You may not immediately make sense of Kevin Hasson’s caption of his book about American culture wars. Yet, you will concede that although he may not be right, this fellow has his explicit ‘right”, to be wrong in the most casual or sober logic. Then you may go on to simply call “The Right to be Wrong” a history treatise written in anecdotes. It indeed successfully crafts a modern recast of the perennial debates about religion in the United States. Hasson is a “genuine hero” of the struggle for First Amendment, in the words of praise from Prof Ann Glendon, quoted on the book’s blurb.
This book presents an accurate account of the ever-changing implications of the First Amendment clauses on religious freedom upon the American society, from William Winthrop to Donald Trump. But for its refreshing dose of off-the-dock courthouse stories highlighting American obsession with religion and freedom, the book may have passed for another book of legal precedents coveting the hallowed attention of Harvard Law Review editors. This is not to disclaim its lively retelling of everyday stories that highlight the holy debates over religion in public life.
Take it as you will better do, the most defining chapter of this book is the second, titled, “Pluralism, Conscience and Community”. This section opens aboard the Mayflower, the historic ship that sailed the Atlantic from England to America, to bring the founders of the colonial United States, the so-called Pilgrims. Here you will see the group of saintly immigrants led by William Winthrop, sermonizing about the “vision of how life should be when they reached America”. They were referring to the metaphor of the city upon a hill, which will light up the world with the rays of model Christian charity. These saints were however not alone in this voyage. Hence Hasson saw the arguments that took place between the two camps as the “bad” omen. This is what eventually became of the New World, or the old-world restrictions that will replay when the vision of new-found state comes true.
Whatever you may figure out of this historic voyage, it could not shy away from a certain prophesy that keeps coming to pass, up to present-day America. This prophesy is ‘religious pluralism will remain the fact of life’, beginning with Mayflower. Little wonder this holds true, up until the era of the east coast colonies, the rebellious states, and then the free world that came to rise atop the hill of liberty. Thus, America has always been a pluralistic community of conscience, naturally, no matter who gives the definition.
What does Hasson’s book want us to learn from religious freedom in the major cities of colonial America? His major focus lies on Plymouth in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and Maryland. These were the places where the American cultural wars all but began. Liberty as “an Expensive Right”, was a hard-earned result of centuries of wars, fought in the name of Catholic and Quakers versus religious oath of office. Other contentions were Jesuits and theocratic commonwealth, exile versus imprisonment of dissents, and disestablishment of religion in refuge colonies. Not least among this lists were adult baptism, conformist constitutional restrictions, preaching license and levies, citizenship crisis, and other heated debates among the founding fathers’ of independent United States of America. (To be continued.)