It used to be that in order to be granted conscientious objector status, you had to claim religious grounds; I believe you also had to be a member of a “peace church” such as the Quakers or Mennonites. In either case, this was overturned in 1965, in United States v. Seeger, which ruled that one could seek CO status based on any religious belief, defined as “a sincere and meaningful belief occupying in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God” of other people.

And one can claim CO status even though the religion one belongs to is not uniformly pacifist. For example, you can currently say you are a conscientious objector because you are a Christian and wish to follow Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek. The fact that there are other Christians who do not interpret that passage as requiring pacifism doesn’t automatically invalidate your conviction, in the eyes of the committees empowered to make these decisions. I have written letters of support for members of my church, explaining carefully that their pacifism is grounded in their Unitarian Universalism even though being a Unitarian Universalist does not require one to be a pacifist. (That non-creedal church thing always needs explaining.)

Hell, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos could testify for the wiggle room even within Quakerism, since our only Quaker president was Richard Nixon. But I digress.

Now the Truth Commission on Conscience in War, on whose Planning Committee the Starr King School for the Ministry serves, proposes a further expansion of the grounds for conscientious objection. To my mind it is similarly reasonable to US v Seeger, though difficult to administer (as are people’s current claims of religious objection to war): instead of requiring all would-be COs to be pacifists, it would allow someone to object to participation in a particular, or particular kind of, war.

For example, one might be allowed to take a Just War stance, such as the Roman Catholic Church propounds. This makes a lot of sense. Why tell Just War advocates, “Nope, it’s all or nothing”? “Fight in all wars or none”?

Many applicants for CO status in recent years have objected to fighting in Iraq but not Afghanistan. Their applications have been automatically rejected; this proposal would change that. It would enable the enlistment of potential soldiers who right now do not enlist because they don’t want to be compelled to fight in a war that is unjust by their ethics.

Furthermore, it reflects the kind of distinction most people make. Some of us are opposed to violence of all kinds; many more support its use, reluctantly, in certain circumstances. There are plenty of us who would risk our lives, even threaten another’s, in order to save the women of a village from mass rape, but would neither kill nor die to save the profits of the United Fruit Company.

The proposal got attention from the New York Times‘s At War column today. My first impression, sadly, is that comments on the New York Times website aren’t that much more intelligent than the ones on your average Yahoo story. There are quite a few comments along the lines of “if they’re too scared” (one person says “too delicate”) “to be soldiers, they shouldn’t sign up.” More thoughtful are the reminders that we don’t have a draft and so anyone who wishes not to volunteer need not, but they don’t address the fact that some would-be soldiers may be needlessly excluded from serving.

I don’t wish to enroll lots more people in the armed forces, but I do like a public policy that encourages nuanced moral reasoning.

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