Of Pilgrims and Park Rangers
The extremists among us
It is perhaps America’s most enduring myth: The Pilgrims came here looking for religious freedom, found it, and we all lived happily ever after.
They weren’t. They didn’t. We haven’t.
As we’ll see, the Pilgrims actually came here looking mostly for real estate. They were a quirky, if courageous little band of religious separatists. And like religious separatists before them and since—from the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the monks of the Egyptian desert to the Amish of today—they wanted nothing so much as to be left alone to live in their own world according to their own vision of the truth. They came to America not because it offered freedom for all but simply because it offered a refuge for them.
The problem was, other people kept showing up. Even aboard the Mayflower there were the “strangers,” whom the Pilgrims’ English investors had insisted accompany them. Then, after they’d established Plymouth Colony, more ships brought more strangers. As we’ll also see, the Pilgrims did not respond well to this unplanned pluralism. In fact, they attempted to outlaw it. They set up tax-supported churches and banned competing religious services or cultural displays. They kept dissidents from proselytizing. They had religious tests for public office. And they refused to exempt conscientious objectors, like Quakers, from obeying their laws.
We haven’t lived happily ever after, either. We have, of course, come a long way since the Pilgrims first measured out their stingy servings of tolerance. Nevertheless, the fundamental problem that the Pilgrims and the strangers faced when confronted with each other is still with us: How do you reconcile claims of absolute truth with human freedom in a pluralistic society?
In fact, that problem is not only still with us, it is growing ever more serious as our society grows ever more pluralistic—and as the extremists on both sides grow ever more polarized. It has reached the point where we aptly call the whole imbroglio one of the culture wars.
How to resolve it? We must begin by understanding it. So let’s meet the combatants.
In this corner, wearing the funny hats . . . the Pilgrims
On the one hand there are still many Pilgrims among us, people who want to use the state to coerce the religious consciences of those with whom they disagree. For these latter-day Pilgrims the relationship of truth and freedom seems every bit as straightforward as it did to their namesakes in Plymouth Colony: The truth is, well, true. So how, they demand to know, can they not seek to establish it legally? If they don’t, won’t they be conceding that they harbor some doubts after all? And even if they did succeed in legally establishing the true religion, would that be such a bad thing? Wouldn’t they really just be doing a favor to the not-yet-enlightened by hastening the day when their eyes are opened?
Most Americans instinctively recoil from such logic. We know it can’t be right. We may or may not know how to parse the philosophical mistake involved, but we’re sure there must be one in there somewhere. We know that religious truth cannot be embraced authentically unless it is embraced freely. To American ears, the idea that truth is somehow opposed to freedom rings false. Pilgrims are obviously extremists.
And in this corner, wearing the hapless expressions . . . the Park Rangers
But Pilgrims aren’t the only extremists. On the other hand there are the Park Rangers, who insist—even after the tragedies of the last century—that only a society that owns no truth at all can be safe for freedom. For them, the price of freedom for everyone is that no one can be allowed to publicly claim that anything transcendent is absolutely true. Why call them “Park Rangers”? In honor of a particularly memorable example of their zeal. Perry Mason might have called it “The Case of the Sacred Parking Barrier.”
It all began in the Japanese Tea Garden of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1989. The tea garden had long been a particularly well-groomed part of the park, a haven from the stresses of urban life. That year, however, there was a problem. A crane operator had abandoned a traffic or parking barrier at the back of the tea garden. It was a small, bullet-shaped lump of granite that clashed with the ordered nature of the place, an irritant that park-goers periodically tried to have removed. Bureaucrats being what they are, however, the stray parking barrier remained.
It remained, that is, until 1993, when the bureaucrats learned of a New Age group’s interest in it. The New Agers, it seemed, had recognized something significant about the shape of the parking barrier: It resembled a Shiva Lingam, a manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva. What was more, they had come upon it unexpectedly and in a wooded setting, just the way you’re supposed to discover a Shiva Lingam. The little band of believers had rejoiced and begun to worship. In fact, they now came regularly to pray and make offerings of incense and flowers to the stone bullet. All of which greatly alarmed the very same authorities (with a little poetic license, the “Park Rangers”) who had resolutely neglected to remove the traffic barrier as an eyesore. The bureaucrats roused themselves and announced that it was their duty to prevent worship on (not to mention of) public property; the parking barrier had to go.
Whereupon, the New Agers promptly got a lawyer and sued for an order blocking removal of the little granite lump. The case settled two months later, in January 1994. Rather than spend time and money in court, the authorities agreed to give the spare barrier to its devotees, who agreed to pray to it in private, someplace else.
Now, as lawsuits go this was hardly a legal landmark. After all, the parking barrier really was public property and the authorities always were free to do with it as they pleased. As an account of religion in public life, however, the case is something of a parable. If ever there was a religion that was not threatening, either politically or culturally, this had to be it. Nobody could ever have mistaken parking-barrier worship for an officially established religion, even in San Francisco. No one could really have wondered whether it would be politically correct to be seen leaving flowers in front of the thing. Nobody could honestly worry that tax money might be spent on incense for it. In short, this particular piece of religious expression did not remotely threaten to coerce anyone to do anything. What’s more, the tea garden was a public park. If people could come to admire the shrubbery, why couldn’t they come to worship the parking barriers?
Because, said the authorities, parking-barrier worship was religion and religion didn’t belong on public property. Religion belonged in private. It was just that simple.
There are many Park Rangers among us, from zoning commissioners to school administrators to . . . actual park rangers. And they all seem to think it’s just that simple. They come out in force at the holidays. Controversies over Christmas Nativity scenes and Hanukkah menorahs have, of course, become a yearly ritual. But the battle lines have moved far beyond them. There are now annual debates over a variety of cultural offerings. Some Park Rangers, stung by criticism that the Easter Bunny isn’t already a secular enough symbol, have made over the little creature as best they can. For example, the public school system in Lansing, Michigan, now offers, in lieu of Easter, a “Breakfast with the Special Bunny.” And, until nearly everyone laughed at it, the public library in Arlington, Virginia, had replaced its annual Easter Egg Hunt with a “Spring Egg Roll.” Other places have banned in-school celebrations of Halloween, on one of two conflicting theories: either because it’s an inappropriately Catholic celebration of All Hallows’ Eve, or else because it’s an inappropriately pagan celebration of something else. At least one school system has banned Valentine’s Day because it’s named after Saint Valentine. The kids can still send each other notes, though they can’t call them valentines. They have to call them “special person cards.”
What drives these people? Some are devout deconstructionists. That is, they are convinced that there really is no such thing as objective truth at all. Most Park Rangers, though, are not. Most, ever so privately, believe in something or other. But they’re Park Rangers still. Why? Because they think that freedom is incompatible with public claims of any religious truth—even their own. All religion, they insist, must be purely private. And just why is that? It’s largely because they’re afraid of the Pilgrims.
To hear the Park Rangers tell it, the West is free because Westerners are mostly easygoing folk, untainted by fanatical devotion to absolute truths. Columnist Andrew Sullivan memorably made this case in his fierce post-9/11 New York Times Magazine cover article, “This Is a Religious War.” Sullivan framed the war against al-Qaeda and other anti-American terrorist groups as a conflict between two kinds of religion: It is “a war of fundamentalism against faiths of all kinds that are at peace with freedom and modernity.” He charged that belief in absolute truth, which he seemed to equate with “fundamentalism,” inevitably produces coercion. “If you believe that there is an eternal afterlife and that endless indescribable torture awaits those who disobey God’s law, then it requires no huge stretch of imagination to make sure that you not only conform to each diktat but that you also encourage and, if necessary, coerce others to do the same. . . . In a world of absolute truth, in matters graver than life and death, there is no room for dissent and no room for theological doubt.” In other words, only uncertainty can save us from the killing fields. The only good religion is a relativist one.
What to do, then, with all those recalcitrant religions that insist they really do possess the truth? The Park Rangers’ answer is simple: Push them out of public life and keep them as culturally marginal as possible. Replace all that messy competition with a wrinkle-free, synthetic, one-size-fits-all culture.
As we’ll see, that’s literally inhuman.
It’s also self-defeating. It doesn’t resolve the culture war; it enflames it. It alarms the Pilgrims every bit as much as their sermons frighten the Park Rangers. So both sides take to their direct-mail houses to quote each other and amass bigger war chests by sowing further anxiety. Each ends up being the other’s best fundraiser and worst bogeyman.
(The Park Rangers’ position is counterproductive in a subtler way as well. Barring public truth claims about who God is often morphs into barring public truth claims about who we are. Yet truth claims about ourselves are what human rights are based on. Barring such truth claims in the name of freedom is like sawing off the limb you’re sitting on.)
In short, the Park Rangers’ solution to pluralism is as defective as the Pilgrims’ is. In their drive to prevent theocracy, the Park Rangers end up promoting a society that is insufficiently human—and is at least as divided as the one they’re trying to forestall.
This Way Out
It sometimes seems we are condemned to an endless tug-of-war between Pilgrims and Park Rangers and we dare not let either side win. If the Pilgrims prevail, both freedom of conscience and civil society diminish. We will have once again the gray hypocrisy of government-imposed orthodoxy. If the Park Rangers win, we risk having only the sort of temporary, politically based religious liberty that has proven so inadequate throughout much of the world. And we will certainly have a vapid public culture. We will be nervous for our rights in the midst of one vast, unending Breakfast with the Special Bunny.
Either way, religious freedom suffers. But it, and we, suffer from the ongoing struggle as well. Must this be? Not if we can rise above the impasse. To do this, we must be able to guarantee a robust religious freedom for all—and not just for some—and base it on something that’s undeniable to both Pilgrims and Park Rangers. That is, we must ground religious freedom for all in something more universally convincing than the parochial truth claims of the Pilgrims, but do it without contradicting those truth claims. We must guarantee the Park Rangers (and everyone else) their freedom of conscience, grounding it in something far firmer than just their own anxieties, while not unduly aggravating those anxieties. That is our challenge and also the subject of this book.
We’ll approach it by considering a series of stories. In the rest of Part One, we’ll highlight the big questions of religious liberty by telling the stories of the early colonists’ blunders—some earnest, some hapless, some funny, and some tragic. They shed light on the origins of pluralism and the tension between conscience and community, on the question of religious expression in public culture, on the perennial controversy over proselytism, and on the issue of conscientious objection to law. We’ll end Part One with stories of the best idea that the colonies came up with to deal with those questions—and how it wasn’t then, and isn’t now, good enough. That is, we’ll see why tolerance, as nice as it sounds, has always been an inadequate basis for religious liberty.
In Part Two, we’ll tell the story of how an inkling grew into an idea and then lost its way. The story begins with the adventures, and misadventures, of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson as they started to argue for a religious freedom based on human nature. The story continues with tales of the compromises that crept in as religious liberty was then codified in the United States Constitution. It ends with the religious riots and legalized persecutions that followed.
In Part Three, we’ll return to first principles and propose an updated model of religious liberty that both remains faithful to its origins and transcends the extremists’ running feud. It points the way to a pluralism both honest and untidy, but firmly grounded. And we’ll tell some good stories there, too.
Throughout, we’ll maintain a running critique of the Pilgrims and the Park Rangers among us. (We just have to refute them; we don’t have to make them comfortable.)
We’ll start with the story of the arguments aboard the Mayflower, for the light it sheds on where pluralism comes from. So the saga really does begin with the Pilgrims after all. But it begins with the real Pilgrims, not the mythical ones.TWO
Pluralism, Conscience and Community
Reﬂections on the Pilgrims’ lack of progress
The saints and the strangers were arguing. The “saints” (what the Pilgrims called themselves) were insisting that
the “strangers” (what they called the non-Pilgrims aboard the Mayﬂower) yield to their vision of how life should be when they reached America. The strangers were having none of it.
It was an omen, of sorts.
Excerpted from The Right to Be Wrong by Kevin Seamus Hasson. Copyright © 2012 by Kevin Seamus Hasson. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.