February 28, 2011 by Ron Madson
My father was a WWII veteran that served in Patton’s infantry in the European theatre. It wasn’t until he was 91 years old before he told me the details of his war experiences—and I am not aware if he told anyone else. My father was the most Christ-like person I have ever known. In the fall of 2002 I sat with my father listening to the war rhetoric seeking to justify our nation’s invasion of Iraq. This man, who rarely showed emotion and spoke seldom, emotionally told me that he did not believe that there was any scripture or Christian principle that would allow us to attack another country as we did in Afghanistan and were about to do in Iraq. He was certain that in our anger, fear and pride we, like the Nephites of old, were abandoning our covenant with the Lord by being the aggressor. He was hopeful that as a people we would surely denounce these wars. Knowing his character I am certain that if he were magically young again, he would have applied for conscientious objector status as to our current wars— as he would have in Viet Nam.
Could he have qualified as a conscientious objector? In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue as to whether someone could decide which wars were just and, thus, “selectively’ qualify as a conscientious objector.1 The court focused on section 6(j) of the Military Service Act, which provided that “no person shall be subject to service in the armed forces of the United States who, by religious training and beliefs, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.” Interpreting this statute, the Court ruled that one could not pick and chose which wars were just or not just. In other words, one’s objection could not be selective (there is proposed legislation seeking to allow “selective” objection). Therefore, if my father was not also opposed to our involvement in WWII, then he could not qualify as a conscientious objector to Viet Nam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Then addressing the issue of “religious training and belief,” the Court, while recognizing that some faiths have well developed traditions, teachings, training and beliefs that sustain conscientious objection to “war in any form,” determined that one is required to qualify individually in order to obtain a CO status. Undoubtedly, if someone, to name a few, is Amish, Jehovah Witness or Seventh-Day Adventist, it is already presumed that they have a well established “religious training and belief” system that they can point to in order to establish their conscientious objector status.
So what about LDS “training and belief” as to whether to engage in war? In March of 2009, I attended a Job Fair at Utah Valley University. The U.S. Marines and the U.S. Army had their booths seeking recruits. I, with several others, went there to speak to those that were listening to the recruiters. We provided them with literature and arguments as to why they should not join the military. My personal approach was to ask each potential recruit: “Do you have a spiritual or ethical reason for joining the military at this time, and if so, would you share it with me?” They would often refer to their ultimate action hero, Captain Moroni, or cite some slogan like “fighting for freedom.” I would also ask if there were any scriptures or doctrine that they could point to that, in their mind, justified our nation’s involvement in either the Iraq or Afghanistan war. Their responses to this question was even more general—“the scriptures tell us we are allowed to defend ourselves.” After this experience, whenever I had an opportunity to have a serious discussion with someone as to our current conflicts, I would try to always start with this question: “Without reference to the current wars, tell me what doctrines and beliefs govern whether you believe you are justified, if ever, in supporting a particular war?” My intent in this question is to invite us to first determine the spiritual and ethical framework that governs our approach to taking the lives of others— before examining the details of a particular conflict. Personally, I believe the mental and spiritual exercise is needed before being presented with an actual war/conflict. Otherwise, we might find ourselves selectively choosing doctrine and evidence driven by fear and anger.
I had the opportunity over the past few years to visit and assist two LDS individuals that were in the military, but were considering applying for a conscientious objector status. After reviewing the legal requirements with them, I suggested that there is, in my opinion, ample doctrinal basis in our scriptures to claim a belief that one can be opposed to participation in war in any form. First, we believe the Bible to be the word of God. Other faiths have founded their creedal opposition to all wars on selected passages of the Bible: Jehovah Witnesses—Isaiah 2:4 “neither shall they learn war anymore”; Seventh Day Adventist—Jesus’ teachings to love enemies and refuse violence; and the Historic Peace Churches such as Quakers, Mennonites and Amish who saw Christ’s very life and death as a denunciation of all forms of violence. Second, the Book of Mormon explicitly commands us that the common words and example of Christ found in the Bible and Book of Mormon (Sermon on the Mount/life of non-resistance) override all other examples and words (2 Nephi 31:40-41; 2 Nephi 26:1; and 2 Nephi 32:6); and third, modern day revelation mandating that we “renounce war and proclaim peace.” (D&C 98:16). I recognize many in our faith cite the words of war generals and Prophets in the scriptures that do not allow for objection to “participation of war in any form” even to the point of putting to death conscientious objectors, but the issue is, as defined by Gillette v. United States, is whether you personally have a well anchored faith and belief that causes you to object to “war in any form.”
While I believe a doctrinal basis in our faith can be found to qualify one as a conscientious objector under Gillette v. United States, I also caution those that seek CO status that there are some practical obstacles that LDS face that other faiths like the Amish do not face.
The review board is fully aware that the LDS, as a faith, have not denounced, but rather have been very supportive of all our nation’s wars since becoming a state. This is further reinforced by the perception that in our most recent wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, our leaders have not only not “denounced” these wars, but have given implicit support. Elder Nelson’s conference address on D&C 982 in October of 2002 was interpreted by major news outlets that the Mormon Church had issued a strong anti-war message referring to our “current hostilities.”3 However, the church public relations department, seeing the potential fallout, immediately responded with an official statement that Elder Nelson’s talk had been misinterpreted as to its’ application to our “current hostilities” and that “the Church itself, as such, has no responsibility for these policies, other then urging its’ members fully to render loyalty to their country.”4 The following spring, and just days after our invasion of Iraq, President Hinckley delivered his key note address in General Conference directly addressing our doctrine as to “war and peace.” While the address can be parsed to mean different thing, I believe stripped of his general commentary the doctrinal “summum bonum” of his address can be succinctly stated that we are obligated as citizens of our respective nations to support our nation’s wars5, and, moreover, ““Those in the armed services are under an obligation to their respective governments to execute the will of the sovereign. When they joined the military they entered into a contract by which they are presently bound and to which they have dutifully responded.” To those I have counseled, I have responded to these practical issues as follows: First, President Hinckley made it perfectly clear that he was expressing his personal opinion; second, our church leaders teach us principles that they believe are correct, but that we govern ourselves; third, their words are not the very words of Christ, but rather their interpretation of the words of Christ, and each of us have access to the same scriptures/words of Christ; and fourth, past prophets/leaders do not all concur as to the standard we must apply to whether we should engage in a war. The Prophet Mormon told us that we must lay down our weapons of war and not take them up “save it be that God shall command you.” (Mormon 7:4)6 and that is the inverse of recent prophets that have essentially said, “we having no revelation” from the Lord to the contrary, you have an obligation to support your nation’s war. Therefore, one can either believe that our doctrine requires us to not engage in war unless God commands, or that we will engage in any and all wars of our nation, unless we receive revelation to the contrary.
In conclusion, I would tell anyone seeking conscientious objector status, that they not make the mistake of believing that they will receive support from the institutional church or current leadership pronouncements in seeking conscientious objector status—they are on their own. But one need not despair, for from the Spanish American War to the “current hostilities” faithful members, albeit few, of our faith have secured conscientious objector status—including many during WWII.6
So, I return to the question I asked the students at Utah Valley University. What “training and belief” governs your conscience when it comes to issues of war and peace? Does your faith in the words of Christ cause you to object to “any and all wars.”? And if not, then are there wars to which you would selectively qualify as a conscientious objector– if such a standard would be allowed? And what doctrine could you articulate that reflects your core beliefs that would support a conscientious objection– either as to any and all wars or a particular kind of war? And, as required in all conscientious objector requests, the person seeking that status must show that his/her claim as a conscientious objector is “truly held” as an opinion that has become settled over time through their verbal and written expressions— even in times of peace. So are you making your case everyday? With family and friends even when it is not popular? I just found out from others that my fourteen year old son has written on his Facebook wall that his heroes are Gandhi and Noble Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo. With each book he reads or paper he writes for English or History class where he “denounces war and proclaims peace” he is building word by word his own case as a conscientious objector. I believe his grandfather would be pleased.
What case are you building? Have built? And what words of Christ support your “belief and training?”
–Ron Madson 2/23/2011
written on the fourth anniversary of my father’s passing as a tribute to his legacy
1 Gillette v. United States, 401 U.S. 437 (1971) United States Supreme Court
2 Russell Nelson, “Blessed are the Peacemakers” LDS General Conference October 2002
3 CNN Reported: “The Mormon Church issued a strong anti-war message at is semiannual General conference clearly referring to current hostilities in the Middle East, advocating patience and negotiations” and “The Golden Rule’s prohibition of one interfering with the right of others was equally binding on all nations and associations and left no room for retaliatory reactions, Nelson said at the meeting Saturday.”
4 “Message of Peace Misinterpreted” retrieved from the official LDS website Archives April 25, 2007
5 “War and Peace”, President Gordon Hinckley, LDS General Conference, April 2003, DF“As citizens we are all under the direction of our respective national leaders”;
“We also are citizens of nations and are subject to the laws of our government” and
“One of our Articles of Faith, which represents an expression of our doctrine, states ‘We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers and magistrates, in obeying, honoring and sustaining the law.’”
6 Mormon’s standard in Mormon 7:4 would qualify him as a conscientious objector consistent with Sicruella v. United States, 348 U.S. 385 (1955). In Sicurella a Jehovah’s Witness who opposed participation in secular wars was held to possess the requisite conscientious scruples concerning war, although he was not opposed to participation in a “theocratic war” commanded by Jehovah. The Court noted that the “theocratic war” reservation was highly abstract—no such war had occurred since biblical times, and none was contemplated.
6 Confirmation of the fact that there were Latter-day Saints conscientious objectors in World War II is to be found in the Selective Service System Special Monograph No. 11, Conscientious Objection, (Washington D.C.: GPO, 15—pages 25,26 and 319).