book cover imageThe Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America
by Kevin Seamus Hasson.
Encounter Books (New York), 220 pp., $25.95 cloth, 2005.

When the federal courts ordered Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore to remove his Ten Commandments monument from the halls of the state Supreme Court, the ensuing debate fell along familiar lines. Moore and his supporters argued that the Christian moral tradition is the bedrock of the American legal system and we should be unabashed in celebrating that history. Moore’s detractors, however, responded that religious symbolism was entirely inappropriate on state property—much less within the institution supposedly sworn to uphold the principle that religion and the state shall remain separate.

The Moore case, like so many others that pit the religious against the secular, embodies the core conflict in the so-called “culture war” over religion in American society. On the one hand are those who adhere to the absolute truths upon which their religious faith rests. This commitment to truth often renders those who disagree intolerable and may even justify using the power of the state to silence dissent. On the other hand are those who believe that others’ claims of truth have no place in public life. In their view, the very notion of “truth” inevitably breeds conflict, and therefore freedom requires that we as a society banish this inherently divisive concept from the public square. In his book The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America, Kevin Seamus Hasson, founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, terms those of the former persuasion “Pilgrims” because, like the early inhabitants of Plymouth Colony, they insist that religious truth is not meaningful unless it is legally established. The latter group, the “Park Rangers,” vigilantly patrol our society for any signs of public claims of religious truth. They ensure that religious conviction remains a purely private affair, an innocuous, even meaningless, stirring of the heart and mind that must remain internalized for the sake of civil society.

The provenance of the Park Ranger mentality is much more recent than the Pilgrim worldview. It derives from a relativistic intellectualism that is deeply skeptical of man’s ability to know and understand his world and therefore live according to objective moral precepts. The modern-day Pilgrim, by contrast, with his unwavering belief that truth has a public dimension that manifests itself in the way we live our lives, finds company down the ages. As Hasson demonstrates, the irony of seventeenth-century America is that those who sought religious freedom in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were remarkably incapable of affording other religious dissenters the same protection.

The author’s discussion of the early Puritan and colonial attempts at effective Church-State relations provides not only historical context for our nation’s centuries-long experiment with religious liberty, but also traces the evolution of principles—from repression to tolerance to rights-based notions of religious freedom—that culminates in his proposal for an authentic pluralism that permits all faiths into the public square, beyond both the coercive power of the Pilgrim and the marginalizing influence of the Park Ranger.

Certainly on a lesser scale than the present day, and with far fewer competing religious viewpoints, our pre-colonial forebears wrestled mightily (if not satisfactorily) with the religious dissent that inevitably accompanies a growing and increasingly pluralistic society. It is perhaps somewhat facile to dismiss the Plymouth Colony as simply repressive of dissent, if only because the early Puritan governors were not squelching disagreement out of some bald desire to maintain dominance, but because their very reason for being was to establish a civil society wholly reflective of the religious truth their faith had given them. To brook dissent, and worse, to permit its proponents to contribute to the political life of the community, would be the very instantiation of falsehood and no society built on such shaky moral foundations, they believed, could survive. The Puritan response to this incipient pluralism, therefore, was to repress it in the name of truth. This was perhaps not the most desirable form of social order, but nevertheless one that on some level reflected their belief in the relationship between the soul and the polity.

Hasson draws from the Puritans a “fundamental misunderstanding of conscience” that haunts us to this day and prevents Pilgrims and Park Rangers from understanding that authentic human freedom—premised on conscience—allows for robust religious expression in a variety of forms while respecting the rights of others to believe differently, or not at all. Critically, Hasson’s explication of conscience does not arise from, nor end in, moral relativism. Where the Puritans went wrong was not in their unwillingness to “maximize diversity” for its own sake (a dubious notion in any generation), but in their inability to respect the conscience of the dissenter. As the author explains:

Respect for conscience makes sense of clashing truth claims without denying them or relativizing them. It’s not that there is no truth, as the deconstructionists would have it, or that everything is somehow true for somebody, as the greeting-card writers would. It’s that people make mistakes about what the truth is, yet still have to obey their consciences nonetheless. So we can respect their duty to follow their consciences and embrace a particular faith—and at the very same time be utterly convinced that the faith they’re embracing is absolute drivel.

Thus, Hasson is carving out a public space for those of genuine motivation to seek the truth and grounding it in moral duty.

The repression of the Puritan era eventually ceded to the policy of “tolerance” in the eighteenth century, seemingly a clear improvement on what had gone before. In short, the problem with tolerance is that it is subject to the whim of the governing authorities. What is “tolerated” in today’s political climate may not be tomorrow, thus making respect for conscience a precarious thing indeed. What is required is a right to religious liberty, an entitlement that exists separate and apart from the state.

James Madison drafted the first “rights-based” statement of religious liberty in 1776, thus introducing the men who would draft the nation’s foundational documents to the notion that free exercise of religion is a natural right, originating in conscience and existing independently of government favor or disfavor. Hasson conveys well the significance of Madison’s couching religious liberty in the language of natural rights. By definition, human rights constitute moral and legal limits on government conduct. As such, an established right is not subject to compromise, legislative or otherwise. The point, of course, is that Madison (and Jefferson, despite his deep misgivings about organized religion generally) reaffirmed the inviolate conscience of man as the basis of religious liberty. That is, the essence of the Madisonian conception of religious liberty is that we each have “the right to be wrong”—to carry out our duties and obligations to God despite the fact that others may find our particular form of belief to be entirely unconvincing.

With this legal and social history as a backdrop, Hasson proposes a model for religious freedom that springs from universal principles. Absent from his thoughtful ruminations is the rancor that too often accompanies the public debate on religion. In the best of the natural law tradition, Hasson appeals to first principles accessible to all.

The universal right to religious liberty is the corollary of man’s desire to know. Religious freedom is a requirement for beings who by nature crave the truth about the most existential of questions. To deny that liberty is to deny man a critical means to the truth. Because the truth-seeking mind is most deeply engaged when it is searching for God, it is unnatural to deprive man of the freedom to satisfy this fundamental act of conscience. Finally, and most critically to Hasson’s theory of religion and public life, we must accept the intimate connection between individual conscience and public culture. Because man is by nature social, his search for truth causes him to engage the culture around him. A culture that refuses to recognize and reflect that which is most human—the search for God—is a culture devoid of a spiritual dimension. Such a culture is fractured, incomplete, and ultimately alien to the person of conscience.

Hasson’s principal contention is that an authentic culture reflects our full human nature, including its need to seek the truth about God. Consequently, culture can belong to neither the Pilgrim nor to the Park Ranger. The former represses conscience by coercing belief; the latter debases conscience by declaring that religion is too unimportant to contribute to public life. The author’s solution, elegant in its simplicity, is that “man is born to seek freely the truth about God,” and once he has found it, to “embrace and express publicly” that truth. Hasson in no way means to suggest that there is no truth or that each man defines his own truth. Objective truth exists, and no doubt many forms of religious belief do not comport with that truth. But that is the essence of Hasson’s entire foray into the “religion culture war”—that we are individually free, without abandoning our commitment to the truth, to believe according to conscience and organize our private and public lives around those beliefs. The “right to be wrong,” it turns out, is shorthand for striking a balance between the Pilgrims and the Park Rangers. To that end, Hasson’s book offers valuable guidance on creating a civil society that is not simply plural, but authentically human.
Kevin J. Doyle is an attorney in New Jersey.