Why I am Leaving Quakers

When I joined Friends 58 years ago, I felt integrated into my meeting. Quakers enveloped me and permeated me; I was at one with them. But over the last 58 years, Quakerism has changed, and so have I. I have taken leave of my meeting, but I have not resigned my membership.

Back in 1943, as many Republicans sat in the benches as Democrats, and meeting was a place for the spiritual enrichment of persons of all political beliefs; even soldiers in uniform came to meeting. If the spirit of the 1940s existed now, right-to-lifers might today sit next to pro-choicers, each being equally blessed in the eyes of God. With the spiritual under-girding of the meeting, different political beliefs would be advocated in secular organizations.

Many worldviews were found among Friends of the 1940s. A worldview is a belief about how the world functions. Some of these hold the U.S. as a cruel power, wanting to dominate. Others see us as the fount of liberty, hope for the underdog. Of the many worldviews of people who sat in the benches in 1943, some favored the New Deal, others were opposed; some would fight in World War II, others were pacifist; some thought World War III was coming, some did not. Some wanted security in an uncertain world, others felt that security compromised freedom. Some hated Roosevelt, some loved him.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Friends were very active in discussions on how our spirituality related to world affairs. For several summers I was on the faculty of AFSC high school institutes of world affairs. At workcamps, the evenings were spent in discussions, which continued at workcamp reunions. Weekends at Pendle Hill, George School, and Westtown School were devoted to the same purposes. In the years immediately following World War II, AFSC organized a discussion program on former troop ships taking students to Europe. I participated in that one, along with Margaret Meade, Ken Galbraith, and others.

To me, the sacred triad of unprogrammed Quakerism is that of God in every person, silent worship, and decisions by sense of the meeting. All world-views can be accommodated within this sacred triad, as they were in the 1940s and 1950s. But over the years, unprogrammed Quakers have narrowed their views. While the issues of the day are different from those of the 1940s, what is alarming is that we have lost the diversity of yore, and we are more uniform politically than ever. Few Republicans sit in the benches of my meeting; pro-lifers do not feel welcome. Friends tend to think alike on biodiversity in crops, succor for the poor, how the U.S. and other governments function, what embassies do, whether to forgive debts, whether to boycott sweatshops, how multinational corporations “think,” how high the minimum or living wage should be, and what to think of economic globalization. We no longer invite speakers whose worldviews differ from our own.

Whatever the worldview is, so go our policies. Since I have a different view from the mainstream Quaker, I tend to think many policy proposals of Quaker organizations would damage the very people for whom we wish to advocate: the poor and the disadvantaged. Yet I cannot explain why, because we no longer communicate well.

Imagine being in the Christian right, where you are always being asked if you have adopted Jesus as your personal savior. If you don’t go along with that, you are very uncomfortable. If you try to say something different, you are immediately put down. That’s how uncomfortable I am now among Quakers.

I have longed to share my lifetime of experience and study with Quakers, the people who have meant most to me. I do not want to persuade anyone of my worldview, but I had hoped that Quakers, in whose good intentions and good heart I have absolute faith, would be willing to listen to it.

With a few exceptions, Friends are not eager to hear me. Ten Friends walked out of a workshop I was conducting at Friends General Conference in 1999. Last April, I was queried on participating in a conference on Peace at State College, Pennsylvania, but the committee could not reach unity on this invitation. I was told that my brand of economics would not lead to peace. My workshop proposal on “Poverty and Human Rights” was turned down by Friends General Conference 2002, as were all other workshops on economics topics.

The exceptions include a workshop on globalization at Friends General Conference in 2001, which was highly acclaimed by participants, as well as my free, online newsletter, The Classical Liberal Quaker (to see it, visit http:/clq.quaker.org), in which I have received much support in Readers’ Responses.

Several people whom I know have also been retreating from Quakerism, for much the same reason as I am. One of them wrote as follows: One always hates to give up something that seems quite logical and compelling, in this case what seems to be a potentially very fruitful linking of classical liberal thought with contemporary Quaker concerns. But there may be times and situations that simply do not work out, and it is my feeling that this is the current reality. I am scaling back my Quaker activities because many of the things that I care about passionately, and which I believe are consistent with Quaker insight, simply do not resonate with the majority of Friends.

Where I will go next I do not know. I might find another church, or no church, or I might return to my meeting. I do not seek a church where everyone agrees with my worldview any more than I want one where everyone disagrees with it. I plan to visit many churches, to see if I can find one whose spirituality is similar to Quakers but which has not become so uniform in outlook.

In my devotion to the sacred triad—that of God in every person, silent worship, and decisions by sense of the meeting—I am still Quaker.

Jack Powelson

Jack Powelson, of Boulder (Colo.) Meeting, is professor emeritus of Economics at University of Colorado, and the author of several books, including Facing Social Revolution; Dialogue with Friends; Seeking Truth Together; and a Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Holistic Economics.