Religion and the Death Penalty

“The Weekly Standard” has a remarkable article by Walter Berns entitled Religion and the Death Penalty, arguing that the two are intimately connected. A sample:

The best case for the death penalty–or, at least, the best explanation of it–was made, paradoxically, by one of the most famous of its opponents, Albert Camus, the French novelist. Others complained of the alleged unusual cruelty of the death penalty, or insisted that it was not, as claimed, a better deterrent of murder than, say, life imprisonment, and Americans especially complained of the manner in which it was imposed by judge or jury (discriminatorily or capriciously, for example), and sometimes on the innocent.Camus said all this and more, and what he said in addition is instructive. 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.. . . . . . . .  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. In Germany, for example, leaving aside the Muslims and few remaining Jews, only 4 percent of the people regularly attend church services, in Britain and Denmark 3 percent, and in Sweden not much more than 1; in France there are more practicing Muslims than there are baptized Catholics, and a third of the Dutch do not know the “why” of Christmas. Hence, the empty or abandoned churches, or in Shakespeare’s words, the “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.”   

What do you think the connection is between religion and the death penalty? The article, with its very unusual and pro-death penalty take on the matter (using all these existentialists to make its point) does neglect those whose religion motivates them to oppose the death penalty (such as that little sect called the Roman Catholic Church!).But beyond that, the article is interesting in addressing the consequences of the decline of Christianity in Europe, as reflected in this quote’s shocking statistics.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Bror Erickson

    I think this man’s assesment is pretty well straight on. I don’t think the Catholic Church even understands its position on the death penalty anymore. More so I think this is an area, unlike marriage for priests or allowing good Catholics to use condomns, that the Catholic Church feels it is safe to side with culture, rather than informing culture. But part of it is the Catholic Church has had to own up to a awful history involving the death penalty and torture. This is a way of distancing themselves from that horrific part of their past.
    Yet I’m tempted to say you will find the death penalty continuing, it won’t be administered by a judge in a national court, but it will happen. And then the courts will be helpless to do anything but label it a revenge killing, and let the man go after serving a couple of years for a crime they’re not sure was a crime.

  • Bror Erickson

    I think this man’s assesment is pretty well straight on. I don’t think the Catholic Church even understands its position on the death penalty anymore. More so I think this is an area, unlike marriage for priests or allowing good Catholics to use condomns, that the Catholic Church feels it is safe to side with culture, rather than informing culture. But part of it is the Catholic Church has had to own up to a awful history involving the death penalty and torture. This is a way of distancing themselves from that horrific part of their past.
    Yet I’m tempted to say you will find the death penalty continuing, it won’t be administered by a judge in a national court, but it will happen. And then the courts will be helpless to do anything but label it a revenge killing, and let the man go after serving a couple of years for a crime they’re not sure was a crime.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Why do religious Protestants generally support the death penalty? Maybe because we tend to take Romans 13 and Genesis 9:6 seriously, and understand that he who willfully kills another human being without provocation has revoked his own right to life?

    (yes, Romans 13; does it make any sense to speak of the sword without acknowledging that the king has the right to use it on the wicked?)

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Why do religious Protestants generally support the death penalty? Maybe because we tend to take Romans 13 and Genesis 9:6 seriously, and understand that he who willfully kills another human being without provocation has revoked his own right to life?

    (yes, Romans 13; does it make any sense to speak of the sword without acknowledging that the king has the right to use it on the wicked?)

  • S Bauer

    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.

    This point if made quite well (although unintentionally, I am sure) in the film, “Dead Man Walking.”

  • S Bauer

    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.

    This point if made quite well (although unintentionally, I am sure) in the film, “Dead Man Walking.”

  • Carl Vehse

    the death sentence provides the guilty person with the opportunity (and reminds him of the reason) to make amends

    Opportunity or not, Romans 13 gives the main reason the dealth penalty is called “capital punishment”.

  • Carl Vehse

    the death sentence provides the guilty person with the opportunity (and reminds him of the reason) to make amends

    Opportunity or not, Romans 13 gives the main reason the dealth penalty is called “capital punishment”.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    So does anyone (Bror?) know what caused the Catholic church to change and when?

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    So does anyone (Bror?) know what caused the Catholic church to change and when?

  • Bror Erickson

    tODD,
    I’m not sure exactly when the Roman Catholic Church changed their stance on the death penalty, but it is part of their pro-life movement. Somehow they are unable to differentiate between the senseless selfish slaughter of innocent (in worldly terms) unborn babies, and the sentencing of guilty criminals to death for crimes they committed worthy of the death penalty.

  • Bror Erickson

    tODD,
    I’m not sure exactly when the Roman Catholic Church changed their stance on the death penalty, but it is part of their pro-life movement. Somehow they are unable to differentiate between the senseless selfish slaughter of innocent (in worldly terms) unborn babies, and the sentencing of guilty criminals to death for crimes they committed worthy of the death penalty.

  • Bror Erickson

    My guess is it happened since Vatican II. I do believe it was a change the last pope made.

  • Bror Erickson

    My guess is it happened since Vatican II. I do believe it was a change the last pope made.

  • Joe

    I often get frustrated when people argue the 5th commandment requires an abolition of the death penalty. First, the proper translation is “murder” not “kill.” But second it ignores Romans 13.

  • Joe

    I often get frustrated when people argue the 5th commandment requires an abolition of the death penalty. First, the proper translation is “murder” not “kill.” But second it ignores Romans 13.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    I guess I just can’t imagine what would have caused them to change their stance, even given the abuses of the death penalty within their circles. I mean, Romans 13 certainly allows for a government to not use the sword at its discretion, but it obviously also allows for it. And besides the Bible, you have centuries of Catholic tradition favoring the death penalty. Catholics may go against Biblical teaching, but to violate such a longstanding tradition … (he said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek)!

    Oddly missing from this discussion of the death penalty and religion, though, is that the death penalty was frequently used by fervently irreligious, Communist countries. Even here, we see Camus’ analysis ringing true, since in those nations, it was viewed as okay to kill if it was for the good of the greater entity — namely, the state. I suppose the Europeans don’t really believe in the state, either, though. At least, not like that.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    I guess I just can’t imagine what would have caused them to change their stance, even given the abuses of the death penalty within their circles. I mean, Romans 13 certainly allows for a government to not use the sword at its discretion, but it obviously also allows for it. And besides the Bible, you have centuries of Catholic tradition favoring the death penalty. Catholics may go against Biblical teaching, but to violate such a longstanding tradition … (he said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek)!

    Oddly missing from this discussion of the death penalty and religion, though, is that the death penalty was frequently used by fervently irreligious, Communist countries. Even here, we see Camus’ analysis ringing true, since in those nations, it was viewed as okay to kill if it was for the good of the greater entity — namely, the state. I suppose the Europeans don’t really believe in the state, either, though. At least, not like that.

  • allen

    Yes, what tOOD said. Obviously, we can’t blame the Atheists for the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, the Killing Fields, but Communism is explicitly atheist. Liberal Democracy grew out of Christianity, but is not explicitly Christian. One doesn’t have to be a Christian to know that it is wrong to put people behind barbed wire and then not feed them.

    As for the death penalty, in the United States, depending upon in which state a capital crime is committed, a murderer of a white person is 3 to 5 times more likely to get the death penalty than a murderer of a non-white person is. That’s not right. If a just punishment is unjustly handed down, then it might as well be unjust.

    Obviously, there are two ways of remedying this situation. But look around the world. Who has the death penalty? The Sharia type states. The Communist type states. Us.

  • allen

    Yes, what tOOD said. Obviously, we can’t blame the Atheists for the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, the Killing Fields, but Communism is explicitly atheist. Liberal Democracy grew out of Christianity, but is not explicitly Christian. One doesn’t have to be a Christian to know that it is wrong to put people behind barbed wire and then not feed them.

    As for the death penalty, in the United States, depending upon in which state a capital crime is committed, a murderer of a white person is 3 to 5 times more likely to get the death penalty than a murderer of a non-white person is. That’s not right. If a just punishment is unjustly handed down, then it might as well be unjust.

    Obviously, there are two ways of remedying this situation. But look around the world. Who has the death penalty? The Sharia type states. The Communist type states. Us.

  • S. Bauer

    It seemed to me that the change happened during the pontificate of John Paul II. I did a (very) little research and found this encyclical: Evangelium Vitae, “The Gospel of Life” March 25, 1995
    *quote*
    Steps toward mobilizing a “new culture of life” are outlined in this 11th encyclical of Pope John Paul II. The fact that laws in many nations do not punish practices opposed to life, and even make them “altogether legal, is both a disturbing symptom and a significant cause of grave moral decline,” he writes. Pope John Paul says that “no human law can claim to legitimize” abortion and euthanasia and that, through “conscientious objection,” there “is a grave and clear obligation to oppose” laws that do so. He writes, “I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral” (No. 57), and declares “that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder” (No. 62). And, he says, “I confirm that euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God” (No. 65).
    *endquote*

    I believe that many bishops (especially in the West) ran with this (as they have with other official statements) in developing their “seamless garment” theology that lumps abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, etc. together. The change isn’t “official” but it is quite widespread in U.S. catholicism.

  • S. Bauer

    It seemed to me that the change happened during the pontificate of John Paul II. I did a (very) little research and found this encyclical: Evangelium Vitae, “The Gospel of Life” March 25, 1995
    *quote*
    Steps toward mobilizing a “new culture of life” are outlined in this 11th encyclical of Pope John Paul II. The fact that laws in many nations do not punish practices opposed to life, and even make them “altogether legal, is both a disturbing symptom and a significant cause of grave moral decline,” he writes. Pope John Paul says that “no human law can claim to legitimize” abortion and euthanasia and that, through “conscientious objection,” there “is a grave and clear obligation to oppose” laws that do so. He writes, “I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral” (No. 57), and declares “that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder” (No. 62). And, he says, “I confirm that euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God” (No. 65).
    *endquote*

    I believe that many bishops (especially in the West) ran with this (as they have with other official statements) in developing their “seamless garment” theology that lumps abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, etc. together. The change isn’t “official” but it is quite widespread in U.S. catholicism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17639370291865261582 Cindy

    I once talked to a Catholic priest who did prison ministry, including quite a bit of work with death row inmates. He had seen many of these men come to faith while on death row. He was opposed to the death penalty because he held out hope for all and did not want to see anyone’s time of grace cut short.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17639370291865261582 Cindy

    I once talked to a Catholic priest who did prison ministry, including quite a bit of work with death row inmates. He had seen many of these men come to faith while on death row. He was opposed to the death penalty because he held out hope for all and did not want to see anyone’s time of grace cut short.

  • fw

    capital punishment is not a biblical requirement or a necessary conclusion. Christians should probably be agnostic on this issue as far as consideration of this on biblical grounds.

    this issue is best argued on purely logical secular grounds.

  • fw

    capital punishment is not a biblical requirement or a necessary conclusion. Christians should probably be agnostic on this issue as far as consideration of this on biblical grounds.

    this issue is best argued on purely logical secular grounds.

  • Carl Vehse

    Capital punishment is recognised in Scripture as a God-given function of government (Gen. 9:6; Lev. 24:17; Ex. 21:12; Num. 35:21; Deut. 19:11; Rom. 13:4; Acts 25:11). There’s no “agnostic” about it.

    How and under what conditions capital punishment is applied is the responsibility of the government (i.e., in the U.S. the people operating through their elected and appointed representatives) to determine.

  • Carl Vehse

    Capital punishment is recognised in Scripture as a God-given function of government (Gen. 9:6; Lev. 24:17; Ex. 21:12; Num. 35:21; Deut. 19:11; Rom. 13:4; Acts 25:11). There’s no “agnostic” about it.

    How and under what conditions capital punishment is applied is the responsibility of the government (i.e., in the U.S. the people operating through their elected and appointed representatives) to determine.

  • Carl Vehse

    The LCMS website has an article on the death penalty, called “Pro-life Penalty”. The article was reprinted from a Jan. 2004 World magzine article written by a familiar person.

  • Carl Vehse

    The LCMS website has an article on the death penalty, called “Pro-life Penalty”. The article was reprinted from a Jan. 2004 World magzine article written by a familiar person.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Carl, I didn’t know the LCMS put that article up! Thanks for letting me know.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Carl, I didn’t know the LCMS put that article up! Thanks for letting me know.

  • Joe

    Dr. Veith,

    That is a wonderful article.

  • Joe

    Dr. Veith,

    That is a wonderful article.

  • http://stuffchristianculturelikes.com stephy

    This was interesting…thanks for writing about it, it’s a loaded subject for sure.

  • http://stuffchristianculturelikes.com stephy

    This was interesting…thanks for writing about it, it’s a loaded subject for sure.


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