The Corner

“Christians and The Death Penalty”

I’m glad that Joseph Bottum, who has been developing his argument against the death penalty for years, has finally set it down on paper. I’m not sure what I think of his central argument–that the death penalty attempts to enact a kind of cosmic justice that is foreclosed to the modern secular state. But I’m skeptical of a secondary argument he advances: “Circumstances alone dictate when capital punishment is necessary for a government’s self-defense and preservation of the social order. But in a culture that seems to have embraced death with widespread abortion and euthanasia, the correct prudential judgment would be never to impose the death penalty.

“Obviously the penal goal of rehabilitating the criminal is destroyed by capital punishment. But the other medicinal goals of social justice—educating the public and redressing the disorders caused by the crime—can be lost as well when the culture is in an especially disordered social situation. To make a show of the value of life with the death penalty, in a nation flirting with death, only teaches the public that yet more life is valueless and yet more life can be destroyed. This is the truth lurking behind the otherwise unfair complaint of hypocrisy in opposing abortion while allowing capital punishment. The distinction between the innocent killed by abortion and the guilty killed by execution is not likely to persuade many people in a culture that cannot bring itself to rescind its license of murder in the womb” (emphasis in original).

If this line of argument is correct, then shouldn’t we have some expectation that opposition to abortion and euthanasia will be higher in places where the death penalty has been abolished? Yet that is manifestly not the case; compare western Europe to America on these scores.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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