The Magazine

Religion and the Death Penalty

Can't have one without the other?

Feb 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 20 • By WALTER BERNS
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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; in fact, very few. Nowhere in the new European constitution--some 300 pages long, not counting the appendages--is there any mention of religion, of Christian Europe, or of God. God is dead in Europe and, of course, something died with Him.

This "something" is the subject of Camus's famous novel The Stranger, first published in 1942, 60 years after Nietzsche first announced God's death, and another 60 before the truth of what he said became apparent, at least with respect to Europe and its intellectuals. The novel has been called a modern masterpiece--there was a time, and not so long ago, when students of a certain age were required to read it--and Meursault, its hero (actually, its antihero), is a murderer, but a different kind of murderer. What is different about him is that he murdered for no reason--he did it because the sun got in his eyes, à cause du soleil--and because he neither loves nor hates, and unlike the other people who inhabit his world, does not pretend to love or hate. He has no friends; indeed, he lives in a world in which there is no basis for friendship and no moral law; therefore, no one, not even a murderer, can violate the terms of friendship or break that law. As he said, the universe "is benignly indifferent" to how he lives.

It is a bleak picture, and Camus was criticized for painting it, but as he wrote in reply, "there is no other life possible for a man deprived of God, and all men are [now] in that position." But Camus was not the first European to draw this picture; he was preceded by Nietzsche who (see Zarathustra's "Prologue") provided us with an account of human life in that godless and "brave new world." It will be a comfortable world--rather like that promised by the European Union--where men will "have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night," but no love, no longing, no striving, no hope, no gods or ideals, no politics ("too burdensome"), no passions (especially no anger), only "a regard for health." To this list, Camus rightly added, no death penalty.

This makes sense. A world so lacking in passion lacks the necessary components of punishment. Punishment has its origins in the demand for justice, and justice is demanded by angry, morally indignant men, men who are angry when someone else is robbed, raped, or murdered, men utterly unlike Camus's Meursault. This anger is an expression of their caring, and the just society needs citizens who care for each other, and for the community of which they are parts. One of the purposes of punishment, particularly capital punishment, is to recognize the legitimacy of that righteous anger and to satisfy and thereby to reward it. In this way, the death penalty, when duly or deliberately imposed, serves to strengthen the moral sentiments required by a self-governing community.

Walter Berns is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and professor of government emeritus at Georgetown University. An earlier version of this essay appeared in his collection, Democracy and the Constitution (AEI Press, 2006).