The Right to Be Wrong

Kevin Hasson on Role of Religious Liberty in Secular Societies

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WASHINGTON, D.C., NOV. 7, 2005 ( A society that fails to protect a fundamental right such as religious liberty is dangerous for everyone, says an attorney who specializes in religious rights.

Kevin Hasson makes that argument in his new book, «The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America.»

Hasson, a Notre Dame Law School graduate with a master’s in theology, is the founder and chairman of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an interfaith, public-interest law firm that aims to protect the free expression of all religious traditions.

He shared some of his ideas in this interview with ZENIT.

Q: Recently Benedict XVI said that «in modern and democratic societies there can be and must be full religious freedom.» In our modern societies we tend to take religious freedom for granted. How is religious practice being rejected today?

Hasson: Religious freedom is threatened all over the world, both in repressive societies and in supposedly free ones. Religious militants in nations like Iran and Sri Lanka still punish and imprison people for preaching.

Radical secularists in supposedly free societies — including the United States — threaten religion by trying to banish it from the public square. France’s head-scarf ban is a perfect example: Muslim children in France are forced out of public schools for exercising their beliefs.

Here in the United States, we see similar threats in attempts to ban holiday observances, to regulate what can be said about political issues from the pulpit, and to limit children’s religious expression in public schools.

Q: In what way is respect for religious freedom important for a secular society, and for nonbelievers?

Hasson: Respect for religious freedom goes hand-in-hand with respect for human dignity.

Religious liberty is a fundamental human right, and must be protected as such. A society that doesn’t protect those fundamental rights — in other words, one that doesn’t respect human dignity — is dangerous for everyone.

Q: Religious practices and beliefs are increasingly under challenge in liberal societies for supposedly being «intolerant.» Why is it that many who propose tolerance and pluralism are intolerant of religion?

Hasson: Tolerance is a problematic idea; it always has been. In 17th-century England, «tolerance» meant Protestants were free and Catholics faced the death penalty.

The same was true in 17th-century Massachusetts — where they hanged Quakers — and Maryland — where they executed priests.

Tolerance is always based upon the whims of the tolerant. It’s often based on some idea of who God is, and whom he likes to tolerate. It’s never based on the inherent worth of those tolerated.

True religious liberty, by contrast, is a human right based on the inherent dignity of the human person — even when that person gets it wrong. It’s no surprise when those who preach tolerance — and those who misunderstand pluralism — turn out to be intolerant themselves. It’s been going on for centuries.

Q: Is the recent U.S. case regarding the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance a sign that there is no longer a consensus over some of the basic principles behind the American constitutional system and traditions?

Hasson: It’s a disturbing sign that people are afraid of any mention of God in the public square. The Becket Fund got involved in this case to defend the right of schoolchildren to voluntarily say the Pledge as a statement about those principles and our history.

Religious liberty doesn’t mean that a society has to be afraid of the word «God» — it’s just the opposite. It means we embrace public displays of religion.

Q: Are we condemned to an endless series of court battles, or is there another way to resolve the conflicts over religion in the public sphere?

Hasson: The court battles are just part of the larger battle — the culture war in America.

At the Becket Fund, we try to end this war by advancing religious liberty both in courts of law and in the court of public opinion. I believe we can end this war by understanding and respecting human nature.

We must understand our natural thirst for the transcendent and respect our very human need to follow our consciences. This isn’t just the stuff of high philosophy; it’s a practical statement about how we live together. I go into more detail on this in my book.

Q: What is the goal of your book «The Right to Be Wrong»?

Hasson: The goal is to present a third option for a nation divided between the radical left and the Christian right.

The two sides will never agree on who God is and what he wants, but they can agree on who we are. We are people who seek truth and value freedom.

My goal is to help the two sides recognize that a healthy society isn’t one where everyone agrees about religion, whether good or bad, but one where everyone is free to disagree. It’s a society where we all have the right to be wrong.

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