The Christian Right’s claims of persecution by the secular state ring hollow

The Christian Right’s claims of persecution by the secular state ring hollow
Bayard Rustin
Bayard Rustin AP

Religious exemptions to various laws and regulations have been much in the news in recent years, particularly in relation to the advance of LGBTQ rights and marriage equality.  But the history of religious exemptions does not belong just to the culture warriors of the contemporary Christian Right.

As a society we have long wrestled with religious objections to a wide range of public interests, from African American civil rights, to mandatory vaccinations, and even public schooling.  These issues are significant, nearly always controversial in some sense, and getting them right is not easy.

Indeed, figuring out whether and how to accommodate religious exemptions is one of the necessary skill sets in our religiously plural society.

So let’s briefly consider one of the most difficult issues of religious exemption of all — conscientious exemption from military service.

As it happens, one of the most famous conscientious objectors was Bayard Rustin, a pivotal figure in modern civil and human rights activism, for which he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2013.

Rustin is best known for having served as a top aide to Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement. It was Rustin who taught Dr. King the philosophy of non-violent resistance as practiced by Mohandas K. Gandhi in India. He also assisted King’s 1956 boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, and served as the chief organizer for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (where King delivered his iconic I Have a Dream speech).

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He was also a well-known gay rights activist; a socialist labor organizer who worked with A. Phillip Randolph; and an international human rights activist involved in African and Indian independence movements and in opposition to apartheid in South Africa.

A Quaker, Rustin was jailed for three years during World War II for refusing to register for the draft, and for refusing alternative service in one of the Civilian Public Service camps established for religious conscientious objectors.  (He also spent a lot of time in jail related to his civil rights protests and for being openly gay.)  

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The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social justice organization, features a copy of Rustin’s 1943 letter to his draft board on its web site.

He wrote that he was opposed to existing racial discrimination in the armed forces, but that he would not comply with the draft law even if discrimination were eliminated.  He was refusing for other reasons, writing “Though joyfully following the will of God, I regret that I must break the law of the State. I am prepared for whatever may follow.”

He continued:

1) War is wrong. Conscription is a concomitant of modern war.  Thus, conscription for so vast an evil as war is wrong.

2) Conscription for war is inconsistent with freedom of conscience, which is not merely the right to believe, but to act on the degree of truth that one receives, to follow a vocation which is God-inspired and God-directed.

Today I feel that God motivates me to use my whole being to combat by non-violent means the ever-growing racial tension in the United States; at the same time the State directs that I shall do its will; which of these dictates can I follow – that of God or that of the State?  Surely, I must at all times attempt to obey the law of the State. But when the will of God and the will of the State conflict, I am compelled to follow the will of God.

One does not have to agree with Rustin’s opposition to war and the draft to acknowledge that he was willing to pay the price for staying true to what we currently call in other contexts, “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

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We have heard big talk from Catholic prelates, evangelical leaders and Christian Right activists declaring they are willing to go to jail (and others are even threatening violence) if the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality in June.  But it seems unlikely that any of them will go to jail for more than a few token hours as a result of a few token protests.  

And their claims of persecution by the secular state ring hollow when compared with the moral vision and personal sacrifices of Bayard Rustin.


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