"What do you think about Satan?" That's not a typical question at the Supreme Court, but those words were indeed uttered by Justice Scalia on January 10. The question drew a near belly laugh from the packed gallery, leaving one to wonder whether the Devil has become nothing more than a joke in modern America.
I have been a lawyer in Washington, D.C., for over eight years now, but this was my first time to witness an argument before the Supreme Court. I exited the subway near the House of Representatives and was anxiously ushered across the street as multiple sirens roared in response to a threat that, thankfully, never fully materialized. I then walked along toward the Court on a Capitol Hill that was donned in flags at half mast.
I came having worked a bit on a matter that was to be heard second, but I was advised to sit through the first case to guarantee a seat. That first case involved the disclosure standard required of companies when faced with potentially bad (even if unfounded) news. Specifically, the company that makes the Zicam cold remedy did not disclose what an Arizona district court judge later held to be "statistically insignificant" reports that suggested some users of the product might be losing their sense of smell. The story eventually broke on Good Morning America and the stock tanked.
Satan showed up when the justices, as they often do, sought to push the bounds of each side's arguments with extreme hypothetical questions. Would unfounded rumors of satanic connections (such as have dogged Procter & Gamble for years) be material enough to warrant a formal disclosure under the Court's test addressing information that a "reasonable shareholder" would need to know? It's not an entirely crazy question: such strange allegations dogged Procter & Gamble for decades and became the subject of a high-profile lawsuit in which the company sued some Amway distributors for spreading the rumors. A jury eventually awarded Procter & Gamble $19.25 million in 2007.
Several justices asked "satanic" questions, all in a manner that suggested that no "reasonable" person would ever seriously consider "irrational" notions that a product could be linked to "satanic influences." One might as well have substituted the tooth fairy for Satan. Justice Scalia put it most bluntly and drew the biggest laugh. The government's lawyer (surprise) did not directly answer his question.
I have no reason to doubt the sincere religious faith of any of the justices, but while some remained silent none in any way sought to suggest that, rather than being a laughing matter, perhaps the hypothetical questions were straying into a truly dangerous domain. I laughed too, but quickly began to feel quite uncomfortable with the scene. While I worry about those who see the Devil everywhere, I worry even more about a culture that fails to see the demonic (or the sacred) anywhere.
The eerie inquiry came a few minutes after the Marshal of the Court had, in keeping with tradition established long ago, proclaimed, "God save the United States and this honorable court," and a few minutes before the Court joined in a national "moment of silence" for the victims of the shooting spree in Arizona that left six dead (including a federal judge, as Chief Justice Roberts noted) and has Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life.
As I bowed my head to pray, I asked the Almighty (who now is publicly replaced by silence if not yet laughter) to bind a Devil who seems to be quite actively at work (as evidenced by the actions of a deranged young atheist in Tucson) even while the real possibility of his evil existence is ignored in the hearts of men and the halls of earthly power.
Earlier articles on the Devil and all his works include:
Operation Evil Power | If Christ has truly defeated the powers of Satan on the Cross (Col. 2:15), why do the powers of evil effectively operate in this world? (February 2004)
Possessed or Obsessed? | Many Christians say they are in need of deliverance but some may be giving demons more than their due. (September 2001)
Is Satan Omnipresent? | If not, how does he tempt many people at one time? (September 2000)