Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Being Wrong, Believing Wrong, and Doing Wrong: Some Notes on a Review

My recent review of Kevin Seamus Hasson's book The Right To Be Wrong has generated the kind of response I figured would happen. I have received some emails from folks surprised I would endorse relativism. Me? Endorse relativism? Did I do that? Not intentionally.

With regard to the book review, please keep in mind that the limited number of words kept me from much criticism. They really just wanted me to convey what the book was about and if possible offer some critical commentary. I did the first, but my verbose self precluded me from getting to the second part, at least in the published version.

Because of editing down and having to meet a limited number of words, some key thoughts of mine were not in the review. So what better place to present them than here.

I agree with most of the comments I have received.

Keep in mind that Hasson primarily is talking about one having the right to conscience and to holding religious views and expressing them when they are solely personal acts or acts that don't do violence to another. Even if one is wrong, this person still has the right to hold such beliefs.

That said, he acknowledges that some believers, he talks about Islamists and Communists here, do take their faith/ideology to the point of doing violence to another and he does say that they have gone too far. It is here that the right to be(lieve) wrong(ly) is no right at all. It is an abuse of someone else's rights. This is the line he says cannot be crossed and is the line the Park Rangers should truly be spending their time monitoring. Not the other benign religious expressions.

Perhaps I should have made the effort to include the distinctions: be wrong, believing something wrong, and doing wrong. By the response in my emails, apparently so.

In between the last two paragraphs, I originally wrote but had to cut out because of limited space:

Supplying a rational foundation for religious liberty is important for Hasson. The constitutional and legal arguments matter, but as Mary Dyer found out, something can be legally justified without necessarily being morally justified. Consider the case of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. Arrested as a six-year-old in 1995, he has been in the custody of the Chinese government ever since. His charge? Tibetan Buddhists believe that he is the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, second to the Dalai Lama. The American State Department has complained numerous times that this is a violation of religious liberty. The Chinese respond with a legal argument, of sorts. American or any foreign “protests,” it is said, “are an improper interference in their internal affairs.” Under Chinese law, Hasson reports, “the decision to detain one of their citizens, whether six years old or sixty, for any reason or no reason, is theirs to make.” If all that matters is the legal argument, then yes the Chinese government is justified. However, as Hasson argues, the moral argument for religious liberty matters too. Freedom is “a human right, not just a constitutional one.” As a human right, it is

a universal moral limit on the government’s power. It doesn’t come from Chinese law in the first place, so Chinese law, while it may violate religious freedom, can never really repeal it. Religious liberty is as much a human right in China as it is here, regardless of what China’s law says.

In other words, just as it was morally wrong for the Pilgrims to hang Mary Dyer and just as it was wrong for the teacher to implement the Park Rangers’ code in disallowing Zach to read from his Beginner’s Bible in front of the entire class, it is also wrong for the Chinese government to imprison anyone solely on account of belonging to a religious community. Freedom matters. The right to religious freedom is a basic one. Regardless of what governments do, they should especially respect the rights that are prior to them and that they are supposed to protect. Though these rights may be violated, as Hasson points out, “they can’t be eliminated.”

One void in this otherwise worthy read is a consideration of what Hasson’s solution would look like in today’s America. Would there still be a federal holiday for Christmas? Would federal offices shut down on Good Friday? Would any special or preferential treatment be given to Christian events or even to the public recognition of a God, as is with our motto, our coinage, the Pledge, and among other things the prayer that begins the Congressional session? Hasson argues for “an authentic pluralism that allows all faiths into the public square.” He says this “follows from who we are.” How about who we are as Americans and our cultural heritage? This country was founded and has flourished as one with strong roots and continual ties to its Christian heritage and its Judeo-Christian ethic. The faith of many Christians is one strong factor in the identity of America and it has played a significant role in the culture of the country. If Hasson’s argument is built upon who we are as humans, then why not incorporate who we are and have been as Americans into his solution? Is it improbable? If so, I would like to have read why.

With this and the above distinction in mind, then maybe my closing would not have sounded as relativistic as some have pointed out:

The story of America begins with the Pilgrims. It is not just a history of a people, however. It is more than that. The story of America has unfolded as a drama, one with many sub-plots but one over-riding theme: the desire for freedom. Though at times she has fallen short of her ideals, America has grown to be a place where religious freedom has found a home. Though the final act has yet to be played out, freedom is safer as long as we all recognize that in this pluralistic society no matter how right we think we are our neighbor still has the right to be wrong.

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