Kevin Seamus Hasson, then, has done something unusual in The Right to Be Wrong, subtitled Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America (Encounter, 2005). He has delivered to us a book about the history of Constitutional law regarding religious freedom, which is just exactly that: a thoroughly enjoyable story screwed deeply into thousands of years of Western Tradition. At least as far back as Sophocles.
Sophocles knew this was the non-boring way to get us to think about the law. In the 5th century BC he gave us Antigone. Her brother had died in rebellion against her uncle, King Creon, who ordered that the corpse should be dishonored by being left unburied. Antigone knew the order and knowing, went to bury him. Called before the king and faced now herself with a capital charge, she appeals to a higher law, a law that even kings may not contravene, a law that says a sister has a religious duty to bury her dead brother even if she knows that she will be executed for doing so.
What is this higher law and how do we know it? When, how, and in what measure must the written laws of our community, our state, and our nation, accommodate it? These are the questions that Kevin Seamus Hasson asks us to consider through characters as compelling as Antigone and real besides some who also faced death and many more who faced persecution, right here, in the Land of the Free. Defending against religious persecution and discrimination is the author’s stock in trade as the founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm.
Of all the freedoms Americans prize, the ones outlined in the First Amendment, leading the Bill of Rights, are the most precious. The story of America that we all learn as children has it that America was founded by people seeking these freedoms, especially freedom of religion. But what we mean today by religious freedom is not what the early colonists meant, it is not what the Continental Congress meant, and it is not what the authors of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights meant.
With Hasson we ponder whether religious liberty means that no one may be forced to violate his conscience to serve in the armed forces. Does it mean that atheists may be elected to public office? Does it mean that animals may be ritually killed in voodoo-like ceremonies? Does it mean a Christmas tree by that very name may be erected on public property in front of the town courthouse? Does it mean that oddly dressed missionaries may ring your doorbell on Saturday morning? On all these issues there have been changes in what Americans meant by religious freedom from the time of the founders until now. And we got those changes through people who were willing, like Antigone, to declare that there is a higher law and that their consciences were bound by that law, regardless of the consequences they might face.
There Is a Solution
In this rollicking good yarn we meet many of them nuts, gadflies, and heroes from the people who ascribed divine status to an abandoned parking barrier to a Quaker quoting Jesus’ words on the Cross as he faced a firing squad. And we meet the people they irritated, challenged and sometimes changed from the Thomas Jefferson of public piety and private irreverence to the “Know-Nothings” to a call-in jihadist.
Such people are still with us and some of them still look nuts, which is very much to the point. Religious liberty has to be universal, which means in simple Golden Rule-language that if I think I have a right to it, I have to want it for my neighbor also even if he is an animal-slicing voodoo priest or a door-knocking colporteur. We ground this right, Hasson would have us understand, in what we are not in what we believe or don’t believe, so universal religious liberty is not to be confused with relativism. And we know what we are social beings seeking truth and what real religious freedom is by observing, in good Thomistic fashion, ourselves and others. Anyone can do that. Believers, non-believers, Muslims, New-Agers, agnostics, atheists, and even the justices of the Supreme Court, who by their own admission have made hash of the First Amendment’s two clauses on religious liberty.
This is where Hasson gets to the bottom line with a cogent and commonsensical solution to the endless permutations (did I mention Byzantine and labyrinthine?) of the Supreme Court’s attempt to interpret the two pertinent First Amendment clauses. He offers the solution to bring to an end the culture war over public religious expression that roils this country from sea to shining sea. It is an honest and long-overdue appeal to the better angels of all Americans whether they believe in angels or not. May it get a wide hearing and a ready reception.
© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange
Mary Kochan, Senior Editor of Catholic Exchange, was raised as a third-generation Jehovah’s Witness. She is a member of St. Theresa parish in Douglasville, Georgia, and she is homeschooling two of her grandchildren. Her tapes are available from Saint Joseph Communications.