I wrote this way back in 2005 for Spero News but discovered that their site clips a good portion of the text. I’m rerunning it here to preserve the review because this is a book that still informs the way I try to deal with those with whom I disagree. And Heaven only knows that these days we’ve been given many things to disagree about.
It seems as if our country is caught up in an endless religious war that is being fought with grim determination. No, this isn’t about the war on terror. It is about the annual battle over public nativity scenes at Christmas, the skirmishes over allowing school Halloween parties, whether Jews for Jesus are allowed to preach at the Los Angeles Airport, and much more. In short, it is about how much and what sort of religious freedom is granted in this country.
One side (dubbed “Pilgrims” in the book) wants to legally coerce any religious conscience with which they disagree while the other side (called “Park Rangers”) thinks that all religion must be purely private. Both seem prepared to battle to the death over these issues. The rest of us, that vast majority in the middle, duck and cover as best we can while wondering why we must always fight every detail of anything to do with religion. After all, it didn’t used to be this way. Did it?
Actually, it used to be much worse, as Kevin Hasson tells us in The Right to Be Wrong. He is a constitutional lawyer who now heads up a non-partisan, public-interest law firm that specializes in defending free religious expression for all faiths. Hasson asserts, “We defend all faiths 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.” This is not a very long book and it is written in a conversational and easy style, but it packs a heavy punch.
Hasson cuts to the heart of the issue by turning our focus to conscience, that interior voice that won’t be still until we do the right thing. The core of any discussion about religion, according to Hasson, is that we recognize the inherent right of each person to follow his or her conscience just as we would wish them to allow us to follow ours.
Conscience won’t let us be satisfied with resting on the truth we already know, the good we already embrace. There is an unease we experience, an unease that pushes us on to seek ever-deeper truths and choose ever-better goods. Sometimes we ignore it; sometimes we try to suppress it. Conscience, however, demands that we attend to it and miss no opportunity to try to satisfy it. Conscience is forever insisting that we look here, or search there, or try this or that in our quest for the true and the good.
And then conscience still isn’t content. It won’t stand for the argument that searching alone should suffice. Conscience demands not only that we seek but that we embrace the truth we believe we’ve found. It insists that, at whatever cost, our convictions follow through into action. And it’s famously stubborn about this, sending generation after generation of dissidents to all sorts of deprivations in the name of integrity…
In the process of proving this point, Hasson takes the reader on a journey through the history of American religious liberty. We soon discover that there was precious little to be had before modern times. The Pilgrims, whose vaunted quest for tolerance landed them on American shores, quite knowingly practiced a double standard and forcefully suppressed any opposing opinions. We are shown why Roger Williams founded Maryland in order to practice true religious tolerance only to have the laws changed after he died. Similarly William Penn’s vision of religious liberty was soon practiced in quite a different way after his influence waned. James Madison emerges as a man who had a surprisingly accurate vision of religious liberty and, possibly, the influence to get the proper laws passed. It is all the more disappointing, then, to learn that he let Thomas Jefferson influence him to weaken them. As a result, Quakers, Catholics, and Jews were routinely discriminated against by one state after another. It is safe to say that for most of American history, you were free to practice any religion you liked, as long as you wanted to be Protestant.
This is the legacy that has put us in the position in which we find ourselves today. Without that history of intolerance, there would not be the backlash that insists there is no place at all for religion in public life. One could hardly blame the Park Rangers for insisting on suppressing public displays of religion except that, in their turn, they are so very extreme. Under the guise of religious freedom the Park Rangers have exercised their own form of oppression so effectively that ludicrous displays of celebration can be found everywhere: a public school system in Michigan offers “Breakfast with a Special Bunny” to avoid using the word Easter, another school system requires that the children exchange “special person cards” in lieu of valentines, and an Ohio bureaucrat explained a decorated tree in December by saying it was to celebrate Pearl Harbor Day. This in turn alarms the Pilgrims who push back even harder. Although it is clear to all bystanders that this is really about one side or the other getting their own way, both sides insist they are advocating universal religious freedom. No one on either side is practicing any true tolerance at all, just like the good old days, in fact.
… Ask either faction whether it believes religious liberty is a human right and you’ll get a passionate, tub-thumping — mostly hypocritical — speech in favor of the idea. That’s because religious freedom is so familiar, so American a concept that nobody can really admit to opposing it. That would be like opposing apple pie. So even those who are at each other’s throats over religious liberty have to insist they all absolutely love the stuff. Instead of confessing that they’re actually opposed to religious freedom for all, the Pilgrims and the Park Rangers among us equivocate. When they say they support “religious freedom,” the Pilgrims mean the freedom of their religion, while the Park Rangers mean freedom from others’ religions. That way, they can all sound so very American — they can say they’re in favor of something called religious freedom — and still be as oppressive as they want to be.
However, that is where Hasson’s insistence on the value of conscience is so valuable. By reminding us that conscience is the core of religious conviction, he takes us to the true turning point of religious liberty. This in turn frees us to totally disagree with another’s religious convictions while, with complete integrity, conceding that they do, indeed, have the right to be wrong. It is this attitude that allows Hasson to be in the position of being both invited to Hasidic Jewish weddings and also to be a guest speaker on the Arab network Al-Jazeera. His respect of the integrity of others’ consciences has earned him their respect in turn. That is the attitude that will help dig America out of our internal religious wars and just possibly bring us, at long last, true religious liberty.