[Editor’s Note: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was one of the most influential members of the court until his death in 2016. Christopher Scalia and Ed Whelan have a new book, On Faith: Lessons from an American Believer. The book looks at the faith of the late justice, and how it affected his life. Kathryn Jean Lopez spoke to Christopher about his father, and why he felt this book was necessary.]
Lopez: Why did you feel this book needed to exist?
Christopher Scalia: This book, or at least a book like it, was my father’s idea: He’d been working on a collection of his speeches on religion before he passed away. Ed and I liked the idea of seeing that project through because it was so important to him, and because we thought people would appreciate what he had to say. So we included many of the speeches he had in mind and added excerpts from opinions involving the religion clauses of the Constitution, as well as reminiscences from people who knew him—old friends, family members, former clerks. I think the result is a collection that shows the depth of my father’s faith, as well as his concern that we were narrowing the space that our Founders cleared for religion in public life.
What was it about Antonin Scalia’s faith that we need today?
The recognition that being a religious believer means that we’ll often feel out-of-step with the world around us. He makes this point in a number of speeches, and it’s a reason St. Thomas More was one of his heroes: the saint was one of the smartest men of his age, but he also saw with the eyes of faith. My dad ended one of his favorite speeches this way: “It is the hope of most speakers to impart wisdom. It has been my hope to impart, to those already wise in Christ, the courage to have their wisdom regarded as stupidity.”
I should add that the book’s subtitle, Lessons from an American Believer, has a double meaning. There’s his religious belief, obviously, but there’s also a lot in this collection about religion’s place in American civic life—about the freedoms the Constitution grants for religious expression, as well as the limits it places on that expression. Dad thought that people needed to be reminded of those things.
What’s it like for a son putting this together from his father, about his father?
I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of the project. It’s been a pleasure to dive so deeply into his writing because it’s like hearing his voice again, and helping bring his ideas to a wider audience has been a great honor. But it’s also surreal—in part because it’s still hard to believe that he passed away, and also because I never imagined I’d be so closely involved with his work.
Have you learned things about your father you didn’t fully appreciate?
Absolutely. For one thing, I didn’t realize how many people were inspired by his example. The intensity of how he prayed during Mass had long impressed me and helped me understand the significance of what’s going on. And it turns out that it had a similar effect on other people, as some of the contributors to this collection make clear.
And secondly, I hadn’t realized how often he spoke about religion. I was aware of one of the speeches in this collection—”Not to the Wise,” which contrasts Thomas Jefferson with St. Thomas More. But before Ed and I started editing his speeches, I didn’t know that he delivered an address at the Annual Days of Remembrance to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. I didn’t know he made a trip to a Marine Corps air station to discuss America’s tradition of public religious expression. I simply hadn’t appreciated how often he discussed these topics and how many different groups he addressed.
Why did you let your brother, Father Paul Scalia, in on the book?
He threatened to excommunicate me if I didn’t let him write the introduction. I wasn’t really sure whether he had the authority to do that but better safe than sorry. Really though, it was important for us to have Father Paul involved. His homily at my father’s funeral Mass — which we include in here — moved so many people, so we were really grateful he was able to write an introduction. And he wrote a wonderful one that includes some powerful insights about my father’s belief.
How can this book be practical for people in public life?
It can help them balance that public life with a strong interior one.
How can this book be practical for the rest of us?
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that every speech in here has advice or insight that we can apply to our lives. (It even has a couple of prayers!) It’s funny, the book has been a bestseller on Amazon’s Self-Help for Catholics list, and as Ed likes to point out, it’s hard to imagine my father would appreciate that categorization—too new-agey for his taste. I can hear him say, “Catholics don’t do self-help — we need grace!” But I do think that’s one way of understanding some of what this book offers.
Why do you include him talking about a Catholic hamburger?
That odd image is from an important speech that dispels misconceptions about my father, shared by some of his detractors and supporters alike. My father explained that with some jobs, it’s easy to apply your faith; with others, it’s difficult. A Catholic short order cook, for example, can’t really make a Catholic hamburger, except by making it perfectly. What does that mean for a Catholic judge? He does not have the authority to impose his religious beliefs or policy preferences. As Dad put it, “My religious faith can give me a personal view on the right or wrong of abortion; but it cannot make a text say yes where it in fact says no, or a tradition say ‘we permit’ where it in fact has said ‘we forbid.’”
In short, the only way to be a Catholic cook or a Catholic Supreme Court justice is “to do those things honestly and perfectly.” Justice Thomas also puts it very well in his foreword to the collection: Dad’s “Catholic faith helped him to understand that he had no right or license to exceed his judicial authority or to abdicate his responsibilities.”
I always thought that Justice Scalia as a husband and father was important to see. Would that picture look remotely the same without faith?
No. Taylor Meehan, one of his clerks, puts it this way in the short reflection she contributed to the book: “the most visible sign of the justice’s faith was his marriage to Maureen and their nine children.”
He said in one of the speeches you include “I might have made a heck of a Jesuit.” How do his family and friends weigh in?
As funny as that is to imagine, I think it’s probably true. After all, he was educated by Jesuits in high school and college, and he had the intellectual firepower traditionally associated with the order. But he does qualify the remark by acknowledging that he’d be “perhaps somewhat out of step” with them nowadays. Anyway, we’re grateful he chose a different path.
Why did you include a talk on the importance of making retreats?
I like that one because it’s especially personal. He delivered it to a group of Georgetown students who’d been on a retreat, and he shared stories about disappointments he experienced in his life. For example, he had hoped President Reagan would nominate him to be solicitor general and was disappointed when he was passed over; but it ended up a blessing because if he’d been SG, he never would have been appointed to the Supreme Court. This speech also has some great advice. Like, “If you don’t have a weekend to spare once a year to think exclusively about the things that really matter—well, you haven’t planned your life correctly.”
How can his section on socialism be especially helpful now? What is its wisdom?
Given the apparent rise in socialism’s popularity, his message in that speech may be more important now than when he first delivered it in 1996. Dad didn’t focus on whether socialism was a good or bad system; his interest was whether socialism was more in keeping with Christianity than capitalism. Part of that speech’s wisdom is recognizing that when the government takes over charitable giving, both the donor and recipient are affected — as is the product being distributed. At the same time, he refrains from arguing that capitalism is a more Christian system than socialism — but he does say that it “is more dependent on Christianity than socialism is” because it grants abundant freedom, which can be abused if not tempered by Christian virtues.
How do you talk about someone’s faith without canonizing them, without downplaying the everyday weaknesses and stumbles we all have?
I just imagine my father shaking his head in disapproval if I did try to canonize him! My brother puts it well in his introduction: “My father was devout in his own rough-and-tumble manner. He practiced his faith, but he didn’t think his own example worth imitating or his own spiritual life worth speaking about.” Of course, I think Dad was wrong — elements of his faith and life are certainly worth imitating. But the point is that he recognized his imperfections and even joked about them in speeches.
What do you find people saying to you most in response to the book?
That they appreciate seeing this side of him in so much detail. I think it’s invigorating for people to encounter a public figure who was so strong in his faith, and so willing to defend a strong presence for religion in America’s public square.
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