Skip to main content

Don't mock Scalia about the devil

By Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, Special to CNN
updated 12:04 PM EDT, Thu October 10, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza: Interview with Justice Antonin Scalia took a turn toward religion
  • Interviewer surprised Scalia believes in devil, and writer has faced similar surprise
  • She says as recent Catholic she's been shocked at disdain some elites hold for faithful
  • Writer: Most in U.S. are religious, and policymakers shouldn't scoff at such convictions

Editor's note: Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza was deputy national press secretary of the Democratic National Committee during the 2008 election and co-authored with James Carville "40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation."

(CNN) -- I rarely agree with Justice Antonin Scalia, much less side with him in a public debate. But, like Scalia, I am a believer: I believe in God and the devil, and I believe it's bizarre that so many find that belief so curious.

In a widely discussed New York magazine interview with Scalia published Sunday, journalist Jennifer Senior prods the justice about his legacy until he proclaims, "When I'm dead and gone, I'll either be sublimely happy or terribly unhappy." That's where a discussion of heaven and hell, God and the devil, begins. Her reaction seems to be that it is outlandish to believe in God, much less the devil.

From this point onward, the tension in the interview is palpable. Yet Scalia gamely answers her questions about his beliefs. Yes, he believes in heaven and hell. No, you don't have to believe in heaven and hell to go to heaven -- everyone's going one place or the other.

Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza
Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza

For me this exchange recalls my first brushes with insistent secularists and atheists. I come from North Carolina, buckle of the Bible Belt, where few would proudly announce contempt for faith. It had not occurred to me before I left North Carolina that my religious beliefs might become a reason to feel alienated.

I am culturally Catholic, the product of Irish, Colombian and Spanish immigrants, but was not baptized in infancy or confirmed in adolescence. As a child, I said the Lord's Prayer because it comforted me, prayed for the souls of the dead because I loved them, but I hadn't met a catechism.

Opinion: Hey Justice Scalia, let's be friends

When I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for college, I was surprised to confront pervasive, vocal disdain for religion. I chalked it up to culture clash: These were brash young adults who'd seen less of the world than they'd studied, knew less about actual Americans than their counterparts on MTV. In reality, I had just moved from a culture in which faith was presumed to one in which the presumption was against faith.

Scalia's awareness of elite bias against belief shows. In the interview, he tries to make his beliefs legible to nonbelievers, showing humility and alluding to cultural touchstones. He admits, "I don't even know whether Judas Iscariot is in hell. I mean, that's what the pope meant when he said, 'Who am I to judge?' " (If you don't know Judas from the Bible, you'll recognize him from Dante's "Inferno.")

A look at Justice Antonin Scalia
Scalia: Judicial critics offend me
Toobin: Prop 8 ruling 'puzzling'

I can relate: Explaining faith, especially dogma, is difficult. As many of my peers seemed to be pulling away from formal religion, I opted in: I was baptized and confirmed at 27 -- in a triple-dunk, full-immersion baptism at the university church. Friends asked, what did my initiation mean -- and why Catholicism? Most queries seemed to demand that I justify my faith; some exoticized my Christian beliefs. I don't have all the answers yet. Discussing faith in public life is many orders of magnitude harder, but Scalia tried.

Scalia's interviewer was moving on when the justice "stage-whispered," "I even believe in the Devil." Senior pursues this out of curiosity, presumably, but her questions are inadvertently tinged with condescension: a surprised, "You do?" Even I, a literal neophyte, know most Christians believe in the devil in some form or another.

Scalia doesn't get testy until Senior asks, "Isn't it terribly frightening to believe in the Devil?" He replies: "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? Jesus Christ believed in the Devil! It's in the Gospels!" He admonishes, "You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil!"

Senior apologizes, explaining, "It wasn't your belief that surprised me so much as how boldly you expressed it." Scalia replies honestly: "I was offended by that. I really was." Scalia may have been harsh, but he's not wrong.

Today, as a third-year law student, I sit in seminars with students who scoff at the idea of lawmaking informed by religion, even though most Americans are religious.

I struggle with the question of how to make room for faith in conversations such as these. Should I interject, offer a different view or suggest lawmakers don't lightly disregard constituents' convictions? The same tensions are present in boardrooms, courtrooms and newsrooms across America -- New York magazine's interview of Scalia is just one demonstration.

I do not offer evidence of the devil, just a proposition for secularists and atheists: Even if you do not believe as people of faith do, respect their right to believe and hold opinions informed by belief. Starting from this position in discourse and debate might inaugurate a long overdue -- and respectful -- dialogue about faith in law and politics.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT