Melanie’s book review: “The Right to Be Wrong” by Kevin Seamus Hasson

Melanie’s book review: “The Right to Be Wrong” by Kevin Seamus Hasson

From time to time Dom gets sent books for review. Right now we’ve got a whole shelf of them in the living room. We’re both book nuts and Dom went so far as to quip that we weren’t so much getting married as merging libraries. I read much faster than Dom, and seem to have more free time on my hands now that I’ve cut back on my teaching load, so I’ve dipped into more of the books. He keeps bugging me that I should then be writing reviews of the books I read so as to honor our side of the unspoken agreement with the good people who send us these books for free. I know he’s right; but I have a hard time sorting my thoughts out on paper in a coherent enough form that I’d be willing to let people read them. (I can’t tell you how many posts on my own blog are closed and hidden because I don’t think they express clearly what I really think.) Also, like most writers I have a phenomenal problem with deadlines. (Makes it really hard to come down tough on my students who turn in late work.)

The Right to Be Wrong

But I’m feeling quite guilted now so here goes my first attempt at a very informal review of the latest book I’ve sneaked from Dom’s “free books shelf,” “The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America” by Kevin Seamus Hasson, founder and chairman of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, “a non-partisan, interfaith, public-interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions.”

I read this book in a couple of days (interrupted by a re-reading of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe after we saw the movie.) It is quite short, just 147 pages, excluding the footnotes and index and it’s a very easy read. Simple language, no technical jargon or academic idiom, no legalese or attempts to sound smart. Very engaging, the book moves from story to story, always illustrating each argumentative point with examples from history and recent events, including Becket Fund cases.

A Brief Summary

Hasson argues that the running feud over religious diversity in the public arena is driven by extremists on two sides. He labels them the Puritans and the Park Rangers after two illustrative stories he tells in the first chapter. The Pilgrims demand that only the true religion, their own, be allowed in the public square. The Park Rangers demand that no religion be allowed. For Hasson both sides are equally wrong, denying an essential human right that derives not from God, but from human nature. To quote from the book jacket:

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Domenico Bettinelli
  • So, his book would be better with more arguments for Natural Law a la J Budziweski (mispelt I know) or a la Peter Kreeft…

  • I think the issue is important because the alternative of an earth-god religion looms.

    From a Christian perspective, I would argue that man has a right to be wrong based on God’s gift of free will.  That, however, is not the Traditional Catholic position which is closer to giving man the freedom to do only what is right.

    Isn’t this the heart of the controversy over ecumenism/interreligious dialogue?

    Sorry if I’ve gone completely off topic here.  Obviously I haven’t read the book.

  • The “right to be wrong” language provokes some significant questions.  Is there any real difference between the right to choose or reject an abortion, and the right to choose or reject Satan?

    Lincoln once quipped that one doesn’t have a right to do a wrong, and in this he was echoed by the nineteenth century convert Orestes Brownson.  Now not all wrong beliefs are chosen in an evil way, but they are certainly erroneous.  The choice for evil is a lack of freedom, and I think that is also the case for the choice for error.  The ignorant are less free than the wise.

    Now yes, compelling religious assent is unjust and indeed impossible, but “rights talk” is a very blunt instrument, sometimes implying that one even has a right to offend God.

    Insofar as the “right” is taken to be a prudential kind of thing, rather than a natural God-given right, I think we’re on safer ground.  However, I don’t trust most people to make such a distinction.

  • As the rejection of the “right to be wrong” has played out in Catholic history, though, it has negated the right to life.  For example, consider the Albigensian Crusade.  In a plural world where there is not a single concept of “right” in every case, things get complicated.  When they do, pogroms and jihad start happening.  How are we going to get past that problem?

  • “As the rejection of the “right to be wrong” has played out in Catholic history, though, it has negated the right to life”

    Well, the acceptance of the right to be wrong can also negate the right to life, if it’s the right to choose an abortion wrongly.  Recall the line “It’s a matter between a woman, her doctor and (sometimes) her god.”  Prudence is king, knowing how to best install such things in law.

    Speaking of prudence, I’m very eager to accept the right to be wrong as a prudential matter, an “article of peace,” but as an “article of faith” it has tons of philosophical and theological problems, especially given the exalted position of human rights today.

  • Speaking of prudence, I’m very eager to accept the right to be wrong as a prudential matter, an “article of peace,” but as an “article of faith” it has tons of philosophical and theological problems, especially given the exalted position of human rights today.

    “Articles of faith” pertain to the faithful.  Here I would agree that the right to be wrong is denied by doctrine.  But doctrine also codifies free will.  God gave us the freedom to reject Him.  How much more wrong can a human be?  So even in the matter of doctrine I think the right to be wrong can be argued.

  • In the phrase “articles of faith” I was using “faith” in the sense of “civil religion” where the right to be wrong is viewed as unassailable and as fundamental to human nature as the right to life.  I think John Courtney Murray originated this distinction.

    I still think your approach to freedom isn’t coherent.  If you can argue simply from free will to religious tolerance or (worse) indifference, you can argue from free will to tolerate anything else.  Politics is, alas, more complicated than that.

    There’s a nice set of lectures on theological ethics that is relevant to understanding where I’m coming from.  Here’s a chunk:

    “So the liberty Saint Thomas refers to in the liberum arbitrium leads to acts of quality, in which our adherence to values is expressed and recognized. This is completely different from the idea of liberty in the Nominalists, who treat liberty as an absolute indeterminism, a capacity to choose anything at all independently of the light of reason and goodness. Fr. Pinckaers compares the notion of liberty in Nominalism, which he calls indifference, and that of Saint Thomas. The liberty of indifference means the capacity to choose between two contraries. Liberty refers exclusively to the will. Saint Thomas says that liberty is the capacity to act with quality. If I choose evil, it means that there’s a deficiency in my liberty, that I haven’t grown in virtue and in the capacity to choose the good. The Nominalists exclude from liberty all natural inclinations, which limit choice, they say. Saint Thomas says that liberty is rooted within in the natural inclinations, that there is an attraction of the good.”


  • Cardinal Ratzinger said something similar in TRUTH AND TOLERANCE:

    The question of how to set responsibility and freedom in the right relationship cannot simply be decided by calculating the effects.  We must look back to our previous notion, that human freedom is a freedom in a coexistence of freedoms; only thus is it true—that is, appropriate to the true reality of man.  That means that I have no need at all to seek corrective factors for the freedom of the individual from without; if that were so, then freedom and responsibility, freedom and truth would remain forever opposites, and they are not.  Correctly perceived, the reality of the individual carries in it an element of reference to the whole, to others.  Accordingly, we shall say that there is such a thing as the common truth of the one human existence within every man, what is referred to in tradition as the “nature” of man.  We can formulate this more clearly on the basis of our belief in creation:  There is one divine idea of man, and our task is to correspond to this.  In this idea, freedom and community, order and being turned toward the future, are all one thing.  (p. 253-254)

    But how do we work this out in practical everyday living?  The history of religions is not encouraging at this level.

    If we assert, which as Catholics we must, that Jesus Christ is the Second Person in the Trinity and Savior of humanity, we find ourselves in conflict with those who reject Him.  To deny Him for the sake of peace is to abandon our hope of heaven.  At that point the only alternative is to define tolerance at the human level. 

    But if we seek tolerance merely at the human level, we have no ground on which to rest our human systems of justice apart from natural law, which is open to redefinition as the Supreme Court has demonstrated.  Human beings can be defined as not human. 

    Sadly, at this point, I come to consider that perhaps the Lodge has gotten it right.  Which, of course, puts me in opposition to numerous popes and to the Catholic belief in evangelization.

    There must be objective truth for there to be any sort of human order. 

    Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  Perhaps we need to erect a new Tower of Babel for the sole purpose of tearing it down.

  • j802,

    Yes, exactly.

    Though to be clear, Hasson doesn’t exactly ignore this step. In fact, he tries to build up a sort of natural law understanding of human nature and human rights. And maybe I’m wrong, maybe his argument is adequate to his purpose. The thing is that I’m not the intended audience because I’m already convinced.I’d have to run it by a bunch of skeptics to see what they think of it, whether they are convinced.

    However, from what I remember (it’s been more than a year) I was more impressed with the natural law arguments in “What We Can’t Not Know” –though J. Budziszewski admittedly has a different purpose.

  • Carrie and Kevin,

    Maybe my summary didn’t clearly explain the book’s point.

    To quote further from Hasson: “Because of how we’re made, we are each free—within broad limits—to follow what we believe to be true in the manner our consciences say we must. That is, we are free to celebrate our beliefs in public and try respectfully to persuade others of them. We are free, ultimately, to organize our entire lives around them.

    So, of course, are those with whom we disagree. And we can grant this point with complete integrity. We can each recognize the other’s freedom without surrendering our own allegiance to the truth. We’re free to insist that others are wrong for the same reason they’re free to insist that we are.

    The truth is we each have a right to be wrong.”

    To clarify: Although I think Hasson’s argument might be weak on the secular end, as a Catholic, arguing from both Bible and tradition, I can find no flaws with it.

    To begin with Genesis, we know that God gave Adam and Eve a choice: either they could love him and serve him and obey his commandment or they could disobey him and reject him. They chose to disobey, to act against the truth and were punished for it. However, I can find no place in the Bible where that free will, the ability to choose not to obey God, is revoked. Again and again Israel turns away from God and he gets angry and punishes them for their disobedience. But he does not stop loving them nor does he force them to stop straying. He never revokes their right to choose. Instead, he allows them to experience the consequences of their bad choices.

    Jesus reiterates the message that God wants us to love him with all our minds, and all our hearts, with our whole selves and it follows that if we do so we will serve him and obey his commandments. However, this love and obedience simply cannot be compelled because obedience that is compelled is not love but servitude. God wants us to be his family, he wants Israel, and later the new Israel, the Church, to be his bride, his beloved.

    God cannot compel us to love him and we cannot compel each other to love him, either. God gives every individual an opportunity to choose. And if we choose wrongly God will beg, plead, grovel, even die for us. He will never stop loving us. But if we choose not to return his love he will never, ever force us to do so. It follows logically that if God cannot force us to follow him his Church cannot do so either. Nor can any government.

    Hasson clearly states that his definition of freedom does not say that people who fail to choose correctly are right; simply that no one, no individual and certainly no state, has the right to compel them to make the right choice.

    Tolerance of other people’s errors does not mean a denial of the truth or a relativistic acceptance that they are correct when they choose whatever path they wish. It does not mean a public space free of debate, or even of evangelization. In fact, the freedom to publicly celebrate our beliefs and to evangelize is exactly what Hasson is arguing for.

    We have the right to tell other people that they are wrong, to attempt to convince them of the truth. What we do not have the right—or even the ability—to do is to force them to accept that truth. They have the right to reject God and to live with the consequences of that rejection for all eternity.

  • As for Kevin’s objection:

    Yes, there is a fundamental difference between the right to choose to worship false gods and the right to kill unborn children.

    Governments exist to protect people’s rights and among those are the right to life and liberty and the right to freedom of conscience. Those unborn children are people by any sane definition and have a right to live. This right can be shown under natural law and has nothing to do with a mother’s religious belief. Note that Hasson says we’re free “within certain broad limits.” So governments can and should step in to prevent one person killing another, even if they claim to be doing it for a religious reason.

    Hasson makes it clear that the “right to be wrong” is in terms of matters of conscience, not matters of civil law. It doesn’t undo the obligation to live by the just laws of the land or absolve one from paying the penalties if one breaks those laws.

  • Melanie,

    I did understand what you have explained further.  It can easily be summed up in the concept of free will.  But what opposes such a system is the condemnation of naturalism, which has been used primarily against the Masonic Lodge.  In order to embrace fully the doctrine of free will, we must also embrace naturalism at least in public life.  From the Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Humanum genus:

    ‘The good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor a bad tree produce good fruit.’ Now, the Masonic sect produces fruits that are pernicious and of the bitterest savour.  For, from what We have most clearly shown above, that which is their ultimate purpose forces itself into view—namely, the utter overthrow of that whole religious and political order of the world which the Christian teaching has produced, and the substitution of a new state of things in accordance with their ideas, of which the foundations and laws shall be drawn from mere ‘Naturalism.’

    Seeking order via the natural state of the human being with no foundation in God has been infallibly condemned.  It denies the Kingship of Christ.

    How is a way to be found to dismiss the teaching of Leo XIII in order to lend our Catholic support to the founding of a society based upon merely natural law?

    Rene Guenon was a proponent of the sort of system being discussed here.  He was at one time Catholic, experimented with occultism, and ended his life a Sufi.  He advocated choosing a faith tradition and avidly practicing that faith tradition to the fullest while granting leave for others to practice other traditions.  Some of the Grand Orient Lodges have taken up his cause.  One is even named for him.

  • Hasson makes it clear that the “right to be wrong” is in terms of matters of conscience, not matters of civil law. It doesn’t undo the obligation to live by the just laws of the land or absolve one from paying the penalties if one breaks those laws.

    What will you use to ground that civil law if all religion is abandoned as a governing force?

  • “Governments exist to protect people’s rights and among those are the right to life and liberty and the right to freedom of conscience.”


    Thanks for replying.  I’m incredibly pedantic about this, because I think errors here have a way of amplifying errors in other fields.

    Catholic political thought has never been exclusively about individual rights, but it has always focused upon the common good.  The US Constitution, similarly, is dedicated to promote the general welfare among other things.

    I’m worried that a focus on rights ultimately undercuts any consideration of the common good, or indeed of any “good” whatsoever.  Everything is reduced to choice, and government becomes simply a conflict-resolution device.  In other words, all process and no content.

    I’m also wondering how to reconcile the idea that we choose God, considering Christ’s statment in John 15:  “You have not chosen me.  I have chosen you.”

    I think part of the problem is that you all are starting with an abstract definition of freedom as the faculty to choose between opposites, whereas my concept of freedom is based upon the examples of Christ and His saints, and even the virtuous pagans. 

    I can’t see how the freedom to choose a religion is a significant freedom in comparison to the freedom that comes from the life of God.  Without the life of God, we are spiritually dead and therefore most enslaved to sin.

    True, God cannot compel us to love him, but sin compels us to hate Him or to ignore Him or to refuse Him.

    Carrie asks:

    “How is a way to be found to dismiss the teaching of Leo XIII in order to lend our Catholic support to the founding of a society based upon merely natural law?”

    All logically coherent theories of natural law rely upon the Divine.  But since natural law is so deeply embedded into human nature, even the godless have some sense of it, and a non-confessional but just society is theoretically possible, though not terribly likely in practice.  Caesar does not bear the sword in vain, but that sword is double-edged.

    To throw out yet another question:

    In old Catholic political practice, error had no rights.  But in our era, Christ has no rights, being dead in the eyes of the law.  Therefore, doesn’t this mean Truth has no rights?

  • That is a very insightful question, Kevin!  Does truth have rights?

    Can we even define error without defining truth?  And in a society that subscribes to pluriform truth, how do we define error?  What standard do we use, for instance, to claim that Peter Singer’s use of chickens is in error?

    If we can’t define truth and error, how can we define what it means to be free?  How can we even define what it means to be human?

    I don’t think a society without a unitive conception of God can continue to exist.  It will devolve into barbarism and chaos.

  • Carrie,
    In case you hadn’t noticed, we are not living in a Catholic country or a country living by Catholic rules. We live in a pluralist society in which Catholic ideas (in fact all religious ideas) are increasingly being shut out of the public space. We live in a society that refuses to acknowledge truth and the greater good, that embraces relativism and materialism. If our government currently actually looked after the greater good, I wouldn’t find Hasson’s book so appealing.

    Right now, Hasson argues, there are two forces which are fighting to shut off the truth. Extremists on both sides want to remove all trace of religion from the public sphere. Abortion is legal, gay marriage is being legalized. Conscientious objectors who refuse to sell contraception are being fired from their jobs. Look at what is happening in Canada, it is illegal to express views that homosexual behavior is a sin. As far as I can tell the way things are going we’ll soon be in the same boat as Catholics in China, forced to practice our faith in secret and facing arrest from the government if we speak out openly about our beliefs.

    Now you can continue to long for a utopian world in which all people acknowledge the truth, but this argument is addressing the world we actually live in. The simple truth is that not everyone believes what we do and we can’t force them to do so.

    This is not a book that addresses the big philosophical questions you are asking, Carrie. As valid as those questions are. This is a book that presents a compromise position that will work in the actual present day America which, we must acknowledge, is a pluralist society.

    Hasson traces the history religious freedom of conscience in the US starting with the first colonies. Let me tell you, Catholics historically haven’t fared so well. Even in Maryland, where Catholics were supposed to be legally tolerated, that toleration lasted about a decade. 

    St Paul says we are to be in the world but not of it. He also told early Christians to respect the civil authorities—at that time pagan Rome where the emperor claimed to be a god. Now do you think Paul was compromising on the truth?

    He knew very well that Jesus Christ is the only real king to whom we owe our allegiance. And he worked all his life to win as many souls for Christ as possible. He did not work to overthrow the Roman government because he knew that ultimately it was people’s souls that matter.

    As Catholics, our eyes should always be turned to Christ, our true king, and we must acknowledge that civil laws and civil authorities will always be imperfectly just because they are the works of man and not of God. We should strive for justice, but realize that it will never be perfectly realized in this life.

  • Hasson feels that we have a basis for dialogue with people of other faiths, most people can agree on some basic human rights based on arguments from natural law, rather than supernatural revelation.  Even when we disagree on the ultimate, divine truth, we can sometimes agree on human truths. On this basis we can strive for a system which allows every individual to strive to find the truth for himself. To me this seems like a much better deal than one in which people are killing each other over their varied perceptions of the truth.

    In Hasson’s proposed model we have the right to evangelize, to try to win people over to the truth. In those of the people he’s fighting against, religion is completely silenced in the public sphere by people who say there is absolutely no place for religion in public.

    I’m not actually sure what your point has to do with Hasson’s argument at all. Are you advocating for a public space that is devoid of religion? Where we are not allowed to put nativity scenes and christmas trees in the town square? Where we are not allowed to speak the truth about Christ?

    Because if you think that is a bad idea, and I assume you do, but you also think that Hasson’s argument (which you haven’t actually read) is flawed, then I’m not sure what your proposal is. How do we in the US in 2005 ensure that we are able to advocate for the truth?

  • Melanie,

    You have just expressed the Masonic philosophy better than I could.  That is precisely what you are proposing though you don’t seem to know it, and so I presume that Hasson has proposed it as well, since you are giving his argument. You are also giving the argument for United Religions Initiative.  The one god that the world worships will simply be step two, and will probably have a lot to do with who is in power.  The Lodge calls him the Grand Architect of the Universe.  It works in the Lodge.  Religion and politics are off-limits in the meetings. 

    Yes, I know that you indicated all were to be allowed to practice their faith openly. That is what we have now, and it isn’t working.  Culturally our faiths inspire our ethics.  There will be conflicts over ethics in this system just as there are conflicts now.  The next step will be someone proposing that in the name of peace we all must hold the same religion, or else we all must keep our religion to ourselves as is done in the Lodge.

    Judged from the truth of Christ, is the Masonic philosophy an error?  Many popes thought it was.  Should we be embracing error in the name of expediency?  I want to embrace it because it promises peace, though ultimately it will not deliver it.  I don’t want to be the “fundamentalist” that is marginalized any more than you do.  I would imagine the members of the Early Church struggled with this in much the same way that we struggle with it now.

    I was an ecumenist until further reading caused me to consider where it leads.  If you read Lee Penn’s book, you can get a good idea of what is in store for the world if we go ahead with this.

    Given the number of errors that Americans have embraced as truth, I don’t have a workable alternative apart from the return of Christ.  Do I want to live in a world where Christ is not welcome?  Of course not.  But what guarantee does your system offer me that I won’t have to live in such a world? A human-centered code of ethics is relativistic by its very nature when there is no higher authority to inspire it.

    Look at what the world did to Him.  Read the Book of Revelation.  There is only one faith that will ultimately be rejected, and I think you know what it is.  Remember what Scripture says about the lukewarm.