Bedevilment of Justice Scalia

Tongues are wagging about the conversation that Justice Antonin Scalia recently had with New York writer Jennifer Senior. Most are focused on this particular exchange, in which Scalia candidly discusses his Christian Devil beliefs:

Scalia [leans forward and stage-whispers]: “I even believe in the Devil.”

You do?
Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, c’mon, that’s standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic believes that.

Every Catholic believes this? There’s a wide variety of Catholics out there.
If you are faithful to Catholic dogma, that is certainly a large part of it.

Have you seen evidence of the Devil lately?
You know, it is curious. In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore.

It’s because he’s smart.

So what’s he doing now?
What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.

Satan, in other words, was the prime mover of the Enlightenment and its secular-atheist aftermath. This is a fairly standard view among conservative Christians, so it’s not altogether surprising Scalia would say this. His next statement, however, is surprising:

Isn’t it terribly frightening to believe in the Devil?
You’re looking at me as though I’m weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the Devil? I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the Devil! It’s in the Gospels! You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil! Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history.

It’s an unfortunate fact that most Americans believe in the Devil. But it is not a fact “most of mankind” has believed in the Devil “for all of history.” The idea of the Devil in fact has a history which is, in anthropological terms, recent in time and limited by space. Most anthropology students know that non-western, non-Christian peoples do not believe in the Devil and there is no equivalent figure among large chunks of humanity.

Scalia’s statement betrays his provincial view of who and what counts as “mankind” and “history.” According to this tunnel vision, history essentially begins with the Platonic Greeks and mankind includes only Western Christians. This narrow slice of humanity and history thus becomes the benchmark by which all things are judged and what Catholics call “natural law” is established.

This just goes to show that one can become a lawyer and ascend all the way to the Supreme Court without knowing very much about history or humanity. While Scalia is often characterized as an intellectual, this seems overly generous. He’s more like an idiot legal savant who works within a particular metaphysical tradition. He should study some anthropology to broaden his narrow worldview.

Justice Scalia -- High Priest of Law or Medieval Monk

Justice Scalia — High Priest of Law or Medieval Monk


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4 thoughts on “Bedevilment of Justice Scalia

  1. Onoosh

    “Idiot legal savant…” I like that, about as well as I do my husband’s characterization of our “friends” on Capitol Hill as “ideological suicide bombers!” But after I laugh, I tell myself “You know, it really isn’t funny: it’s scary.”

    Wonder if Scalia ever thought about the questions “Who [too bad there isn’t a plural] WROTE the Gospels, when, and why?” (I haven’t checked his vita, but surely he wasn’t a Jesuit product?)

    And you’re right: he needs to expand his reading list. Seriously. Isn’t it interesting how some supposedly educated people apparently spend their entire academic careers, and then their later lives, simply shoring up their preexisting prejudices? I often think that mindset must be a prerequisite for holding office.

  2. PLStepp

    Your final paragraph bothers me. I agree with your final sentence–Scalia should study some anthropology, broaden his ability to think outside his particular location. But his Eurocentric etc. views do not = that he “knows nothing about history or humanity,” or cannot / should not be “characterized as an intellectual.” He knows as much about history / humanity as others who were schooled the way he was. And surely intellectualism is also about brainpower, rigor, and curiosity, not just being a global thinker who is always aware of his/her location.

    And you ignore the context of his conversation. Scalia’s rejoinder to the reporter, with the exception of his lack of broader perspective, is factually correct (most Americans believe the biblical devil exists; Jesus certainly reflected his culture’s beliefs about the devil) and on point.

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