Ninety-eight to zero. An impressive score in any game. And one unlikely ever to be seen again with regard to our nation’s Supreme Court. Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Antonin Scalia was appointed in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan. His Senate confirmation vote? 98-0.
When Justice Scalia, 79, passed away this week, our nation lost a brilliant legal mind, a man whose incredible intelligence and breadth of knowledge coupled with a deftly-wielded pen and wry wit to produce amazing results. Friend or foe, no one who spent time with Scalia ever left unimpressed and neutral, wondering how Scalia’s argument could have been made more skillfully or, many would say, more delightfully. Boring, dull, lifeless? Neither Scalia nor his positions ever were.
An astounding agility of mind paired with a quick smile and a predilection for laughter is an amazing combination, particularly if your most vociferous opponents find smiles and laughter very challenging. Listening to a recording of his speech in 2005 at the Woodrow Wilson Center, I kept having images of a black-robed cherub smiling, turning phrases incredibly, and about to get into delightful mischief.
Scalia has been described as a “strict constructionist” in interpreting the Constitution. He eschewed that term, arguing not for a strict or a loose interpretation, simply a “reasonable interpretation” centered on what it actually meant when it was written. He preferred the term “originalist,” by which he meant an increasingly small number of judges, lawyers, professors, and anyone else whose approach to the Constitution is “to begin with the text and give that text the meaning that it bore when it was adopted by the people.”
Scalia said that was the orthodox position for many years. Not now. Now the prevailing view is that the Constitution is a changing, evolving, “living” document, which is convenient if you wish to give it almost any meaning at all, based perhaps on the latest opinion polls: “The Constitution didn’t used to mean that, but it does now.” Hogwash, said Scalia.
To beaming grammar school students proudly parroting, “The Constitution is a living document,” Scalia had news: No, it’s not; it’s dead. But also more news to mitigate the sorrow: It was never alive. It was and is a dead, though amazing, document that meant what it said and still does. Scalia’s reading it this way sometimes maddened both liberals and conservatives. A very good sign, I think.
For American Christians like me, does such a discussion of how to properly read the Constitution have anything to say about how we properly read the Bible? I think so.
The short answer is, we first make the effort to understand the kind of document it actually is. Parts of the Old Testament, for example, are literally “law,” setting forth a specific code of conduct. But the New Testament bears witness to a living Lord who relates to his people not on the basis of law but through a life-giving Spirit. What difference does that make? All the difference in the world.
I’ll miss Justice Scalia, as will our nation. I like the way that incredible mischief-making Constitution-loving “cherub” forced us to actually try to think.
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Copyright 2016 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.