The Prophetic and the Pragmatic in Politics


The twentieth-century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr had a particular dislike for Quakers. In the midst of the Cold War, Quakers urged peace and negotiation, measures that Niebuhr increasingly saw as foolhardy. For Niebuhr, the use of violence and war were the only ways to secure justice. He felt that Quaker efforts to follow Jesus’s command to love one’s enemies were preposterous. These were not ethics that could be implemented in the real world governed by human selfishness, he argued.

Reinhold Niebuhr, via Wikicommons
Reinhold Niebuhr, via Wikicommons

What particularly galled Niebuhr was that Quakers wanted to maintain their historic peace testimony, with their focus on respecting the Inner Light in all people, while also participating in politics. Niebuhr accepted that some people might be called upon to take the commands of the Bible seriously and embrace pacifism, but he felt that they should act like the Amish, separating themselves from the rest of America and renouncing all public life. No one should be a citizen and at the same time shy away from the moral compromises required to preserve freedom.

Niebuhr’s point was not, in its essence, a new argument. Around 180 C.E., the Greek philosopher Celsus argued that Christians’ pacifism and behavior made them unsuitable citizens of the Roman Empire. If Christians did not behave properly in their politics and fight for the Roman Empire, he said, then the world would fall into the hands of lawless barbarians.

It is still a compelling question: to what degree are the ethics of our faith compatible with citizenship? Can Quakers whose convictions require honesty, simplicity, and peace really bring those ethics into play when it comes to politics? Does the Machiavellian nature of politics mean that we need to be practical and to leave our morals behind and be “Christian Realists,” as Niebuhr and his followers were known? Can we maintain our integrity and still be effective?

Obviously there are lines that we cannot cross without compromising the fundamental essence of who we are. The willingness to wage war violates the spirit of the peace testimony that the early Quakers preached. It makes a mockery out of the demand that we turn the other cheek. But when there is less at stake, we also need to acknowledge that maintaining the purity of our principles and being politically effective are often at odds. Choosing a course of action is rarely simple.

There is a romantic appeal to suggesting that we should wholly favor the prophetic side. To live a pure and unstained life, says the New Testament, is the essence of true religion. It is praiseworthy to live this out by refusing to ever compromise with evil or injustice.

Yet when people embrace the old phrase fiat justitia ruat caelum (“let justice be done though the heavens fall”), they often leave horrific damage in their wake. Adhering absolutely to ideals often leads us to lose sight of the reasons why those ideals were vital in the first place.

During the First World War in Britain, when many Quakers were imprisoned for their refusal to serve in the military, the British-run Friends Service Committee refused to negotiate with the government to improve prison conditions. They reasoned that to do so was unethical unless conditions were improved for all objectors to war, Quaker and non-Quaker. In theory it was a noble stand, but the only tangible result was that many young Quaker men were physically and psychologically destroyed by their prolonged confinement. The abstraction of giving a prophetic voice to principle had won over the visible reality of preventing human suffering.


Following a leading to stand up against the politics or customs of an age has fed some of Quakerism’s most powerful contributions, but it has also resulted in many follies. We remember John Woolman’s powerful anti-slavery activism, but we tend to forget that his religious views also led to his hostility toward smallpox inoculation. The great Quaker minister Elias Hicks was particularly vocal in trying to stop the construction of the Erie Canal, insisting that if God had intended for a waterway to exist, He would have made one. One only needs to read through the archives of Quaker magazines from the early twentieth century to understand how many Friends understood supporting Prohibition to be the single most important political cause of their age. Simply feeling led by the Spirit does not mean that an action is correct, and being morally right does not necessarily mean that a leading will eventuate in a good outcome.

If simply trusting in our prophetic leadings is not a reliable way to engage in political action, neither is sacrificing principle to achieve some sort of end. Niebuhr himself aimed at “justice,” but this was so amorphous that his followers now range widely in views; everyone from Barack Obama to many of the neoconservatives who engineered the invasion of Iraq says that they are influenced by Niebuhr. During almost every war at least a handful of Friends have argued that the particular conflict in which their nation is involved is so dire that it merits violating the peace testimony. In doing so, however, they lost sight of ethics at the heart of their faith.

At the time Niebuhr was writing, many Quakers felt the Cold War was enough of a crisis that it required abandoning many of the denomination’s principles. Quaker theologian D. Elton Trueblood argued that nuclear deterrence would have been supported by George Fox had he been alive and faced a foe as horrible as the Soviets. Former president Herbert Hoover, a birthright Quaker, expressed his anger that anyone would challenge the necessity of loyalty oaths or the investigations that made up the Red Scare of the 1950s. During the Vietnam War, hardly an issue of the Evangelical Friend seemed to be published without including a letter or an article suggesting the conflict was legitimate because it supposedly involved defending Christians from Godless Communists.


The flaws of both the pragmatic and prophetic approaches to politics, however, do not mean that the solution is simply for us to hang onto a tepid middle ground. Moderation can sometimes be advisable, but it is not a Quaker testimony. In some cases going to extremes in either direction may be the duty of conscientious people in political life.

A dramatic prophetic witness can be as horrifying as it is inspirational. In 1965 Baltimore Friend Norman Morrison doused himself with kerosene and set himself on fire in front of the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War. Friends were divided on the acceptability of this suicidal action at the time, but most saw it as his attempt to follow a leading of the Spirit. Quaker theologian Thomas Kelly had written about the need for holy obedience to the direction of God in A Testament of Devotion (1941), and had hoped believers would be “given strength to be obedient even unto death, yea the death of the Cross.” Morrison’s death stands as one man’s radical attempt to embody those words. Morrison’s action was extreme, apparently irrational and reckless, obviously self-destructive, but perhaps these are the attributes that made it so widely noted and successful.


The most extreme pragmatic witness, by contrast, is impossible without abandoning the very commitments that make us Quakers. One cannot dishonor the Inner Light in oneself or others and preserve Quakerism, but there have been cases when Quakers have been wise not to make an overt stand over their testimonies to preserve the rest. For all of George Fox’s commitment to principle, for example, he was not above using either legal trickery or flattery to advance the cause of Quakerism. When he was on trial for refusing to swear an oath to the King in 1664, Fox chose not to suffer for his principles; instead he managed escape conviction largely on the basis of pointing out his accusers had written the wrong date on their indictment. Fox wrote in his journal that the crowd murmured that he got away because “he [was] too cunning for all of them.”

John Bright. Elliott & Fry / Wikicommons.
John Bright. Elliott & Fry / Wikicommons.

John Bright, the renowned English Quaker parliamentarian of the nineteenth century, tried to stay true to his principles while being involved in politics. He would abstain from voting on any bill that required military funding due to his convictions. Bright’s list of accomplishments were many; he opposed the Crimean War, helped to prevent Britain from supporting the U.S. South during the American Civil War, and campaigned for a wide variety of reforms. While Bright was by no means perfect (he often favored manufacturing interests over those of workers, for instance), he does offer a clear example of a person who was both faithful to his sense of Quakerism and an effective political leader.

A century after Bright, at the same time Reinhold Niebuhr was writing in the 1950s, the Quaker-administered American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was proving itself to be capable of both representing the Quaker desire for peace and also offering practical political suggestions for how to deal with the Soviets. In a series of pamphlets, AFSC suggested that while universal nuclear disarmament should be the ideal, there were small steps that could be taken to reduce Cold War tensions. The suggestions that the pamphlets gave, including a call to reunify Germany and turn it into a neutral power, were almost identical to the secret foreign policy proposals suggested by less hawkish members of the State Department staff at the time. AFSC’s suggestions were not ultimately heeded amidst the Cold War anxieties of the moment, but because the organization was willing to speak a language of what could be done internationally (while also staying true to promoting its vision of what should be done), they were at least taken seriously by those in power.


Though we know we have to lead lives that are both pragmatic and faithful to our religious convictions, there is often precious little guidance on how to do this. We know we cannot embrace war and plunge wholeheartedly into the immorality of politics, nor can we act ineffectually and be naïve to the world’s realities. Beyond that, Quakerism does not tell us how to vote or offer a step-by-step guide for how to be good citizens without violating our faith. What Quakerism does give us is a set of bedrock moral and religious principles and some guidance from the past from people as fallible as we are. It teaches us that we must have the willingness to be open to being led and offers us a community to check our leadings.

As we fumble and grope to find our way, we are in good company. Jesus spoke of the need to embody both the call to moral purity and the need to be realistic when he sent out his disciples to proclaim the Kingdom of God and commanded them to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” It was a hard command to follow when it was first said. It has not gotten any easier in the intervening two millennia.

Isaac Barnes May

Isaac May is a graduate of Earlham College and Harvard Divinity School. He is currently pursuing a PhD in religious studies at the University of Virginia. Isaac has published several articles on Quaker history. He holds membership in Charlottesville (Va.) Meeting.

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