In a fascinating new look at capital punishment, Professor Walter Berns of Georgetown University argues that support of the death penalty is tied to belief in God. He documents the link between secularization and declining support for capital punishment.
In "Religion and the Death Penalty," published in The Weekly Standard, Berns begins by observing that the best case for the death penalty "was made, paradoxically, by one of the most famous of its opponents, Albert Camus, the French novelist." Indeed, in opposing the death penalty Camus seems to have grasped what others had missed.
As Professor Berns explains:
The death penalty, he said, "can be legitimized only by a truth or a principle that is superior to man," or, as he then made clearer, it may rightly be imposed only by a religious society or community; specifically, one that believes in "eternal life." Only in such a place can it be said that the death sentence provides the guilty person with the opportunity (and reminds him of the reason) to make amends, thus to prepare himself for the final judgment which will be made in the world to come. For this reason, he said, the Catholic church "has always accepted the necessity of the death penalty." This may no longer be the case. And it may no longer be the case that death is, as Camus said it has always been, a religious penalty. But it 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.
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