Religion and the Death Penalty

Weekly Standard, February 4, 2008.


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.

Weekly Standard