Monday, October 15, 2012

Pilgrims and Park Rangers; Burning Books and Remembering

Image Catholic Books sent me a copy of The Right to be Wrong: Ending the Culture War over Religion in America by Kevin Seamus Hasson, the founder and chairman of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in connection to a book giveaway, and for my opinion of the book.

I found it to be fascinating read because 1) it made connections for me with my study of the English Reformation and its aftermath, including the affects of religious matters in England on colonial New England, and 2) I was reading--I think for the first time ever!--Fahreinheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and again, the conflict that Hasson frames by using the Pilgrims on one side and the Park Rangers on the other side of the religious culture war in 21st century America resonated for me. It seemed to me that whoever was in charge of things in Bradbury's dystopia, they were both Pilgrims and Park Rangers, using entertainment and distraction to control people--with a message of nothingness and a public square empty of thought and freedom.

I liked Hasson's use of history to present his argument, at first focused on the Pilgrims, the Puritan and Pilgrim English emigrants who left their homeland to found colonies where THEY could practice their religion freely--but no one else could practice any different faith. Then he introduces the Park Rangers, mostly by citing different court cases, who don't want ANYONE to practice ANY faith in the public square. Along the way, Hasson identifies another crucial difference: between government toleration of different religion(s) and government recognition and protection of the human right to religious freedom. He even cites what I have regarded as the Calvert's Maryland colonial experiment in religious freedom and recognition of religious plurality as a case of toleration, because it was not grounded in the Lords Baltimore recognizing the basic human freedom of conscience and religious practice, but in their more limited view that their governance could arrange this toleration and plurality--so much so, that as I noted from Papist Patriots, they limited free speech, with a list of names the colonists could not call each other. Hasson continues this discussion of tolerance vs. freedom's rights through the history of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, and the application of those rights in the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.

On my Radio Maria US radio show on October 13, I discussed this difference between tolerance and freedom of religion in the context of the Emancipation of English Catholics in 1829, which was not a recognition of human freedom but a legal removal of penal and recusant burdens. The proof of that--which I understood more fully after reading Hasson's book--is the restrictions on Jesuit and other orders Parliament included in the Act. The government gave freedom with one hand and took it away with the other!

From the Becket Fund website:

Becket Fund founder Seamus Hasson’s definitive book on religious liberty is now available for purchase in paperback.

Heralded by many as “the best discussion of religious liberty” available, “The Right to Be Wrong” offers an invaluable–and easy to read–examination of the fundamental right of all people to maintain the right to be wrong.

After 20 years of defending the free expression of nearly every religious tradition imaginable: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Native Americans and even Zoroastrians, Hasson dissects stories from both his career at the Becket Fund and American history that illustrate the trenches of the religious liberty culture war.

In one corner are the “Pilgrims,” referencing the early Americans of Plymouth Colony who “thought only the truth was permissible in public” and so restricted the rights of those who disagreed with their definition of truth. In the other corner are “Park Rangers,” a nick-name (with a hilarious back-story) for bureacrats and organizations who think freedom means erasing beliefs from the public square, no matter how harmless.

Pilgrims and Park Rangers, in one form or another, have fought over the place of faith in society since the founding of our country. To end this culture war we must, as Hasson thoroughly points out, defend the free expression of all faiths, even if we disagree with them. “On any given day, I think most of my clients are wrong,” he says in the book’s introduction. “But I firmly believe that, in an important sense, they have the right to be wrong.”

This is the bedrock principle of the Becket Fund, and precisely the reason why we have become the premiere religious liberty law firm for defending the free expression of all, regardless of faith or conviction. To us, there is no better way than this.

I appreciated Hasson's argument and am still thinking about his final discussion of how we can have "a right to be wrong", which he also expresses in the context of The Becket Fund's efforts: “On any given day, I think most of my clients are wrong.  But I firmly believe that, in an important sense, they have the right to be wrong.” This is a provocative statement and Hasson avers that he can believe it without adopting what Blessed John Henry Newman would call the "anti-dogmatic principle of liberalism in religion" aka relativism:

Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy. Devotion is not necessarily founded on faith. Men may go to Protestant Churches and to Catholic, may get good from both and belong to neither. They may fraternise together in spiritual thoughts and feelings, without having any views at all of doctrine in common, or seeing the need of them. Since, then, religion is so personal a peculiarity and so private a possession, we must of necessity ignore it in the intercourse of man with man. If a man puts on a new religion every morning, what is that to you? It is as impertinent to think about a man’s religion as about his sources of income or his management of his family. Religion is in no sense the bond of society.

I think what Newman describes as liberalism in religion ends up in the toleration of religion that Hasson identifies as an ineffective response to religious plurality. Hasson develops an argument that religion is "[a] bond of society" because human beings by nature are religious (for example, when we celebrate something--say Christmas--we want to celebrate publicly, not in hiding as though Puritan soldiers were searching for violations of Parliament's law against Christmas). Hasson argues that we cannot ignore religion "in the intercourse of man with man" and he certainly wants us and urges us to get beyond government merely tolerating different religious practice--it's a fascinating dilemma.

More on Fahrenheit 451 tomorrow.

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