Q&A: Becket Fund founder has a unique solution for religious freedom debates
Posted April 30
Religious freedom advocate Kevin Seamus Hasson wants to end ongoing conflict at the border of church and state. His proposed solution will surprise you.
"What if it is possible for the government to acknowledge the existence of a God who is the source of our rights — and mean it — without doing so religiously?" the founder and president emeritus of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty writes in his new book.
In "Believers, Thinkers and Founders: How We Came to Be One Nation Under God," Hasson presents the philosophers' God, a concept he says could do exactly that. This God, as the source of the "unalienable rights" listed in the Declaration of Independence, would anchor our civil law, but the government could no longer be accused of prioritizing Christian faith.
He admits the approach seems laughable, but he thinks it's nutty enough to work. Without the philosophers' God, we risk erasing the Founding Fathers' creator all together, which would put all of our rights at risk.
The choice to cite a creator as the source of our freedoms "cannot simply be walked back without abandoning the foundations of the rights themselves," Hasson writes. He notes that the philosophers' God idea has been discussed in philosophical circles for centuries.
A practicing Catholic, it's not out of character for Hasson to defend an idea like a non-Christian god. He founded the Becket Fund as a nonprofit law firm that would represent people of all faiths who feel that their religious freedom has been violated. The firm takes on cases it believes will set a legal precedent and is representing the Little Sisters of the Poor before the U.S. Supreme Court in the latest high-profile challenge to the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate.
Hasson spoke with us this month about his philosophers' God and the future of U.S. religious freedom legislation. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What's the goal of your book?
The issue of where rights come from is a gravely important one. It’s important in the courts of law and equally important in the court of public opinion.
In many ways, (Christian philosopher Blaise) Pascal made the distinction himself between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
But I'm making the point that the creator in the Declaration of Independence is the philosophers' God. In other words, that God can be known from reason alone.
Who were you writing this book for?
Just about every interested person. You don’t need an advanced degree to read this book.
The founders themselves did not all hold college degrees, but they understood the conception of the philosophers' God.
Is it good that religious freedom is in the news so much these days?
It’s good news when the Supreme Court rules like they did in Hobby Lobby.
On the other hand, it's worrisome when ideologues put religious liberty in scare quotes.
It's strange to hear civil rights and religious liberty presented as enemies. It's long been held that religious liberty is the first freedom. It's the first one mentioned in the First Amendment, and it's a foundational right. The freedom of conscience grounds all the other freedoms.
To question whether or not religious freedom exists? That's very alarming.
How did you get so interested in religious liberty legislation?
When I was studying for a master of theology at Notre Dame, I was thinking about going on for a doctorate or doing something else, like law. In the course of considering going to law school, I discovered the Supreme Court's cases on religious freedom.
In the U.S., one group of activists said religion was bad for us and wanted to get rid of it, while another group of activists argued that we're in a Christian country. It was a massive non sequitur.
Religion is not bad for you. Religion is natural to you. These cases weren't just dealing with legal questions. They also asked anthropological questions.
My classmates in law school wanted to be judges, professors and trial lawyers when they grew up. I wanted to be an antidote to secular forces.
Are we working toward a more thoughtful discussion of religious liberty?
Yes, I’m always optimistic.
In the long run, people will respect other people’s quest for truth. But there may be a few bumps in the road in the meantime.
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