Is God to blame for capital punishment? Whose God?

The polemics of atheist crusader and cancer battler Christopher Hitchens are an easy target for believers, but he remains a writer who is hard to ignore or even dislike -- at least for me. His passion and bravura writing, all undergirded by a life marinated in literature as much as liquor, is remarkable, and deepened still further by the prospect of death, as this New York Times profile hints at.But yes, his passions blind him at times, and I really am suspicious (envious?) of authors who are said to write as quickly and fluently as they speak.A recent Hitchens essay on the death penalty is a case in point: it seems to go awry right away as he blamesreligion (shocked?) more than racism or even our Wild West culture for the persistence of the death penalty in the United States:

The reason why the United States is alone among comparable countries in its commitment to doing this is that it is the most religious of those countries. (Take away only China, which is run by a very nervous oligarchy, and the remaining death-penalty states in the world will generally be noticeable as theocratic ones.)Once we clear away the brush, then, we can see the crystalline purity of the lex talionis and the principle of an eye for an eye.

But a reader of Andrew Sullivan's indispensable Dish notes these 2010 figures for the top five executing nations:

1. China (2000+)2. Iran (252+)3. North Korea (60+)4. Yemen (53+)5. USA (46+)

The reader writes:

Two of the top three entities are explicitly atheist. Hitch's assertion that we can ignore Chinese executions because they are a "very nervous oligarchy" can easily be used for Iran considering, you know, they actually have a demonstrable REASON to be nervous - the 2009 protests/Green Movement, hostile relationship with the world's only superpower, etc - and because any analyst of Iran worth his salt will tell you that their government is an extremely Byzantine oligarchy, not a true dictatorship. In other words, you don't get to throw China out and retain the Iranians while making this argument. Yemen is a barely functioning state of tribes. Surprise.As for us, maybe "God" has something to do with it. But I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest something risky: perhaps it has more to do with a very particular brand of Protestant Christian theology than it does with "God".

The reader goes on to note that across "ultra-Catholic South America," capital punishment has been all but abolished. (Then again, many of those same "ultra-Catholic" societies have had very recent and bloody experiences with the extrajudicial death penalty.)The limb the reader climbs out on seems to be strong enough to support his hypothesis about the particular brand of Protestant theology supporting the death penalty. After all, in the wake of the Troy Davis execution you had Southern Baptist luminaries Richard Land and Al Mohler calling the death penalty "pro-life" and saying contrary arguments were yet another example of "relativism." (Paging Pope Benedict...)So perhaps the religious factor in the death penalty debate, if there is one, is not about God but rather about which God -- Protestant (of a certain stripe) or Catholic (though of a certain stripe, as Antonin Scalia might stipulate).Either way, Hitch, God bless him, is better on Philip Larkin than capital punishment.

David Gibson is the director of Fordham’s Center on Religion & Culture.

Also by this author
Prayers for Andrew Greeley

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads