The news of Antonin Scalia’s death hit evangelicals like a punch in the gut. I felt it, and so did almost everyone I know. With Scalia sitting as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, I felt Christians were safer and traditional morality more sustainable. With him gone I have less confidence in either outcome.
Scalia had the requisite education and experience you’d expect from a Supreme Court Justice. The product of a Catholic education in high school and later at Georgetown University, he received his law degree from Harvard then embarked on a career that included stints teaching law at the Universities of Virginia and Chicago interspersed with service as Assistant Attorney General for Presidents Nixon and Ford. President Ronald Reagan appointed Scalia appellate judge for the District of Columbia in 1982 and four years later nominated him to the United States Supreme Court. His brilliant legal mind, conservative views and top-tier experience made him an obvious choice. What the nation received, though, was far more. Scalia quickly established himself as one of the greatest Justices in the nation’s history.
For thirty years Scalia became a champion of the Constitution and the preservation of the individual rights enshrined in it. He was a forceful advocate for “originalism”—the legal perspective that takes the writers’ original intent as the basis for interpreting the Constitution. Scalia was no relativist, and always subordinated shifting cultural perceptions to a literal reading of the Constitution. The idea that the Supreme Court was the arbiter of evolving moral standards was repugnant to him. An example is Roe v Wade, the landmark case that in 1973 legalized abortion. He openly ridiculed the Supreme Court’s ruling because of its basis on a so-called “right to privacy,” a right found nowhere in the Constitution.
Scalia was a champion for religious freedom; a vociferous opponent of abortion; a scathing critic of same-sex marriage; an adversary of special rights for transsexuals; and a supporter of gun rights. His traditional stances on the many hot-button cultural issues in modern America made him especially close to the heart of evangelicals.
He was a brilliant debater whose interrogations of lawyers arguing cases before the court were legendary. During the Obergfell v Hodges hearing—the case that legalized homosexual marriage—Scalia scoffed at the plaintiff’s claim that the Constitution guarantees a right to marriage, asking if the Constitution also guarantees a right for someone to sit on a flagpole. His question elicited gasps from the audience along with smothered laughter. It was classic Scalia—offensive, hilarious and insightful all at once.
But more than his legal achievements, I loved Scalia’s heart. Yes, he was Catholic, and of the old school variety. He hated the changes to the Catholic church over the last four decades and continued to worship with the Latin Mass. But the man knew Jesus. His outspoken Christian beliefs weren’t the kind of verbiage we see in many professional politicians intended mainly as an appeal to evangelical voters during election cycles. Instead, his religious convictions were the foundation of his character.
In a 2013 interview, Scalia stated that “In order for capitalism to work, in order for it to produce a good and stable society, traditional Christian virtues are essential.” He didn’t practice his legal vocation with apologies to those who didn’t share his beliefs. He was a warrior who went into battle with a full arsenal of Christian tradition filtered through a formidable Catholic education supported by a winsome personality and informed by a mind sharper than his adversaries. No wonder his distractors feared him and his supporters idolized him.
It feels like we’re at a tipping point. I don’t mean in the manipulative way politicians use the term to raise money and gen up votes or in the fashion apocalyptic voices in the religious community use it to keep their followers in a constant state of anxiety; but in the deeper, philosophical ways that determine a nation’s identity and destiny.
The religious and philosophical consensus that was the foundation for America as we once knew it is eroding and the legal system built on those traditions is washing away.Scalia was one of the few figures holding back the tide. Now that he’s gone I feel less confident that religious liberties will be protected; more concerned that identity politics will result in the persecution and marginalization of all things Christian; and less certain of the future of the nation.
Evangelicals aren’t sure about our place in the nation anymore. It’s not hard for us to see a day in the near future when we’ll be relegated to a similar status as that African-Americans occupied a few decades ago–second-class citizens forced to live on the periphery of the larger society.
The book of Genesis ends with the miraculous account of a Jew named Joseph who was promoted by the Egyptian Pharaoh to the highest levels of power. When a worldwide famine struck, Joseph’s extended family in Palestine—later to become the nation of Israel—was threatened with starvation and fled to Egypt in order to survive. Joseph was able to offer them a place of refuge because of his unique position in the Egyptian government.
Exodus is the next book in the Bible and picks up the story of Israel four hundred years later by describing how the Jewish people had prospered so much since Joseph’s time that the Egyptians felt threatened by them. Then we find this ominous verse: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8)
Joseph held the empire at bay during his lifetime. But after his death the culture forgot, and the Jews who had at one time found safety in a foreign land now were viewed with suspicion. As the story unfolds we’re told they continued their downward slide in Egyptian estimation until they became indentured servants. The nation that once was their hope of refuge became their place of slavery.
Justice Scalia would have made no claim to be a Joseph or any other kind of Messiah. At the same time, the pivotal position he occupied will in all likelihood never again be filled. I celebrate his legacy, but his loss makes me pray harder for our nation’s future.