In the wake of the execution of Troy Davis, Christopher Hitchens ties America’s use of the death penalty to the continuing influence of religion:
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.)
China is indeed the exception, but not nearly as exceptional as it appears. One of the arguments used by the Christian right all the time is that atheism leads to genocide because of the actions of officially atheist communist nations like the Soviet Union and China. But the key factor with those nations was not that they’re atheist but that they’re communist, and communism operates, in actuality rather than in theory, as a religion.
In both China and the former Soviet Union, all of the usual roles of religion were played by the state instead. The state, rather than the church, defines (or defined) everything of importance in the lives of the populace. It was (is) a totalizing ideology that takes away the identity of the individual in much the same way religion does, substituting devotion to the state for devotion to God.
It should also be said that there is not only a difference between having a secular government (which is what atheists generally want) and having a government that enforces atheism as a matter of law (which is something that no atheist I know of wants).
Anyway, back to Hitchens’ point. The United States is alone among western democratic nations to still employ execution. It is also alone among those nations by having religion be a huge influence on policy. This is hardly a coincidence. But it’s also the root of so many other terrible public policies. Only in America do we fund something as inane as abstinence-only sex ed. Only in America is their such controversy over gay rights. The influence of religion on public policy in the United States is almost uniformly bad.