Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

Conflicts of conscience: faith versus the state

Mennonite World Review
2 April, 2012
Reproduced with permission

Rich Preheim*

Dennis Koehn knows a little bit about the conflict between religious beliefs and the requirements of government. In 1970, as an 18-year-old Kansas Mennonite, he refused to register for the draft. He was found guilty and, after his appeal was denied, in 1972 began an 18-month prison term, most of it spent in a federal facility in Colorado.

It was the price Koehn was willing to pay for his faith-based nonviolent convictions.

The same year Koehn was incarcerated, the Amish successfully reached the end of their long, arduous conflict with the state over education. In the landmark case of Wisconsin v. Yoder, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that children could not be forced to go to school beyond eighth grade. But that came after numerous Amish in several states had faced fines and even imprisonment for not sending their children to high school.

Koehn, Wisconsin v. Yoder and other such incidents provide perspective to the recent wave of accusations that President Obama is waging war on Christianity because of a birth-control mandate for health insurance. Some religious groups, especially Cath­olics, have protested as if these are unprecedented developments.

Any threat to conscience is a cause for concern. The contraception controversy, however, isn't really new. Anabaptists know that the state, no matter how benevolent, is always ready to force believers to choose between it and God.

Anabaptism's annals are filled with such accounts, from martyrs Bolt Eberli and Dirk Wil­lems in 16th-century Switzerland to political oppression of the fledgling church in 21st-century Vietnam. But those types of stories are also abundant in this land of First Amendment-guaranteed freedom of religion.

By not registering, Koehn carried on a distinguished U.S. Mennonite tradition that's as old as the nation. During the American Revolution, a Lancaster County, Pa., gunsmith refused to make muskets for colonial soldiers. For this offense he was banished from the trade by local authorities. A number of Pennsylvania Mennonites and Amish were fined, imprisoned and even temporarily sentenced to death for not pledging allegiance or for not taking up arms against the British.

The experiences of World War I conscientious objectors are especially formative. Many conscripts were court martialed for refusing to put on military uniforms, shoulder guns or otherwise be cogs in the American war machine. On the home front, Mennonites were the subject of several investigations because of their peace stance. Federal authorities seized 150 copies of a tract on nonresistance from Mennonite Publishing House in Scottdale, Pa. Archibald Yoder of Ohio was arrested for allegedly trying to persuade another person not to enlist. The case was later dropped.

Since Koehn, more Mennonites have declined to register with Selective Service, which has led to several high-profile court cases. Other church members demonstrate their peace convictions by not paying war taxes, thus making themselves open to federal repercussions.

While Wisconsin v. Yoder resolved the issue of compulsory education, it certainly hasn't been the only state attempt to restrict Amish expressions of faith. They clashed with the federal government over Social Security for a decade before the matter was settled in 1965. More recently, the Amish have found themselves at odds with requirements regarding photo identification, slow-moving-vehicle signs on their buggies, steel wheels on their tractors, environmental regulations, zoning ordinances and more.

Mennonites and our spiritual kin are by no means the only ones with an understanding of pursuing faithfulness when worldly authorities are trying to prohibit it. Mormons, Native Americans and Muslims, among others, have had similar experiences in this country and been marginalized as a result.

It's just that other Christians are apparently now learning what we've long known.