Skip to main content

Don't mock Scalia about the devil

By Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, Special to CNN
October 10, 2013 -- Updated 1604 GMT (0004 HKT)
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
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT