In the immediate aftermath of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, the mass media often mentioned a quirky little detail of his life–that he was a member of a secretive, little-known group known as the Society of St. Hubertus. The Society celebrates hunting as an activity, and has its symbols and its rituals; these are said to include green robes emblazoned with a large cross with a superimposed Latin legend that translates to “Honoring God by Honoring His Creatures.”
Like many of these “gentry” organizations, this one had its origin in Europe, and is open to a select, males-only group. Much as I find this sort of thing vaguely funny (Robes? For hunters? And “boxed bird” hunts, where rich men go in pursuit of pheasants or other game birds placed conveniently where they will pass?), hunting is not what this sort of thing is really about. It is a way that the movers and shakers of society get together, out of the spotlight, to decide how to run the world.
Scalia went on a hunt with then vice-president Dick Cheney a few years ago, before a case involving Cheney and his “need for secrecy” in the case of a government interagency energy task force came before the Supreme Court. Scalia did not recuse himself from the case and I’ll just bet it never came up (Heh, heh…) during the hours in the field. The Court sided with Cheney’s claim to secrecy. Would it have done the same had Cheney never had his private hunt with Scalia? I can’t say. Neither can anyone else. But without slipping into conspiracy theories, I can say it at least can give the appearance of impropriety.
Let’s go a bit deeper into the weeds. Let’s say Scalia was a man of serious and deep convictions in many matters, because he was. Some of these matters were matters of government, and I would say, along with millions of other Americans, that others were matters of religion. We take the separation of church and state more or less for granted in this country, don’t we? But what if someone like Scalia or someone in a similar position did not? As has often been pointed out, the separation doctrine does not appear, in those words, either in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. There are plenty of writings by Jefferson and others of the Founders that point to it, but that is the extent of it. There is, perhaps now more than at any other time, a good amount of overt and covert attempt to inject religion into the public arena. More than one presidential candidate has suggested that there is or should be a tacit religious test for the presidency.
You can now be excused if you are wondering what this all has to do with Antonin Scalia and his term on the Supreme Court. Only that Scalia has been widely described as possibly or probably a member of Opus Dei, the secretive (much more than any hunting club) Roman Catholic organization. This is not the Knights of Columbus. Opus Dei means “The Work of God.” The details of its founding by a Spanish priest in the 1920’s are widely available. Its (open) aim is to “re-establish Christian ideals in modern Society,” as per the Oxford English Dictionary.
That definition establishes two central tenets without saying so. One is implicit: if something is to be re-established, then (a) it was established at some time in the past, but (b) it has fallen away. The second is always implicit in anything involving the Roman Catholic church: “Christian ideals” are as “we” (the church, with its voice residing in Rome) define them. Dissent is not welcomed. Traditional Christian ideals would be seen as synonymous with traditional Roman Catholic ideals by members of Opus Dei.
When a hot-button issue came to the court during Scalia’s tenure, his was a sure vote for the “good old days.” Abortion? The more restrictions, the merrier, for Scalia. Breaking with tradition was almost always wrong. In his written opinions and his public speeches, he underlined that position, defending the execution of minors and discrimination against gay citizens. In 2002, asked why he favored legal sanctions against homosexual behavior, he replied, “It’s been illegal for 200 years in every state.”
Antonin Scalia was apparently a true believer in his personal life and in his public and private speech and thought. The trouble with that is that it is absolutely irrelevant to his duties as a Supreme Court justice, just as it would be if Judge So-and-so were a “good Jew” or a “good Mormon” or you name it. Religion, as practiced by one group or another, does not shape equality of citizens under the law, or other sensitive workings of the Constitution, and naming another justice with similar proclivities would continue the encroachment of religion into constitutional law.
This, at its heart, is why the current edition of the Republican-controlled Senate is having its extended tantrum over President Obama’s naming of a more centrist judge to Scalia’s seat. They have grown used to relying on that ultra-traditionalist vote when anything comes before the Court that might threaten the grip of the so-called “Christian Right” on the political life of the country. While this cabal of self-righteous, ultra-capitalists whines about a “war on Christianity” or whatever they choose to call the threat of the moment, their lawyers work backward from the desired conclusion to build a justification for it. During Scalia’s term, an appeal to “how it’s always been” was a sure way to get him (and usually his disciples, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito) on board.
Am I now so old that I remember so many things that used to be, but never should be again? Voting restrictions in many states that ensured that African Americans never voted? The legal exclusion of women from voting? Compulsory-for-all prayers and even religious education in public schools? There are other examples, but I digress.
I have now done two blog posts touching on the Constitution of the United States. It is, indeed, a deathless document, but it was written at the time of an infant country of 13 states huddled on the Eastern seaboard, pre-industrial, agrarian, and hard by a dangerous frontier. More than 200 years later, we are a mighty nation that has grown strong, resilient, and, above all, adaptable. Things came to exist and things ceased to exist during those 200 years, but the Framers’ document has survived and is a model to the world, and just as adaptable as the nation and as the government it established . I, for one, hope another Scalia is not Court-bound. His intelligence, wit, and writing skills deserve the praise they are getting. His narrow-mindedness and condescension for those who disagreed with him are not going to be missed.