America is exceptional. It’s exceptional because of our love for and commitment to individual freedom. And the first individual freedom delineated in the Bill of Rights is the freedom of religion.
This first freedom is the subject of Kevin Hasson’s wonderful little read: “The Right to Be Wrong.” (Hasson is the founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty).
Hasson, ever the storyteller, begins with an illustrative tale of the Pilgrims. Pilgrims, you see, are an archetype. They represent both early and modern Americans wishing to use the power of the State to “coerce the religious consciences of those with whom they disagree.” It turns out actual Pilgrims weren’t great at the whole religious freedom thing. They created state-run churches. They suppressed religious dissent. They even executed dissenters for nothing more than preaching their version of the Word.
Hasson’s next archetype is the Park Ranger. Park Rangers represent bureaucrats and others who work to ensure the public square is scrubbed clean of religion. Why call these people Park Rangers, you ask? Because in the late 1980s, a crane operator left a parking barrier at the back of Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden. Park rangers (yes, actual park rangers), cared little about the barrier until a group of New Agers began worshipping it — apparently, it resembled the Hindu god Shiva. Overnight, the long-forgotten parking barrier became public enemy number one, and the barrier was scheduled for immediate removal.
Having identified the extremists, Hasson takes us on a tour through American religious history. The reader is taught the fragility of religious freedom, and that good intentions are often fleeting. For example, Maryland (named, in part, after the Virgin Mary) was created as a Catholic haven. Within a decade, however, Protestants took over the government, arrested Catholic leaders, and sent them to England in chains.
Such is the problem with merely tolerating religious freedom: toleration is fickle. The political winds change, and when they do, politicians suppress the consciences of non-majority believers.
To fix this problem, enter the idea of religious freedom as a fundamental human right. Rights, unlike politically fickle tolerance, work as an absolute bar against government intrusion. Rights are guaranteed. Toleration is momentary. This is the insight of Madison and Jefferson.
In a surprisingly insightful portion of the book, Hasson recounts how the First Amendment was actually a compromise and, largely, a failure. It only precluded the federal government (not the states) from coercing religious conscience by perpetuating state-run religions. It also did not secure every citizen’s right to free exercise. It was, unfortunately, a compromise that allowed to the continued systematic and state-sanctioned suppression of minority believers.
This situation changed after the Civil War. At that point, the First Amendment’s religious protections were enforced against the states. This meant every person had at least a minimal and universal religious freedom protection — finally.
Hasson also discusses modern religion clause jurisprudence. (Hint: it’s a damn mess.)
Perhaps most interesting are Hasson’s thoughts on how to end the current culture war over religion.
Remember, the Park Rangers (yes, they again) want no religion in the public square. But this is an exceedingly inhuman condition. Believers cannot hide their beliefs. Conscience doesn’t work that way. Because we are social creatures, conscience begs to be shared. And not just shared among a few, but openly, to the masses. Conscience informs our worldview. Suppression of conscience is to suppress what makes us human — an unnatural condition indeed. Artificially enforced silence about religion, but not about any other subject, sends the unmistakable message religion is unimportant, shameful, and not fit for public consumption.
Also remember, the Pilgrims wanted to suppress all but their conscience. This attitude is just as misguided and inhuman as the Park Rangers’. It inevitably leads to violence and forced worship, which worship Rogers Williams declared “stinks in God’s nostrils.”
So, if neither the Pilgrims nor the Park Rangers possess the Truth, what is to be done? Hasson suggests we allow all religions in the public square. That’s right, all religions, in the square. Just like the Fourteenth Amendment allows governments to openly celebrate both Black History Month and St. Patrick’s Day, without intimating governments love blacks and hate whites, and love the Irish and hate the British, so does the First Amendment allow governments to openly celebrate Christmas and Hanukah without intimating governments love Christians and Jews, but hate Muslims and Hindus. (This is especially true because Muslims and Hindus could freely and openly celebrate their religious holidays in the public square.) All religions in the square out of respect for individual conscience.
Hasson’s is a new (and I use that term in the sense that all things old become new again) concept of religious liberty. He may be right. He may be wrong. At least he knows he has the right to be wrong.
- Religious Belief Doesn’t Matter (utahpoliticohub.com)