The Optimist: Reflections on Justice Scalia

Some thoughts of mine on Justice Scalia at Commonweal. A bit from the end that is connected with our Tradition Project:

His optimism is perhaps nowhere more evident than in his Establishment Clause opinions, which express his appreciation for the traditions of the American accommodation of law and religion, and his hopeful expectation that American people would maintain, cherish, and be sustained by that inheritance. That optimism underlies much of his jurisprudence. In constitutional law, he believed that tradition is itself an independently powerfully reason in the law’s interpretation. That emphasis on American tradition led him to the view (often expressed in dissent) that “acknowledgement of the contribution that religion has made to our Nation’s legal and governmental heritage” is permissible under the Establishment Clause.

In my judgment, he was largely correct about this. Even more, however, Scalia was convinced that the American tradition of public religion—public prayer, for example—was a uniting force of civic fellowship. Hearing a public prayer in a tradition different from one’s own, he argued in his Lee v. Weisman dissent, would not lead to public discord, but to greater harmony, mutual understanding, and even civic “affection.” How old-fashioned this view seems amid today’s cacophony of demands for validation based on identity or interest group.

Yet it is in his free-exercise jurisprudence that Scalia’s optimism in the commonplace American character was tested and stretched to the breaking point. His seminal contribution was Employment Division v. Smith, where the Court held that a neutral law of general application did not implicate the Free Exercise Clause even if the law had the effect of burdening religion. Many critics of Smith (I am one) miss that what may first appear as a hard and parsimonious rule for religious freedom is closely coupled in Scalia’s opinion with a deep faith and optimism that people, acting through their legislatures, would do right by their religious brethren, would be magnanimous and charitable toward them whenever they could be:

Values that are protected against government interference through enshrinement in the Bill of Rights are not thereby banished from the political process. Just as a society that believes in the negative protection accorded to the press by the First Amendment is likely to enact laws that affirmatively foster the dissemination of the printed word, so also a society that believes in the negative protection accorded to religious belief can be expected to be solicitous of that value in its legislation as well.

Scalia was determinedly sanguine in his opinions about American solicitude for religion. Religious liberty and tolerant good will could never be eradicated from the core spirit and innate generosity of the American people. The people might go astray; they might make mistakes. But in the long run and in the main, the best and most secure outcomes for religious freedom will reflect popular negotiations rather than Court-imposed “solutions.”

So sanguine was he that even as late as 2012, Scalia—a deeply faithful and committed Catholic—could obdurately persist in telling John Allen in an interview that “if the bishops want an exception from the law [in this case the contraception mandate in Obamacare], they should try to get it through the democratic process…. Americans are very generous about accommodating religious beliefs.” The Congress that passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993 was more pessimistic in its long-term assessment of the character of the American people. Alas, it was probably more accurate as well.

In fact, one may wonder whether Justice Scalia’s faith in the American people in the long run will be rewarded. Certainly he must have had his doubts. Especially toward the end, he must have known and regretted that his “wins” were so “damn few.” So they were, and so, perhaps, they will be. But to Scalia’s great credit, those doubts and regrets never appeared in his written opinions. And over the truly long run, optimism is not so bad a bet.

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