Religious Faith and Civil Liberties

This month marks the 50th anniversary of a conference on civil liberties held at Scattergood School in West Branch, Iowa, in April 1954. The conference was called by Friends World Committee at the suggestion of Pacific Yearly Meeting at a time when McCarthyism was rampant. Fifty-seven Friends were present representing 20 yearly meetings, American Friends Service Committee, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Friends World Committee, and Lake Erie Association. The following statement (edited to today’s Friends Journal style, including gender language) was addressed by them to all Friends. —Eds.

From its beginnings 300 years ago the Religious Society of Friends has opposed the use of force or violence between individuals or nations. Because we believe in conciliation, based on respect and love for all peoples, it is equally impossible for us to advocate the overthrow of any government by force and violence, or to support the war-making effort of any government. Our belief in that of God in every one, and in the essential sacredness of the individual, is unalterably opposed to the totalitarian way of life and its resultant totalitarian state.

Moreover, our nation is "this nation under God" and we reaffirm our unshaken conviction that our highest allegiance is to God. If there is a conflict, "we ought to obey God rather than humans."

U.S. democracy was founded on a deep religious faith in the ultimate worth of individuals; a faith that people have rights and responsibilities given by God; that free people will seek truth and right and will choose them rather than error, that people need not fear "to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate error so long as reason is left free to combat it." The founders believed that a government whose power to interfere with personal liberty is limited is safer and better than one that prescribes conformity to any orthodox doctrine. We affirm our agreement with these principles.

Today in a time of great social and political tension many in the United States are losing touch with the ideals and sources of strength upon which this democracy rests. In response to the fears and hates of war, in fear even of their own weapons of war, they are losing faith in humanity and its relation to God; they are losing faith in the power of ideas freely arrived at to meet and displace error. They are losing touch with the needs and aspirations of people in most of the rest of the world. Indeed, in their fear of Communism, they are losing faith in democracy.

Civil liberties are founded on God’s gift to humankind of the ability to search for truth and the freedom to act on what truth it finds. This freedom can only be fully expressed in the social group and it should be to maintain the conditions most favorable to the exercise of God-given rights that governments exist. A government that carries out this responsibility well is, as William Penn said, "a part of religion itself, a thing sacred in its institutions and end."

If we remember that God and not the state is the source of the truth people seek, then any attempt on the part of government to determine what people may or may not believe, may or may not say, will be recognized as a perversion of the government’s function.

The threat of Communism has caused us to forget these eternal truths. Yet, Communism jeopardizes our way of life not so much by its political and economic theories as by those totalitarian practices that destroy moral fiber, erase human conscience, and abolish human freedom. A democratic government that attempts to protect itself against Communism by adopting totalitarian measures is thereby succumbing to the most destructive element in what it fears. No amount of international tension, intrigue, or threat of war can justify measures that are undemocratic.

Increasing encroachments on the freedom and integrity of the individual by irresponsible accusations, by pressures for conformity in thinking, by charges of guilt by association, by insistence on assertions of loyalty, and by the assumption of guilt rather than the presumption of innocence, all have their origin in fear and insecurity, growing in large part out of the threat of war and of Communism and out of the emphasis on military strength and military secrecy. These are essential features of totalitarianism. They create an image of the state as the source of all truth and the object of unqualified loyalty. This is idolatry, and strikes at the root of both U.S. political philosophy and of basic Quaker principle.

A Query

Do Friends and Friends meetings seek faithfully to uphold our civil and religious liberties, not only for ourselves but for all people?

Advices to Friends

In the light of these, our ancient Truths, Friends are advised:

  1. To reaffirm their faith in the living God whose spirit works in the hearts of all people and to recognize that God works to preserve the rights and liberties of humans as God works through them; and also to examine once more the underlying principles of our democracy.
  2. Since the fear of controversy often impedes us in the pursuit of truth, Friends are advised to welcome controversy when it arises from differing opinions honestly held. We should aim to develop a corporate witness on freedom that will match the clarity of our other testimonies. Through the creative use of controversy we can discover new truth.
  3. Friends are urged to be alert to dangers inherent in censorship, and in conditions that would limit the freedom of teachers to discuss current problems, and in movements that would seek to enforce a narrow orthodoxy of thought and expression.Since freedom of expression has no meaning unless there is a place where people can express their views, Friends are specifically encouraged to provide facilities for the serious discussion of important, controversial issues in an atmosphere of creative goodwill.
  4. The influence of each individual in the local community is of great importance. Monthly meetings should encourage members to be alert and faithful in their witness to Truth, providing for group action when indicated. Yearly meetings or national committees on civil liberties, peace, or other matters can never succeed unless the ground is prepared in the home communities. It is hoped that Friends publications and organizations will give special attention to problems of civil liberties during the critical period ahead.
  5. Friends should continue their efforts:
    • To secure equal treatment for all conscientious objectors to military service, whether on religious or other grounds;
      To change the law and the regulations to provide more favorable treatment for those with conscientious scruples against registration for compulsory military service;
    • To seek redress in the courts for violation of these rights by government in order to establish more firmly the legal rights of conscience and to curb abuses in the administration of these laws.

    Friends generally should support individuals who have suffered loss of their livelihood by acting under conscience in resisting conscription, or in opposing loyalty oaths, or for seeking to uphold basic civil and religious liberties.

  6. Friends should deal with Communists, individuals accused of Communism, or persons rejected by society for other reasons, as human beings. Without embracing false philosophies or condoning any error, Friends should still regard all people as children of God. If in prison they should be visited; and where there is need, arrangements made for their families.
  7. In the fact of increasing pressure toward conformity as exemplified in non-disloyalty oaths, Friends should reexamine their traditional testimony against oaths that test loyalty by words instead of deeds, intensify fear and suspicion, and imply guilt unless innocence is proven, not to mention implying a double standard of truth. True loyalty and allegiance can be attained only by conviction, not by coercion. In the words of the Five Years Meeting of Friends in 1945, we affirm "our unchanging conviction that our first allegiance is to God and if this conflicts with any compulsion by the state we serve our country best by remaining true to our higher loyalty."
  8. Friends are encouraged to exercise the responsibility of citizenship by examining
    carefully specific national issues affecting civil liberties and civil rights and by taking action as appropriate. We view with apprehension: the lack of protection of individual rights in some Congressional Committee procedures; the current proposals to permit wiretapping; the operation of the Federal Loyalty Security program; the investigation of beliefs and associations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and the limitations placed on the issuance of passports and visas with adverse effect, among other things, on the holding of scientific and religious conferences in this country, as well as the free travel of U.S. citizens abroad. We encourage programs of education and legislation to remove racial and religious discrimination and to guarantee equal opportunities and rights to all citizens. We advocate support of the International Declaration of Human Rights.
  9. In making statements to investigating officers and agencies, Friends should be especially careful for the reputation of others, speaking only the objective facts known to them, and guarding against misquotation by making statements in writing where possible.
  10. Finally, Friends are reminded that the loss of civil liberties is an inevitable consequence of the resort to war and violence as the means of security. They have, therefore, an inescapable responsibility to work unceasingly for the elimination of war through the establishment of a just economic and political order, disarmament, and the creation of true world community.With a profound sense of humility that we have fallen so far short of the ideal revealed in the Light given to us, and with a corresponding sense of responsibility to our fellow humans we call on all Friends to join with us in the pursuit of these goals.