Among Friends: Is Conscience Coming Back in Style?

This month’s issue returns to a familiar theme for Friends Journal: Conscience. As a religious community, we’re well known for both practicing and supporting COs, or conscientious objectors. In the 1960s and 1970s, many meetinghouses became part-time draft counseling centers. Large numbers of newly radicalized young pacifists found a spiritual home with Friends because of our conscientious objection stance.

Yet today, conscience as a concept has a slightly dated feel. It’s the province of books on the back of the meetinghouse library shelf from half-forgotten peace organizations with funny acronyms: CCCO, NISBCO, WRL. Military conscription in the United States ended four and a half decades ago. When teens talk about “the draft” these days, you can be certain they’re talking about the NFL or the NBA, or maybe their fantasy football league, not the armed forces.

We’re slowly losing an important history. Many of the obituaries we publish in our monthly Milestones column tell of lives set in motion by a commitment to conscientious objection at age 18. Many of these pacifists and their families went on to  inspirational careers of service. (Seriously, if you’re not reading Milestones, you’re missing one of the most fascinating parts of the magazine!)


I think of conscientiousness as one of the more complicated virtues in that it’s inherently anti-social. It is the decision by an individual to refuse to participate in some aspect of society held up as a norm, often because of a divine imperative. A slew of questions instantly arises whenever someone claims it.

One of the most interesting issues is the nature and authority of that divinity. In this issue, Daniel Seeger recounts the role that he and American Friends Service Committee had in shaping U.S. law on this. In 1965’s United States v. Seeger, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that adherence to a classic notion of a Supreme Being wasn’t necessary for a conscientious objection claim to military service. This opened CO status up to the much larger population of draftees that was about to come with U.S. mobilization for the Vietnam War.

Quaker House’s Curt Torell gives a convincing argument of why we continue to talk about conscientious objection almost half a century after the end of the military draft. Most directly, the apparatus of U.S. conscription is still in place and still registering 18-year-old men. But just as importantly for us as a spiritual community, when talking to young people, “we are nurturing a conscientious commitment to peace . . . that the young people carry with them into adulthood.“

Elsewhere, Daniel O. Snyder looks at resources and possibilities for nonviolence education today, and John Amidon brings a classic pacifist witness to that most twenty-first-century manifestations of war: the military drone.


Despite our history, Friends’ collective conscience has not always been a reliable guide. Slavery is a telling example. George Fox defended it in sermons, and William Penn was a slaveowner. It was other Friends that helped make opposition to slavery a Quaker testimony. After reluctantly writing a bill of sale for a slave, a young John Woolman reflected, “I thought I should have been clearer if I had desired to be excused from it, as a thing against my conscience; for such it was.”

We’re in a cultural moment in which we’re double-guessing the consciences of past political figures, and we’re in a political moment in which many of us are looking hard at the relationship between citizenry and the political establishment. Our work is incomplete. Perhaps conscience isn’t such a dated concept after all.

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