Our Religious Culture

By William Raspberry
Monday, July 11, 2005

The trouble with the Kentucky display of the Ten Commandments, said the Supreme Court, while approving a similar display in Texas, is that the it was motivated by a "predominantly religious purpose."

The trouble with the court's confusing -- some say absurd -- rulings, says Kevin "Seamus" Hasson of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, is that they proceed from an impossible premise.

"The 'predominantly religious' test suggests that anything not predominantly secular must be religious. It in fact has strong anti -religious overtones."

Hasson, whose organization is devoted to defending the free expression of all religious traditions, believes the court -- and many of America's intellectuals and civil libertarians -- are missing the fact that expunging religion from public life is neither possible nor desirable.

"There's nothing in common sense -- and certainly nothing in the First Amendment -- that requires government hostility to publicly expressed religion, which is where the requirement that government be 'secular' takes you," he says. "I think it's better to say 'temporal' rather than secular. Temporal means the here and now, without reference to the hereafter. Our government was designed to be temporal, but you have only to look at the words and actions of the Founders to understand that they had no interest in the sort of secularity the court now seeks to enforce."

But it's not just in impossibly arcane Supreme Court decisions that "secular" plays us false, says Hasson. "It gets us in needless trouble internationally as well. The Arabic word for secular is almehni , meaning godless. So when Muslim fundamentalists hear us talk about secular government, they think we mean, quite literally, a godless government. Temporal translates into another Arabic word entirely, dunyawi , or worldly.

Hasson is not just playing word games. He thinks the notion that religion should be expressed only in private -- and never in the context of government -- is a serious misreading of human nature.

"We don't believe in private because we don't live in private," he declares in his book to be published in September, "The Right to Be Wrong," on ending the culture war over religion in America.

"This has always been the case. We believe, so we daub paint on prehistoric cave walls, spend generations building cathedrals, sculpt the David, compose the 'Messiah' and write 'The Brothers Karamazov.' The personal thing to do is, and always has been, not to keep our beliefs private but to express them in culture. . . . It's how we're made."

But doesn't public expression of religion -- particularly in schools and other government-chartered institutions -- amount to constitutionally forbidden endorsement of the religion expressed?

Says Hasson: "Religion has a natural role in culture -- almost like ethnicity. And both, being categories over which people have killed each other, require scrutiny. But isn't it interesting that our courts are never clogged with Anglophiles trying to enjoin St. Patrick's Day parades, or with whites and Asians trying to stop Black History Month? Mayors can -- and do -- wear green on March 17, while taking no position on the relative merits of being Irish. It should be the same with Christmas and Hanukah."

Hasson, who has described himself as a Catholic conservative, recalls in his book several appearances on al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite network noted for its broadcasts of al Qaeda propaganda.

"Why did they take me seriously? . . . I had already put my money where my mouth was. I had successfully defended the right of two Newark police officers, who were Sunni Muslims, to grow their beards. . . . I get invited to Hasidic Jewish weddings [because I have] demonstrated respect for their consciences by successfully defending their rights.

"Writ large, that is the solution to the culture war: Respect for others' consciences, even when we're sure they're wrong, is contagious. Not because it's nice. Rather, it's contagious because it conveys an important idea:

"Whether it's a tradition as old and venerable as Buddhism or as new and flaky as parking-barrier worship doesn't matter. 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. . . .

"So, of course, are those with whom we disagree. And we can grant that point with complete integrity. The truth is, we each have the right to be wrong."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company