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Christian Witness, Moral Anthropology, and the Death Penalty

Richard W. Garnett

Notre Dame Law School


In this essay, I consider - in the context of our ongoing debates about capital punishment - the question, "what role ought religious beliefs play in a pluralistic democratic society that often presumes strict boundaries between matters of private faith and political life?" I suggest, first, that we should resist the imposition of such "strict" boundaries between "matters of private faith and political life" and, second, that in the context of our public arguments about the death penalty, engaged Christians should not merely to baptize the policy analyses and preferences of abolitionist or other interest groups, but should instead propose clearly what Pope John Paul II called the "moral truth about the human person." I contend that moral problems - and the death penalty poses, inescapably, such a problem - are anthropological problems, because moral arguments are built, for the most part, on anthropological presuppositions. In other words, as one scholar put it, our attempts at moral judgment tend to reflect our foundational assumptions about what it means to be human. Accordingly, what the public square needs from engaged Christians is a counter-cultural argument about the dignity and destiny of the human person. Such an argument could help our fellow citizens reach the right conclusion about what to do with convicted murderers not so much by dusting the usual arguments with God-talk as by challenging our culture to understand who and what these condemned persons are, and why it should make a difference.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 23

Keywords: Death penalty, capital punishment, religion

JEL Classification: K10, K14

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Date posted: August 24, 2005  

Suggested Citation

Garnett, Richard W., Christian Witness, Moral Anthropology, and the Death Penalty. A CALL FOR RECKONING: RELITION AND THE DEATH PENALTY, Erik C. Owens, et al., eds., 2004. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=785849

Contact Information

Richard W. Garnett (Contact Author)
Notre Dame Law School ( email )
Room 327
P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States
574-631-6981 (Phone)
574-631-4197 (Fax)
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