Conscientious ObjectionsGary Krause March/April 2003
Even in peacetime conscientious objectors to war are often labeled as unpatriotic. In times of war they are called cowards, traitors, or worse. But in good times and bad, in peace and even during war, we must protect the rights of people whose honest beliefs, for whatever reason, place them out of kilter with national sentiment.
In post-September 11 America, voices of dissent to the government's military policies are not generally welcome. Amid the understandable patriotic fervor, pacifists and conscientious objectors sound like off-key tenors in the choir. In a September 26, 2001, piece entitled "Pacifist Claptrap," Atlantic Monthly editor Michael Kelly labeled the pacifist's position as "evil."1 In case his message wasn't clear, a week later he called pacifists "liars. Frauds. Hypocrites."2
Throughout world history, depending on geography, conscientious objectors have been ridiculed, imprisoned, and persecuted. A quick glance at America's history shows even here the spirit of tolerance ebbing and flowing with
circumstance. So when prominent throught leaders start labeling pacifists as evil, it's not hard to imagine why conscientious objectors should feel uneasy.
Writing in the Washington Post in 1965 at the height of the Vietnam War, journalist Murray Marder referred to the "national tendency to convert every conflict where numerous American lives are at stake into a holy war."3 Since the events of September 11, 2001, the holy war rhetoric seems alive and well, and it's a sentiment that complicates matters for those who, for whatever reason, have a conscientious objection to war. The extent to which the government makes provision for such people is a barometer of its commitment to the rights of individual conscience.
The religious war rhetoric today starts at the highest levels. President George Bush has called America "the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world," defending "freedom and all that is good and just in our world." "We will rid the world of the evildoers," he has promised.
Best-selling Christian author Hal Lindsey describes the current conflict as a war between America and Satan: "America sees his [Satan's] face in clouds of smoke, sees his fingerprints all over New York and Washington and has decided to take him on in open combat." For Lindsey and many other fundamentalist Christians, the God-fearing thing to do is "use our military power in an unrestricted way."4
In the United States, many of the calls for a strong military come from fundamentalist Christians. Speaking soon after September 11, Stanley Hauerwas, a Christian ethicist in the Duke University Divinity School, accused American Christians in general of being "blank check people." He explained, "They go kill whomever the democratically elected leaders ask them
On the other hand, many are offended by talk of a holy war and urge that God should be kept out of the equation. Spy novelist John Le Carr