Seamus Hasson, a Man for All Seasons

by Kathryn Jean Lopez
. . . who prepared us for this one.

They call it a war. Mainly, to dismiss it. As in: There they go again, fanning the flames of the culture wars, dividing Americans to win an election.

But it’s actually something very different going on. Under the guise of tolerance and magnanimity, the president of the United States has been embracing a certain kind of radicalism that undermines the very institutions we’ve come to rely upon as Americans. By which I don’t mean an entitlement check, but freedom itself. And the family, the only reason the government is involved in marriage in the first place.

But where there are wars, there are prophets. There are brave ones who see threats on the horizon, lay groundwork; who make it possible for others to fight, to model how to stick up for what you believe in, in the most practical of ways. When it comes to the battle for religious liberty, Kevin Hasson is a true leader of men. Seamus, as almost everyone knows him, left a lucrative legal job in a prominent Washington, D.C., legal partnership to found the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in 1994.

Anyone who has been going to Becket’s annual dinner knows that something has dramatically changed. Every year, attendees hear about kids like Zachary Hood, a first-grader in a Medford, N.J., public school who wanted to read a story about Jacob and Esau from The Beginner’s Bible. God never came up in the book, but the teacher determined it was verboten in the classroom because it “might influence other students” and was “the equivalent of praying.” (I suppose that if your religion is secularism, the idea of a prayer without God makes much more sense.)

Typically, you will be an activist type or a donor, someone friendly to the Becket cause, and when you hear a story like Zachary’s and go home, you’re grateful that someone pays attention to people like Zachary for more than a few hours over wine once a year. Someone who has the time to remember a Pakistani martyr, and work to keep more from joining his ranks; or to work with a Lutheran-church school in a Detroit suburb that simply wanted the right to choose its own ministers, free from government veto.

That last one might be Hasson’s proudest moment, because it came as he stepped away from full-time presidential duties at Becket, and still Becket won that case unanimously, in the Supreme Court, winning the votes of justices appointed by the president whose administration set the policy that brought the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church to court in the first place.

Having stepped down as president of Becket on account of Parkinson’s, Hasson reflects: “I’m proud to say that happened without me. It’s a lot like watching my kids play soccer.” People congratulate him, he recalled. “What did I have to do with this goal?” he wondered time and again, and he concluded: “The most significant thing I had to do with this goal was 14 years and nine months earlier. . . . I did not make these lawyers tough, I did not make them good, but I did hire them.”

Someone has to. And give them the freedom to soar in defense of freedom.

When it’s not about us, but about a greater good, and the highest of callings, we can truly make an impact. Build a legacy of selfless leadership that inspires something similar in others.

Giving thanks for Seamus, and for the gift of freedom itself, New York’s Timothy Cardinal Dolan asked “the source of life itself and the blessing of freedom” for the protection of “our first and most precious freedom,” noting that “without it, all others are in jeopardy.” Hasson has made an investment in it with his life, reminding us that there are causes worth sacrificing for. Especially when the government that is meant to represent you is thwarting your most fundamental rights in the name of what’s best for you.

Sitting humbly in the audience, anonymously if he wasn’t a bit of a hero in this crowd for his leadership, was another Becket Fund honoree from another year, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, who recently told me: “Life is short. We’ll be forgotten by everyone but God. Our home is heaven, and the politics of this world won’t matter there. Charity, justice, courage, mercy — these are the virtues, or their absence, that will shape our eternity. These are the things that really matter. So to the degree we remember where we’re finally headed, we remain sane.”

That may explain why Seamus and his wife, Mary, always look so happy — and still manage to take the time to offer that wee bit of wisdom that can change a life now and again.

As Seamus put it: “I’ve had the great privilege of investing my life in religious freedom.”  For “if anyone in America doesn’t have religious liberty, no one in America has religious liberty.” You don’t have to be a believer to believe that. When our first freedom is gone, atheists have as much to worry about as evangelicals. “There is no point in sitting around hoping the bear eats you last.”

That’s sane. That’s American. That’s a legacy to emulate. Call it whatever you want, but know there are men and women alive today whom you’re not going to sideline — in or out of court.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review OnlineThis column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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