The Right To Be Wrong:
Ending The Culture War Over Religion In America
by Kevin Seamus Hasson
Encounter Books, 2005
(147 pages, $25.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Amanda Witt
Pilgrims,” writes the founder and chairman of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, are “truth-at-all-costs zealots of one persuasion or another” who think only their religion should be allowed in public, while “Park Rangers” are “equal-opportunity oppressors who seek, in the name of freedom, to exclude all religious elements of culture, whatever the underlying faith might be.”
The Becket Fund, a non-partisan, interfaith, public-interest law firm, has successfully defended the religious rights of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Native Americans, and Zoroastrians. “We defend all faiths,” writes Hasson, himself a Catholic. “But we are not relativists. On any given day, I think most of my clients are wrong. But I firmly believe that, in an important sense, they have the right to be wrong.”
Pilgrims versus Rangers
The Pilgrims are getting a lot of press these days, what with worries that the religious right is trying to establish a theocracy. Hasson notes that early in our country’s history, certain groups did use the law to impose their own particular understanding of spiritual truth on others, including Puritans who went so far as to execute persistent Quaker evangelists (after cutting off their ears proved an ineffective deterrent).
But is the answer to go to the other extreme, as the Park Rangers do? Not unless we prefer our culture “homogenized and bland,” Hasson writes. Not unless we prefer “Breakfast with the Special Bunny” instead of Easter, or “special person cards” instead of Valentines (both real-life examples). Such substitutions not only are aesthetically vacuous, but treat holidays as if they are just an excuse for a party, and not an embodiment of our “understanding of life.”
And contrary to the Park Rangers’ desires, we cannot keep religion to ourselves. “We don’t believe in private because we don’t live in private,” Hasson says. “We humans are social creatures. If something is important to us, we naturally want to celebrate it, or mourn it, together with others.”
Moreover, our religious beliefs affect who we are in public, not just in private. As an example, Hasson traces the history of military conscientious objectors. He then asks:
What, then, should we think of other sorts of less popular conscientious objectors today? . . . What of Orthodox Jews, who must keep the Sabbath? What of the Amish, who must shun technology; of the Plymouth Brethren, who may not serve on juries; of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who may not salute the flag? What of doctors and nurses of a variety of faiths who may not assist in abortions?
Each of these, Hasson argues, has the right to act according to his conscience in such matters, both in private and in public—a right he seeks to ground not in law, or God, but in “observable human traits.”
Hasson is forthright about why he frames the solution in these terms: He wants to find common ground. “Not even as noble a claim as the Jewish and Christian one that all are created in the image and likeness of God will be convincing to someone outside of those traditions,” he writes. So, during an interview on an Arab satellite network (recounted in his book), he explains that:
While we couldn’t agree on who God is, we could and should agree on who we are. That we share a thirst for the true and the good, and a conscience that drives our quest to find them and then insists we embrace and express publicly what we believe we’ve found. That if we can agree on this much, then we share a profound truth: The truth about man is that man is born to seek freely the truth about God.
Religious believers can think others are wrong and even warn others of eternal consequences, “but in the here-and-now, we would each recognize that the other had—in truth—the right to be wrong.”
This is a valiant attempt to promote religious freedom, but in the end Hasson winds up back where we started. Even setting aside the thorny question of whether we all do “share a thirst for the true and good,” it is simply not credible that we can ground religious liberty in who we are as humans separate and apart from our gods, for we all define ourselves in terms of our gods.
Hasson acknowledges as much when he admits that his first Islamic caller asked the moderator, “Why are you dialoguing with this infidel? Why don’t you just wage jihad on him?” Our gods give widely varying descriptions of what humans are and of what rights humans have.
Even those who say they have no gods are defined by that lack. Philosophical materialists think humans are nothing but highly evolved animals. They do not agree with Hasson that we have the inherent right to “seek freely the truth about God,” because they do not believe God exists. Many think not only that religion is superstition, but that it should be stamped out. Toward that end, they have convinced many people who do believe in God that there is such a thing as a metaphysically neutral stance where all can come together peacefully: secular humanism.
That is why, although in theory the law allows for Hasson’s vision of a culture where everyone is allowed to celebrate his beliefs, in practice public expressions of belief increasingly are being outlawed.
As Hasson says, the “free exercise clause, if allowed to mean what it says . . . could be quite potent . . . [and] could protect us from both the Pilgrims and the Park Rangers.” In other words, the law allows for free exercise of religion, but judges do not usually interpret it that way. And so, he says, “the Park Rangers are mostly winning under the status quo.”
Indeed. At the Discovery Institute, my husband reasons every day with hyperactive Park Rangers who say that the law should prohibit the theory of intelligent design in public-school science classes (regardless of the empirical evidence in its favor) because it has religious implications. They want every trace of religion wiped out of public life.
For the most part, they want religion wiped out not because they are mean and nasty people, but because they honestly believe religious people are delusional. They do not believe we are seeking the truth; they think we are living a lie. They think that we are dangerous lunatics, a threat to public safety.
The philosophical materialists’ “religion,” then, often takes a form that is incompatible with the free exercise of other religions; they want their religion, and only their religion, exercised in the public square—which means that this sort of Park Ranger is really a Pilgrim in disguise.
Hasson’s book beautifully describes the problem from the days of the Puritans to the present, and for that alone it is worth the price. He tells history the way it should be told, as vivid human conflict that is painfully relevant today. But his optimistic solution misses a deeper problem: Some religious systems are incompatible with religious pluralism, even and especially when practiced faithfully.
As long as those systems are a minority viewpoint in a culture, the problem remains dormant. But what happens when a religion based on the survival of the fittest, or the will to power, or a call to kill your enemies and do harm to those who verbally persecute you, becomes the dominant religion? That question is the subject for another book.
The Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, for which Jonathan Witt works, can be found at www.discovery.org/csc.
Amanda Witt discusses Christianity, culture, and life as a homeschooling mother at the weblog Wittingshire (www.wittingshire.blogspot.com). She lives with her husband and three children in Port Orchard, Washington.
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