- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006


By Kevin Seamus Hasson

Encounter, $25.95, 159 pages


A journalist recently heard the sub-title of “The Right to Be Wrong,” and laughed. “End the Culture War? Good luck. That’s not going to happen,” he said.

But Kevin Seamus Hasson is an optimist. Mr. Hasson is an attorney who founded the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a group that defends religious freedom around the world.

Late last year, the Becket Fund defended a Swedish pastor who had been jailed briefly and was being prosecuted for preaching from the Bible against homosexuality. Sweden’s Supreme Court acquitted the pastor, Ake Green, of all charges.

A month later the Becket Fund sent a letter to a Texas high school defending the right of Muslim students to pray during the school day. The school relented.

According to Mr. Hasson, we’d all be okay if we could accept that not all of us agree on the biggest questions. It’s not immoral to disagree with someone about the answers to the big questions, he says. But it is wrong for government to force people to ignore those questions in their everyday lives.

“It’s impossible for the government to be silent on religion in culture because its silence itself speaks volumes,” he writes. “It is implicitly saying something profound — that religion is at best an unimportant, and at worst a shameful, aspect of our lives.”

In other words, you can’t excise an opponent’s faith or religious convictions out of a public policy debate, or out of a public setting, just by muttering about the separation of church and state.

This is in stark contrast to pundits like Sam Harris, author of “The End of Faith,” who wrote in his best-selling antireligion book that “ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion.”

“The very idea of religious tolerance — born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants to about God — is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss,” Mr. Harris wrote.

“The Right to Be Wrong” is honest about the ways religion has been misused in America’s history to subjugate others, but Mr. Hasson recognizes that freedom of religion is essential to human dignity.

“It is not the business of the government to attempt to fundamentally redefine our self-understanding. When the government acknowledges the obvious — we human beings have a spiritual thirst and it is only natural for us to try to slake it — it is doing as it ought,” Mr. Hasson says.

But that is near the end of the book. And while Mr. Hasson only takes 147 pages to make his point, it is a dense read. This is, without question, a book by an attorney written primarily for legal minds.

It is not just a study in the law, however. The first 112 pages are mostly a history lesson. Mr. Hasson takes the reader through an extensive journey of America’s record on religious freedoms. It is not a pretty picture.

The Pilgrims, for example, “had no intention of imitating the broad tolerance they had received in Holland,” Mr. Hasson writes. “They used their political power to establish tax-supported churches, ban competing ones, and require church membership as a condition for holding public office.”

And on it went from there, Mr. Hasson says. Quakers had their ears cut off and then some were executed because of their convictions, lawfully, in Massachusetts during the 1650s and 1660s. Jews were prevented from holding public office in some states until 1877. In 19th-century Massachusetts, Catholic children in public schools were taught Protestant doctrine.

Mr. Hasson cites one pundit as saying after the September 11 terrorist attacks that “only uncertainty can save us from the killing fields. The only good religion is a relativist one.”

Nonsense, Mr. Hasson says. “It’s not that there is no truth … or that everything is somehow true for somebody … . It’s that people make mistakes about what the truth is, yet still have to obey their consciences nonetheless.”

Conscience is one of the book’s central and foundational concepts. Mr. Hasson calls it “the interior, quintessentially human voice that speaks to us of goodness and duty, the voice we must obey if we are to keep our integrity.”

“Respect for conscience makes sense of clashing truth claims without denying them or relativizing them,” he says. “A government that seeks to minimize the consciences of its citizens may well find itself, in a generation or two, in a predicament far worse than having too many principled people claiming too many points of conscience. It may find itself with too few principled people to sustain a society.”

Mr. Hasson, however, knows there are limits to this line of thinking. “What do we do with the truly bad conscience, the sort that’s bent on doing harm?” he asks. “We stop them, of course. We deter them where possible and prosecute them where necessary.”

In his last section, Mr. Hasson addresses the complex legal issues surrounding the First Amendment and the separation of church and state. When the Constitution was written, the Bill of Rights — the first 10 amendments — applied only to the federal government, and not the state governments, Mr. Hasson explains.

So the First Amendment, which forbids that Congress make any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” did not apply to the state governments. But in 1925, the Supreme Court “began to hold that the 14th Amendment ‘incorporated’ some parts of the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment.

When the 14th Amendment refers to ‘liberty,’ one of the things it means, the Court said, is the various sorts of freedom protected by the First Amendment.”

The 14th Amendment applied to the states, so the legal precedent for 80 years has been to apply the First Amendment to state law — and then to every level of government and public life — through the “incorporation” of the 14th Amendment.

Mr. Hasson says we should embrace the free exercise clause, and that in and of itself will guarantee that the establishment clause will be implemented as it was meant to be. “The right to free exercise itself precludes establishment,” he writes.

Mr. Hasson’s book is at times difficult, and does not explore the practical implications of what he suggests. However, it is a rational argument on a very important topic, at a crucial time in our nation’s history.

Jon Ward is a metro desk reporter for The Washington Times.

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