Park Rangers and Pilgrims

Posted: Feb 08, 2006 11:05 AM
In 1989, the builders of a tea garden in a San Francisco park inadvertently left a parking barrier behind. Four years of complaints yielded zero efforts to remove the eyesore. Then—and I’m not making this up—a group of New Agers began to venerate the barrier as “a manifestation of the Hindi god, Shiva.” Quicker than you can say “wall of separation,” park rangers hastened to remove the now-sacred eyesore. While the barrier’s worshippers eventually got to keep the object of their veneration, officials insisted that their worship be in private.

It’s hard to imagine a better example of the tortured relationship between religion and public life. Fortunately, however, there’s a new book that offers a possible way out of the mess we have created.

In The Right to be Wrong, attorney Kevin Hasson calls those who insist on excluding religion from the public square “park rangers,” named after those rangers who drove people worshipping parking barriers out of their park. The insistence of the rangers is rooted in the belief that “freedom is simply incompatible with public claims of religious truth . . . ” no matter “how harmless” those claims may be.

But “park rangers” aren’t the only people out to restrict the free exercise of religion. The other side of this restrictionist coin is those whom Hasson calls “pilgrims.” The “pilgrim” response to religious diversity is to restrict or “outlaw others’ religious freedom in the name of their own truth.” Some good Christians fall into this trap.

Hasson’s alternative to these extremes begins by acknowledging that “religious diversity is a fact of life” that can’t be “outlawed,” and “needn’t be glorified.” Instead, our goal should be to live “authentically” in the midst of this diversity and allow others to do the same.

How you do this is what sets Hasson apart from other commentators. He doesn’t ground religious freedom in the kind of relativism that says all religions are equally valid and, thus, all deserving of respect. Hasson knows that believers in different religions can and do vehemently disagree about a lot.

Since people don’t agree about God, Hasson proposes that they agree about man, instead—specifically, that “man is born to seek freely the truth about God,” a truth that our nation’s founders embraced when they wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

This idea makes what Hasson calls “pluralism without relativism” possible. The “right to be wrong” means respecting “others’ duty to follow their conscience even as we insist that they’re mistaken.”

That’s why Hasson, as head of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, represents not only Christians, but also Muslim cops in Newark and Jewish prisoners in Texas. His defense of Muslims has earned him the right to be heard on al-Jazeera, an audience that, as recent events show, needs to embrace religious freedom.

While Hasson’s approach, given our elites’ hostility to religion, may not be the way to “end the culture war honorably,” it is the right way to think about religious freedom—everybody’s freedom. Like Hasson, I’m confident that Christianity, rightly articulated, will prevail in the free market of ideas—that is, if the park rangers will stick to protecting picnic baskets.

For further reading and information:

The BreakPoint Role of Government packet includes helpful pamphlets addressing the role of government in society and Christians’ involvement, including “God and Caesar: Does Religion Belong in Public Life?”

Kevin Seamus Hasson, The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War over Religion (Encounter, 2005).

Learn more about the Becket Fund.

Benjamin Wiker, “Is Secularism Inevitable?To the Source, 7 February 2006.

Jennifer Roback Morse, “Religious Freedom,” To the Source, 8 December 2005.

Cal Thomas, “Cartoon wars,”, 7 February 2006.

Read the Declaration of Independence.

See BreakPoint’s religion and society page.