Why Europe doesn't 'get' America

In December 2005 the 1,000th prisoner was executed in the USA since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Of the six men currently on military death row in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the leading candidate for execution is Dwight Loving. Having been convicted of killing two taxi—drivers and with all appeals failing Loving's only hope of clemency appears to be the president's office. But President George W Bush is the former governor of Texas — a state that has executed more than three times as many prisoners on Death Row as its nearest 'rival'. The portents do not look good for Dwight Loving.

But why, at the very time that almost all other Western nations have abolished capital punishment — indeed, it is a pre—condition of EU membership — is America actively bucking the prevailing Western trend?

The chief reason is without doubt that America is simply more democratic than its European neighbours. Unlike much of Europe, American governance still ensures that the 'representation of the will of its people' still counts for something.

Polls in the US reveal that national support for the death penalty remains consistently high at around 70%, a view confirmed by a May Gallup Poll.   The poll highlighted cross—party priorities on a number of key moral policy issues with the strongest agreement between the parties coming on the use of the death penalty. Republicans (82%) and Democrats (63%) concur on the 'moral acceptability' of its use.  Not a finding that Europeans might expect from a nation it often sees as the 'fifty—fifty (Left v Right) nation.

But this goes to the heart of its misunderstanding. As John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge's definitive assessment of the American 'soul' in The Right Nation: Why America Is Different makes clear, America has always been an inherently 'conservative' nation. Thus the difference between the two representative US political parties is more a reflection of a difference in the degree of 'conservatism' than the classic Left v Right European model.    

Whatever view one may take about the use of capital punishment and its widespread adoption in the 38 US states which have reinstated it since 1976, there can be no doubt that it has broad public mandate. In stark contrast, as Joshua Marshall observed in The New Republic,

'There is barely a country in Europe where the death penalty was abolished in response to public opinion rather than in spite of it. In other words, if these countries' political cultures are morally superior to America's, it's because they're less democratic.' (TNR, 30 June 2000)

The UK is a prime example of what Marshall is talking about. Even though we Brits, as a nation, have never been quite as pro—death penalty as our American cousins, polls here too consistently reveal 50—55% support. Thus, in the UK at least, even though the people 'have spoken' consistently on the issue not one of the three major parties represents the will of the people.

But representative democracy is only one key aspect of the American story.  Up to half of the US population claim to attend church regularly on Sunday. It is fair to say that America is truly the last bastion of what used to be called Christendom. Now the liberal mind may baulk at the assertion that the death penalty is rooted in the Judeo—Christian tradition. But when the Roman governor enquired of Jesus whether he realized that he, Pilate, had the authority to crucify him he offered Jesus a golden opportunity to pronounce on the morality of the subject once and for all. But Jesus chose merely to confirm that authority, being concerned only to remind Pilate from whom (God the Father) that authority derived.

The EU technocrats responsible for drafting the EU Constitution specifically have made a point of obfuscating the formative role of its Judeo—Christian worldview in the development of Western civilisation and values. But where the EU has chosen the path of historic amnesia and writing off remembrance of its formative Judeo—Christian heritage in its (thus far discredited) constitution, the American founding fathers chose to write the 'remembrance' into theirs. So if America chooses to lethally inject Dwight Loving, or any of its convicted murderers, then the moral reassurance that it is doing the right thing remains rooted in the belief that it is authorised to do so by the will of the people and 'under God'.

GK Chesterton once wrote that America is a nation 'with the soul of a church'. Whatever our personal therein lies the secret to understanding the psyche of the American people — Republican and Democrat.

Peter C Glover is the British author of The Politics of Faith; Essays on the morality of key current affairs and writer on the moral dimension of news, politics and culture.