Michael Novak, the well-known Catholic theologian at the American Enterprise Institute, died today.

I didn’t know him well and I didn’t know his work well. My late friend Roy Childs, Jr., was somewhat of a fan, if I recall correctly. When I read various people talking about how generous and classy a man he was, I agree. I had one interaction with him in which he implicitly gave me advice about my speaking style.

Novak, David Friedman, a couple of other speakers, and I were speaking at a day-long event held in the Silicon Valley and sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. There were a few hundred college students, mainly conservatives, in the audience. I can’t remember my topic but it was likely about how free markets are great and solve a lot of problems. That was a standard talk I gave in the late 1990s.

I normally do well with such topics in front of such audiences. But this time, the applause was only slightly above the level of “polite” and well over half the questions were hostile. I think I did a good job of fielding them because I adjusted quickly to the tone. When I sat down, I asked Michael, who I knew had to have given over 20 times, if not 100 times, the number of talks I had given, whether he noticed the audience’s hostility. He said that he had.

“I don’t understand it,” I said, “I usually do so well with such audiences.”

“They don’t like the fact that you don’t believe in God,” he said.

“How do they know that? I didn’t say a thing about belief in God.”

“Exactly,” he said, his eyes twinkling.