the man who (after the "they're going to nuke us" justification didn't pan out) boasted of invading another nation to impose democracy upon them. If the EU gathers ships off our coast because of it, I'll join his complaint. But some strongly-worded letters scolding us for killing/executing retarded people? I can live with that.

Craig, I'll play "the Right" for you and point out that there is the issue of trial by jury in the US. We are sent off to execution by our neighbors after a considerable process and exposure of the whole matter in the news. Is it the same in China, Saudi Arabia, Congo, Syria, etc.? It is just a point.

As to China, even the irreligious have their conceptions of good and evil, even if they don't put it in those terms. Falun Gong is evil there, whereas my neighbors would consider just a bit wacky, but no big deal.

Meshed right in that crime statistics list on murder rates, with the European ones are Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Quatar (does anyone die there?) which are not on the execution list at all. But Japan is and Hong Kong is not. What does that mean in terms of religion or culture and ideas about death and the death penalty?

Prof. Berns is exactly right; a society that will not the worst criminals has lost its regard for innocent life.

Kate, the trial by jury justification doesn't go very far, I think. Juries have found suspects guilty of murder (and rape and other violent crimes) more than a few times, only to have DNA (or other) evidence exonerate the accused with a great deal of certainty. (Your state, by the way, appears to be bent on precluding that embarrassing post-trial exoneration scenario) And surely you know that there's a huge gap between the numbers of those found guilty of murder and those who actually are killed by the state as punishment. Numerous studies have shown that the race and class of both the victim and the murderer factor heavily into whether a death sentence will be handed down and how quickly it will be enacted. But, of course, none of that says anything about whether the death penalty is right or wrong.

I do still wonder why so many murders are committed in such a wonderfully religious country as the USA. If every murderer was to be executed, the government would be killing at least 10,000 people a year. Now THAT could provide some jobs, eh?

You said/asked: "Meshed right in that crime statistics list on murder rates, with the European ones are Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Quatar (does anyone die there?) which are not on the execution list at all. But Japan is and Hong Kong is not. What does that mean in terms of religion or culture and ideas about death and the death penalty?"

I have no idea. Those stats surely present a very mixed and complex picture, one which is being foolishly overlooked or, more likely, dismissed with Berns's assertions that "it can be said that the death penalty is more likely to be imposed by a religious people" and "Whatever the reason, there is surely a connection between the death penalty and religious belief." Looking at the stats, I don't see all that much support for what he says. In addition, he is, as I said, completely dismissing the fact that a lot of "religious people" are opposed to the death penalty.

What I find most interesting in all of this though is how some on the Right that push these arguments are able to split their judgments so neatly. When China or some predominantly Muslim (I believe the Right's preferred term is "Islamofascist") country imposes the death penalty that is indicative of how those countries are barbaric enemies of civilization, yet when the US engages in executions it is actually seen as a signifier of our advanced, civilized nature.

I do strongly recommend Sister Helen Prejean's book "Dead Man Walking" - it's a really fascinating read (and it's about much more than the single murder case followed in the film). Balance out some of your Ashbrook recommendations with it - and, perhaps importantly for you, you can find a copy WITHOUT Sean Penn or Susan Sarandon on the cover too, as the book did exist before the film.

Maybe all those right wing religious nuts who favor the death penalty do so because they read this in the Old Testament: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image." That's a hard nut for religious opponents of the death penalty to crack since it was repeated and refined by St. Paul in the New Testament: "if thou do that which is evil, be afraid ; for [the ruler] beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil."

It's tedious, I know, to read Revelation as if it mattered, but us right wing religious nuts have a habit of doing that, which is one reason we think applying the death penalty is a matter not of deterrence or reform but of justice to the moral order established by the Creator.

Well, that's interesting, Dennis. Do you truly think that a literalist reading of the Bible (at least those elements where no clear contradictions can be found) should be the basis for our laws?

Should we start executing adulterers, too?


Leviticus 20:10 "And the man that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death."

I also don't understand why you refer to yourself as a "right-wing religious nut." Okay, your views might put you on the right-wing of the political spectrum, and apparently you're religious, too. If by "nut" you mean someone who's insane, I wouldn't begin to speculate on your sanity. In any case, I haven't seen anyone here call you that, so why use that term? Is it some attempt to pre-emptively assume a victim role?

Craig, good news. I'm not really a "nut," honest, just a little poetic hyperbole.

I am not a biblical literalist either. But just notice the difference between the passage from Genesis I cited, and the one you cite from Leviticus. The Genesis passage refers only to the killing of a human being, and what it states as the real cause for punishment is true at all times and places, namely, that man is made in God's image. In other words, killing a human being is, or implies, an effort to kill God Himself, than which there can be no more horrendous crime.
The Lev. verse refers to a specific crime, adultery, and says nothing referring to God. It's just part of a legal code for Israel. It is true that the offenses named are indeed offenses always and everywhere, but every rational person knows that punishments for specific crimes can vary by time and place.

Thank you for referring me to that list of contradictions in the Bible. What's you point, my friend? Many, perhaps more, were identified by such skeptics as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, other Church fathers, and the Jewish talmudic scholars before the Incarnation of Jesus. Genesis even tells us that light was created on day 1 while the sun was created on day 4. Guess we all should have stopped reading at that point, many thousands of years ago, huh?

That is an ugly and awful accusation in that article about Ohio's DNA testing program. It seems unfortunately true to bureaucratic form, though.


Actually, if we put that Levitical ruling into effect we would make some aspects of life a lot easier. I just happen to have been hearing a spate of local stories about lives and families ruined through that sort of thing - not gossip, but running into people from the community I haven't seen in a long time and asking how the family is doing and hearing these tales of wreckage and grief, mostly having to do with hairdressers or Little League coaches.


That by way of saying that confusion about human behavior is to be expected. If human beings were neat and orderly in their behavior we wouldn't require severe laws. The hope in imposing more Draconian or Levitical laws is that order will follow. Saudi Arabia's high execution rate and low murder rate might indicate some correlation. You know some on the Right (and some I know on the Left, actually) think that if the US had even MORE executions and more strenuous pursuit of criminals that American life would be more orderly.

Americans have a vigorous tendency to violent crime. Haven't we been dealing with that fact of our society - it is a cultural issue. The bar for the sentence of execution is pretty high here. We are not talking about an eye for an eye or a life for a life. Most people think too many people get away with murder or other crimes in America. No, that is complex and mixed, too. Look at statistics for who goes to prison and we are outraged. Look at the criminal justice system and folks complain all the time about those who go free on technicalities of the law - outrage. Maybe this just reflects something about where I live and teach, but I get student papers on the latter, but not on the former.


The complexity of the issue might have something to do with the complexity of our culture. Maybe the multicultural nature of our society has something to do with the higher rate of murder - though I don't know that.

I have an uneasy sense of not knowing enough about any of this. I do know this; if we are going to value human life, then the consequences for taking human life have to be severe.

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