What is the Quaker Testimony on War Taxes?

Nonpayment of "war taxes" is a Quaker testimony that I have always found confusing, and I don’t appear to be alone.

Peter Brock, in his book The Quaker Peace Testimony 1660 to 1914 (published in 1990), relates the difficulty that colonial Pennsylvanian Quakers had in contributing financially to the military protection of their frontier communities while trying to be faithful to the Quaker practice of nonviolence. They sensed an obligation to help protect their neighbors, but could not bear arms and were uncomfortable paying others to do so in their stead. The problem was finessed by the Quaker-dominated Assembly, which made grants to the governor "for the King’s use." The practice was uncomfortable to many Quakers in Pennsylvania, some of whom in 1755 advanced the idea of a boycott of taxes levied primarily for the purpose of defense. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting strove to avoid a schism, declining to urge the refusal to pay taxes but approving disciplining of Friends who (for example) furnished the army with horses or wagons. In 1764 the Paxton Riots were the occasion of citizen outrage at what was viewed as a Quaker refusal to defend the community. The conflict contributed to the eventual withdrawal of Quakers from political positions.

New York Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice notes that we "support the testimony of those who have refused to pay war taxes" (p. 51). But it also offers the Advice that we should "examine . . . voluntary payment of war taxes" (p. 82, Advice 14). All taxes are involuntary, by definition. Rosa Packard, a longtime war tax resister in New York Yearly Meeting, attempted to make a distinction between paying her taxes to an escrow account in trust for the government, rather than paying her taxes to the government, but her eventual legal claim sought return not of her tax payment, but rather of the penalties and interest imposed by the government by virtue of her failure to timely pay taxes due, leading to recovery by levy: Packard v. United States, 7 F.Supp.2d 143 (D.Conn. 1998). So insignificant does this distinction seem—i.e., that it’s okay to pay "war taxes" as long as the government has to levy your assets to get them—that I’m not sure what’s being advised in Advice 14.

And that’s not the only thing about which I’m not sure.

Which Taxes are "War Taxes"?

I don’t know which taxes are included in the term "war taxes." Is it the proportion of all revenue that supports the Pentagon budget? If so, do we not support the Army Corps of Engineers while it rebuilds the levees in New Orleans? Do we withhold money for reparations to Iraqis whose property is damaged? Do we deny funding to the Air Force’s remarkable mediation program that resolves employment and procurement disputes without litigation?

The Interstate Highways were built and justified as a defense strategy, in order to effect the speedy deployment of military personnel within the United States. Should we withhold highway taxes? Or pay less than all of the federal gas tax when we fill up, in order not to support this system? Do we each decide what a "war tax" is, and each pay what we think is right? Or does someone determine what a "war tax" is and we follow that person’s lead, even if we disagree with it? In her article, "Not in My Name, Not with My Money" (FJ Mar. 2008), Elizabeth Boardman suggests that we withhold any multiple of $10.40, offering the simple explanation that 1040 is the number of the individual income tax form.

Withholding an arbitrary amount of our taxes has no relationship to war or peace, and it does not reflect our concern that we decline to assist war. What, then, is the religious integrity of this action? And what are the consequences to others of our conduct?

What Are the Moral Consequences of Nonpayment of Taxes?

My yearly meeting’s Faith and Practice advises that, having determined what we are prepared to do with our tax payment, we should "be prepared to accept the consequences of [our] convictions." As a young male pacifist in the late 1960s, I understood this to mean that I would need to find the courage to accept the consequences of my refusal to be drafted (if that refusal was determined unlawful). I never considered it moral to try to change the law, or to evade my responsibilities. The options were clean and stark: Either be classified as a CO—conscientious objector—or accept the consequences of breaking the law.

How does a non-taxpayer do that? Withholding, for example, 15 percent of one’s tax obligations doesn’t mean that non-war programs are fully funded but war programs are not. All tax-funded programs will receive 15 percent less. Does the objector then go ahead and use the public schools, or accept protection from the fire department, or eat federally subsidized food, even without having paid for these services? Should Head Start, research on solar energy, unemployment benefits, and support for healthcare all be underfunded in the exercise of our righteousness?

A consequence of my not joining the armed forces in 1971 was that someone else did who would not otherwise have had to. People were hurt because I was not there to help. This too is a consequence of conscientious objection. Are those who advocate withholding part of their taxes prepared as well to live with the consequences of their actions?

Is Selective Payment of Taxes Christian? Quakerly?

Faith and Practice urges us to "participate actively and intelligently in the political life of our country" (p. 85, Query 9). And of course Jesus taught that rendering what is due to Caesar is not inconsistent with leading a Christian life. Is deciding which taxes we will pay, and which ones we will not, the teaching of our faith?

One could argue that Quakerism teaches the exact opposite. Our tradition is to share our Light and then to yield to the Truth as it is communally received. In conducting our affairs we are "advised not to be unduly persistent in advocacy or opposition, but, after having fully expressed [our] views, to recognize the generally expressed sense of the meeting" (New York Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice p. 83, Advice 16).

Civil society in the United States was deeply influenced by this tradition. As Quaker columnist and author David Yount notes in his book How the Quakers Invented America (published in 2007), "Quakers, by dint of their role in forming the American character, can be said to have invented America" (p. 2). Active and intelligent participation in probing public discourse, then yielding respectfully to the community’s final decision, is a contribution that Quakers made to the early social expectations of the New World.

On what basis, then, does an individual U.S. Quaker decide which enacted taxes to pay and which ones not to pay? Is each of us, as a matter of our faith, compelled to comb through the federal budget and pick out those line items that we find offensive and refuse to pay them? Should we do this with our own monthly meeting budgets? I think we are taught the very opposite.

Emmanuel Kant held that men and women should conduct themselves by the Categorical Imperative: "Act only by that maxim whereby you can will at the same time that it shall become a universal law." This principle is very close to the one our parents tried to imbue when asking, "What if everybody did that?"

In refusing to be conscripted, objectors are not protesting war. Pacifism is an attribute of a CO’s being, like height and weight. That attribute is either accommodated by the law or it isn’t. Pacifism is not a choice with Quakers; the way we live is our testimony.

Is refusing to pay taxes—or paying only those taxes that support activities we approve—the same kind of testimony?

Peter Phillips

Peter Phillips, a member of Cornwall (N.Y.) Meeting, is an attorney practicing as a commercial arbitrator and mediator, and a consultant to companies in designing alternative dispute resolution systems.