Politics & Policy

Fighting For The Right to Be Wrong

Seamus Hasson on religious freedom.

Kevin Seamus Hasson is founder and chairman of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a law firm specializing in religious freedom. Hasson is author of the recently released The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America. Hasson recently talked to NRO about the book and Becket’s work (always in the ranger’s hair, he might call Becket smarter than the average law firm).

National Review Online: Seamus, you wrote the book on religious liberty. Literally. Some Democrats suggest that since the White House has used her faith to justify the Harriet Miers’s Supreme Court nomination (nevermind if that was wise or incredibly not), they are entitled to make religion an issue in her confirmation hearings. What say you?

Seamus Hasson: The Constitution is very clear about this: “No religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public trust under the United States.” I discuss the long and sorry history of religious tests in America at various points in The Right to be Wrong. The most immediately relevant point, though, is this: There’s no tit-for-tat escape clause that says gee, if a sitting president mentions a nominee’s religious background then we get to declare open season on religion here in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Any senator who directly or indirectly explores a nominee’s religious faith as a reason to oppose that nominee is violating his or her oath to uphold the Constitution. The proper venue to redress that violation is the select committee on ethics. The Becket Fund took out a full-page ad in the New York Times prior to the Roberts hearings warning that we will file an ethics complaint against any senator who uses religion as a basis for voting against confirmation. That goes for Harriet Miers’s nomination and any other future nominee too.

NRO: You’ve been fighting court battles for religious liberty for over a decade at the Becket Fund. What’s the most frustrating case you lost?

Hasson: Well, none actually. So far, thank God, the Becket Fund is undefeated in court (although I should add we’re behind in the fourth quarter in a couple cases currently.)

I like to joke that we have an unfair advantage–we’re right. Seriously, there is tremendous force that can be brought to bear if we tee up the issue correctly. On the other hand there is a great amount of energy to be wasted if we don’t. If we insist on fighting the culture war as if it were a contest over who God is, both sides will be in their respective trenches for a very long time. But if we fight it on the question of who we are, then we really can end it. Religious liberty, properly understood as a human right, is something that can unite a wide variety of Americans against a common enemy–religious oppression.

NRO:You’re undefeated? Why isn’t Becket a household name?

Hasson:Well, gee, and all this time I thought we were a household name . . . .

NRO: There’s always a household or two in the dark, man. We’re a busy country.

Going outside the American household: You do both domestic and foreign work, don’t you? What foreign work are you doing right now that’s close to your heart?

Hasson: We’re representing a mosque in Azerbaijan that the government is trying to close because it teaches tolerance for all. We’re also representing Christians in Sri Lanka against a government-sanctioned program of violence by militant Buddhists, of all people.

NRO: What do you think is the biggest threat to religious liberty in the U.S. today?

Hasson: The biggest threat comes from people who think that religious truth is the enemy of human freedom–that the only good religion is a relativist one. When Andrew Sullivan says something called “fundamentalism” is the seedbed of terrorism, he’s making this fundamental mistake. At a more amusing level, when school officials ban Valentine’s cards (because after all, the holiday is named after St. Valentine), but tell schoolchildren they can still send each other “special person cards,” that’s the same basic error. In Lansing, Michigan, public-school bureaucrats worried that the Easter Bunny isn’t secular enough, now offer “Breakfast with the Special Bunny.”

Practically speaking, the threat comes from lawyers, judges, and political elites who think that nativity scenes and menorahs are like secondhand smoke–something that decent people shouldn’t be exposed to in the public square.

This theory of our Constitution is not only wrong, it is inhuman. If we frame the battle for religious liberty correctly, both the courts and the vast majority of Americans–and not just Christian conservatives–will be on our side.

Aren’t you going to ask me what the second biggest threat to religious liberty is?

NRO: Chill there; patience is a virtue.

Hey, I have a question! What’s the second biggest threat to religious liberty in the U.S.?

Hasson: The second biggest threat is believers who let themselves be goaded into accepting the same false dichotomy between truth and freedom, only on the other side. They fall into the secularists’ trap and think that in order to defend the truths of faith they have to oppose the whole idea of human freedom. Like the bureaucrats in a Cobb County, Georgia, jail who tried to prevent Catholic priests from ministering to prisoners because they were afraid some Protestant prisoners would decide to convert. A threatened Becket Fund lawsuit fixed that, but the episode still provided secularists with ammo for their argument that there should be no such things as official chaplains at all.

When people of faith go that route, and accept the secularist premise that truth is opposed to freedom, we surrender the high ground in the culture war.

My goal in The Right to Be Wrong is to persuade all Americans that we can end the culture war honorably. There can be “pluralism without relativism”: A vigorous commitment to religious liberty that is not based on the notion that all religions are somehow equally true, but in the truth that all human being have rights. It is moral truth, not moral relativism, that underwrites our freedom, including our religious freedom.

By the way, this is a big issue the Muslim world is wrestling with: Thoughtful Muslims are struggling to understand how they can have an Islamic society without the state imposing Islam coercively.

Some people say they need a Reformation that separates mosque and state. I’ve argued that what they really need is a Vatican II: They need to discover within the roots of their own tradition the human truth that undergirds religious liberty: Coercing conscience is wrong, because human beings are born with an innate thirst for transcendence, a demand to search for the true and the good, and the need to express that truth in public, not just private. And that can only be done with integrity when it’s done freely. That development within Islam would go a long, long way towards guaranteeing the religious freedom of people in Islamic countries. Muslims and Christians can’t agree on who God is, but we can agree on who we are.

NRO: Do you think there’s any real interest in this idea in Islamic countries?

Hasson: Well, I’ve been invited twice to make religious-liberty arguments on Al Jazeera. So yes, I know first-hand there is an enormous hunger out there, especially among young people, for a new vision about how one can build a democratic, stable, and free society without incorporating atheism into the heart of government. State-sponsored atheism is how many of them see the current church/state separation as typically promoted in the West. That’s another thing we’re trying to change, with this book, The Right to Be Wrong, as well as in a host of other ways at the Becket Fund.

NRO:The Iraqi constitutional debates on this note are really a milestone moment for that part of the world aren’t they?

Hasson: You can’t overestimate how important they are. But I still have to emphasize that, as important as it is, the new Iraqi constitution won’t supplant–and cannot limit–the full human right of religious liberty.

NRO: In your book, you dub these two sides in the culture wars, the “Pilgrims” and the “Park Rangers.” What’s that all about?

Hasson: Well, I call the pilgrims after the Pilgrims. I realize they were a brave little band of Christians who helped give birth to our country and did other things we all have reason to be grateful for, but in terms of religious liberty, their halos need readjusting. The Pilgrims weren’t in favor of religious liberty for all, they just wanted a refuge where they could live in perfect purity, apart from everyone else. From the very first they tried to suppress the religious expression of the non-pilgrim artisans who traveled with them-Anglican Christians mostly. Pilgrim Gov. William Bradford not only banished the Anglicans’ clergy, he actually forbade Anglicans from publicly celebrating Christmas.

Other colonies did far worse things. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, solemnly hanged several Quakers on Boston Common simply because they persisted in preaching their faith.

In fact, the Quakers were persecuted almost everywhere from colonial times through the Civil War. Their heroic patience in the face of over a century of legalized persecution in America eventually persuaded most of America that religious persecution is always a bad thing. The story of this intense moral struggle in American history is not well-enough known. But the Quaker persecutions gave birth to the idea of conscientious objection, an important component of religious liberty for all. It wasn’t radical secularists who gave us that idea, it was believers.

NRO: How about an example?

Hasson: Here’s one of the more moving stories in my book: In North Carolina, during the Civil War, military officials singled out Seth Laughlin, a recent Quaker convert who objected to military service, for special attention. He was beaten daily and literally hung from his thumbs. When that didn’t work, he was court-martialed. Finally they brought Seth before a firing squad. He asked for permission to pray. The officers thought he was going to pray for his own soul, but instead Seth Laughlin prayed for theirs: “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”

One by one the firing squad dropped their rifles.

Some things people of good conscience just know are wrong, even if the law tries to tell them it is O.K.

NRO: So I guess it is safe to say that no Hasson kids have ever dressed as pilgrims for any fall festivals?

Hasson: And we really lay down the law about park-ranger costumes on Halloween.

NRO: Yeah, what about those Park Rangers? How do they make it into your book?

Hasson: Oh, that’s from one of my favorite stories. In The Right to Be Wrong, I call it, “The Case of the Sacred Parking Barrier.”

In San Francisco, in 1989, a crane operator sloppily left a granite parking barrier in the formal tea garden in a city park. Like bureaucrats everywhere, park administrators just couldn’t be made to move it. Until one day a group of New Agers noticed it looked like a Shiva Lingam (a manifestation of a Hindu god). The little band of believers rejoiced and began worshipping the parking barrier.

Whereupon, the bureaucrats suddenly roused themselves and announced they had a duty to prevent worship on (not to mention of) public property: The sacred parking barrier had to go.

Here’s the thing: Nobody could have mistaken parking-barrier worship for an officially established religion, even in San Francisco. And if folks in San Francisco could come to the park to admire the shrubbery, why couldn’t they come to worship the parking barriers?

But Park Rangers are people who think they have a duty, in the name of separation of church and state, to suppress other people’s religious expression, no matter how harmless. As I said earlier, they’re currently the greatest threat to religious liberty.

NRO: Have you ever considered Yogi Bear as your mascot?

Hasson:No, but we’ve thought about putting a picnic basket in our logo. The board keeps voting it down, though.

NRO: What do you want people to walk away from this Q&A thinking about?

Hasson: The Amazon page where they can buy the book.


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