When I was doing graduate work in sociology, I took a course on “deviance.” I did a paper for the course, on conscientious objection. It’s a fascinating subject, about which I could go on for a long time, but won’t. I chose the subject in the first place because the notion that having a conscience could be “deviant” struck me as marvelously ironic. (The upshot of the paper was that the CO application process was a triumph of organic over mechanical solidarity [as Durkheim would put it.] ) What really mattered about that paper was that it changed the course of my life, because I wrote it a year or so before the 1965 increase in American troop strength in Vietnam. I chanced to mention it to a friend of mine, and the next thing I knew, lots of people were asking for a copy. That made me nervous, because by this time it was full of probably outdated information. So when I saw a posting from AFSC about a free course to become a draft counselor, I signed on right away.
I spent the next ten years working in the area of Selective Service and military law, and eventually went to law school. As an attorney, I’m still doing military and veterans’ benefits law, and have done Selective Service stuff when the issue arose. That involves all kinds of legal issues, but it still occasionally raises questions of conscientious objection, and that’s still a fascinating process.
The body of statute and case law that set out the CO requirements for draft exemption or military discharge (or exemption from the “bearing arms” oath for new US citizens) clearly started out with the “historic peace churches”—Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren—in mind. Those requirements have evolved to encompass other Christians, non-Christians, non-church members, agnostics, atheists, and ultimately people with no official religion at all. But the law remains clear that a mere “personal moral code” or a set of “political beliefs” won’t qualify.
And most young people these days—even the regular church-goers—are theological illiterates. (Among the splendid exceptions are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whom I have occasionally represented.) All they have, most of the time, is a personal moral code, or a set of political beliefs. What I do is more the job of an English teacher or an editor (both jobs I have held in addition to practicing law) than an attorney. I work the client through the “Four Questions” that are the basis of the CO application:
- What do you believe, and how does it prevent you from being willing to participate in all wars? (Note: not just some wars—that would be too easy. CO applicants go through endless grilling about whether they would have fought against Hitler, but nobody has to justify being unwilling to fight for Hitler.)
- Where’d you get these weird ideas? (Note: the military presumes that it is normal and natural to be willing to kill a total stranger when ordered to do so by another total stranger. Any deviation from this norm has to be explained.)
- What have you done to put your beliefs into action?
- Who can vouch for your sincerity?
This process requires a lot more introspection than most young Americans are used to. Also a lot more writing. (At the outset, I tell them it’s the equivalent of a long term paper, in expenditure of time and energy.) Once it’s all down on paper, the translation process begins. Writing one’s congresscritter about the war in Iraq is rarely just a statement about that war; it is usually a statement about war in general in the context of the only war the kid knows about. World War II? What was that? I know there was some kind of war in the 1940s, but I forget who was in it or who won. Same with going to demonstrations and marches. Working at a soup kitchen is a statement about the essential value of all human life, even the most miserable. Running a school recycling center is a statement about the value of the earth and its resources, which war destroys big time.
None of this is fake. I don’t do fakes, nor do my clients, so far as I know. It’s just a matter of putting the very individual and personal—which won’t get recognized as conscientious objection by the official deciders–into a broader context that the client has only started to think about when confronted with a human-shaped target and told to “kill, kill!!!”
This process is a species of what elementary school teachers call “code-switching”—expressing the same ideas in different ways depending on context, audience, and purpose. When greeting your buddy, you can high-five him and say “yo!” When you meet the Dalai Lama, on the other hand, you do not break out singing “Hello, Dalai!”
The process can go both ways, as Obama has demonstrated in his Sojourner speech two years ago (never mind that James Dobson for some reason has brought it up two years later to question Obama’s theology.) If you are going to bring your religious beliefs to bear on political issues (other than a CO application, I guess) among people who do not share those beliefs, you need to speak the language of your audience. This is partly for symbolic purposes—we are conducting an election in a democracy composed of people who hold lots of different beliefs, and whose constitution prohibits establishment of religion as such or of any particular religion. A candidate or advocate who does not respect that prohibition is telling at least some of that audience, “You don’t belong. You don’t count.” Which is the last thing you want to tell a voter, any voter.
But a lot of those voters may not even catch the in-groupness of standard evangelical Christian language, because they don’t know anybody who doesn’t speak it. (Whoever discovered water, it probably wasn’t a fish.) I have long since lost count of the very nice, very earnest Christians who ask me, in utter perplexity, “You mean Jews don’t believe in Jesus?” And telling them that their language is not the lingua franca of common discourse in their own country can amount to telling them “you don’t belong. You don’t count.” It can carry its own political costs.
Nonetheless, I think American politicians who are running for president rather than, say, Pope or Caliph or Bishop, have to presume that their audience includes non-Christians and non-religious people who still have a right to vote, and to know where their candidates stand. In short, translating values based in a particular religion into universally comprehensible values is not only effective politics in a pluralistic polity, but a way of honoring the founders of that polity and the universal values they were trying to establish.