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Foolish Wisdom

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century. The following essay appeared in Hidden Treasures: Searching for God in Modern Culture, by James M. Wall (The Christian Century Press, Chicago: 1997), pp. 90-92. Used by permission.


In the matter of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the Washington Post, we stipulate that compassion be shown to Joan Biskupic, a Post writer who reported on Scalia’s April 9 speech in Mississippi on religion and public life. Using secondhand accounts, without a full text of the original speech, Biskupic reported that Scalia "delivered an ardent defense of religious beliefs against the assaults of secular society." In "unusually sharp remarks for a Supreme Court justice," Biskupic went on, Scalia said "the modern world dismisses Christians as fools for holding to their traditional beliefs." She quoted Scalia as saying that "we are fools for Christ’s sake," and apparently didn’t recognize that Scalia was citing a biblical passage (1 Cor. 4:10).

Less compassion is required for a subsequent Post story on the Scalia talk, written by Clay Chandler. Drawing on several legal figures, Chandler informs readers of the "fierce debate" that Scalia’s "scathing indictment of American society as dominated by secular ‘worldly wise’ enemies of Christianity" has provoked. "At issue is whether Scalia’s impassioned and remarkably personal defense of Christianity" clashes with "his sworn duty to impartially interpret U.S. laws, including those pertaining to religion."

For a "Supreme Court justice to express himself so freely on religious matters is unequaled in the modern era," observed Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at New York University Law School, one of many alarmed respondents cited by Chandler. The reporter says that while "legal experts said the First Amendment grants Supreme Court justices, just like any other U.S. citizen, the right to speak their mind," other experts insist that "Scalia’s comments were difficult to reconcile with his judicial obligation to regard citizens of all religious persuasions—whether believer or unbeliever, Christian or non-Christian—as equals under the law."

Elliot Mineberg, legal director for People for the American Way, was troubled by Scalia’s remarks "because they so closely resemble those used by Christian activists such as Pat Robertson and Patrick Buchanan, who have asserted that the country is rife with anti-Christian bigotry." For Mine berg, "this is a disturbing view for a Supreme Court justice to have. This suggests a certain worldview that reads things that are designed to protect religious liberty—such as keeping church and state separate—as being anti-Christian."

An "attorney and ethics expert" who asked not to be identified told Chandler he was "shocked" by Scalia’s remarks. He shouldn’t "be saying anything like that because it’s going to come up before the court. If he’s got anything to say about religion or anything else, he should say it in his opinions. Those are the rules."

The tenor of Chandler’s report suggests that Scalia’s remarks somehow represent a threat to judicial order. But why should the worldview of a devout Catholic be more threatening than that of a thoroughly secular-minded justice?

Chandler points out that Washington State Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders "provoked a political uproar in his state by addressing an antiabortion rally on the steps of the state capitol." In defending his actions, Sanders pointed to the career of Justice William 0. Douglas, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1939 to 1975. Well known as an environmental activist, Douglas wrote several books on the topic and frequently participated in public demonstrations of his commitment to preserving the environment. Sanders also cited the oft-stated civil rights positions of the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, who like Douglas was called upon to vote on cases that concerned issues that were personally important to him.

The most uncomprehending comments from the Post were those of columnist Richard Cohen, who denounced Scalia as a "cheap-shot artist" for his attack on the Post’s coverage of reported miracles in Virginia, and claimed Scalia was "abusing" the newspaper to make his point that the "worldly wise" are hostile "to religion and religious phenomena." He quoted Scalia as saying, "We are fools for Christ’s sake. We must pray for the courage to endure the scorn of the sophisticated world." Cohen commented: "I will not quarrel with Scalia’s self-assessment, although the cause of his foolishness is something only he himself can know." Once again, the reporter seemed to miss the point of Scalia’s use of 1 Corinthians.

Scalia’s remarks are not subversive. They are an honest expression of his belief in miracles and especially in the miracle of Christ’s resurrection, and of his sense of how Christians should react to a culture that denigrates that faith.

The coverage of Scalia’s speech, according to Robert A. Sirico, a Catholic priest who is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan, "illustrates the very point he was making: The ‘worldly wise’ disparage religious belief and believers." Writing in the Wall StreetJournal, Sirico offers this Pauline interpretation of Scalia’s comments—an interpretation that the justice’s critics have either deliberately ignored or failed to comprehend:

"St. Paul’s remark about himself and the other apostles being ‘fools for Christ’s sake’ was meant to draw the contrast with the haughty and self-satisfied. It was a remark born of humility when faced with God’s power over our lives. Contrary to the protests against Justice Scalia’s speech, a responsible use of judicial reasoning, as well as intellectual objectivity, would seem to require such humility."

 

 


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