Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia will indeed be missed. At the news of his passing, I felt a similar sensation to that of the loss of Pope John Paul II in April of 2005. Both were men of great influence, and both had exercised unmatched intellectual talents, and both had held their positions of leadership for a very long time. With Pope John Paul II at the helm, the Church had enjoyed a quiet sense of confidence that certain issues and threats were just going to be handled.
Something of the same could be said about the Court and about America with Scalia on the bench. And now, as was the case with John Paul II as well, we are left to struggle on and figure things out in the absence of an out sized, stabilizing figure.
The reaction in the wake of his unexpected death has been extraordinary. It is as if a great lynch pin holding together several massively opposed bodies or currents has just snapped and all political Hell has broken lose.
The tensions are many and have been building for years. At the core of if it is the ongoing destabilization of pretty much every American cultural norm and institution that have been with us from the beginning of our history. One by one so many ideals and notions that were simply givens once upon a time have been deconstructed leaving much of the population searching for the next movement or vision to grab on to that will unify us and move us forward as a nation.
Justice Scalia was, in many ways, one of the key figures and forces trying to keep all the pieces together. This is the nature of Conservatism, and many would say that is why historically, any conservative always finds himself on the retreating front of the cultural war (or cultural advance, depending upon your perspective).
Part of why the current presidential campaign has been so volatile and has centered around such radical figures as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is precisely because everyone senses that the center of gravity holding the whole rapidly spinning solar system that is America has been lost. That is what happens after decades of deconstruction.
So it only makes sense that with the loss of Scalia (rather like losing the Sun, in more ways than one), we are on the threshold of the next level of chaos. And both sides are clearly aware of this, as is evidenced by both President Obama’s reactions and those of the Republican Senate leadership. A great deal is indeed at stake.
The question should be asked in the face of all of this: should the death, and appointment, of one Supreme Court Justice really make that much difference? In the vast apparatus of the government, in the light of our Constitutional system of the sharing of powers, how does one position wield such influence?
I have been arguing for awhile now that these days the key questions of the nation (cultural, economic, political) are no longer determined by the legislative or the executive processes of our legal and governing apparatus. No, they are all determined by the 9 member Supreme Court. Un-elected, unaccountable, serving for life. It is a bit like a 9 member tyranny.
Some would argue that in ruling on key questions, the Court has tried to stay within the lines of where they think the culture is already moving, as expressed in legislation and executive actions locally and nationally, and therefore they are only articulating what America has already essentially decided.
That is only partially true. With any given decision, the Court can strike down or reverse the actions of a whole bunch of State Legislatures, and in cases where the general population is still divided, the Court’s ruling is the switch that throws the whole country in one direction or another, whether everyone is ready for it or not.
The real decision maker these days really is the Court. And not only that, it is a Court that (again, on the high profile and key questions, and whether they have intended to convey this or not) is evenly split between two vastly differing worldviews.
And now it seems quite likely that the scales are at long last going to tip away from the “conservative” direction and into the “progressive” direction. Which puts us on the cusp of our next cultural and societal lurch “forward” or “backward” depending upon who you ask.
Such moments are scary ones, and they do test one’s faith. The Church has always tried to offer to society and to the culture around us the light and wisdom of our teachings, and the best of our processes, as the various tribes, empires, and nations come and go during the long Christian era.
Perhaps right now the best thing to offer to America, after Scalia and in this difficult moment, is simply good behavior and virtue, and to stand at peace in the presence of the Lord, trusting that He will work His purposes out, whether we like them or not.
Justice Scalia will be missed. He spent much of his career advancing arguments that were intended to protect us from putting so much weight in the make up of the Court itself. When it all shakes out, only time will tell if he was the conservative one or in fact the progressive one.
That is the funny, and reassuring thing, about living in the light of unchanging truth as Scalia sought to do for his whole life. Such people are always on the right side of history.