History of Quaker War Tax Resistance: The Second Forgetting

At the upcoming national gathering of NWTRCC at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, I’m going to be presenting a summary of the history of war tax resistance in the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Today I’m going to try to coalesce some of the notes I’ve assembled about the current period of Quaker war tax resistance — what I’m calling “the second forgetting.”

The Second Forgetting ()

After an enthusiasm for war tax resistance that had grown to a near-mania by there was an astonishing and swift drop in interest in the subject. I can’t with any great confidence say why this might be, but here are some theories:

  1. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting end of the Cold War made people more optimistic about the chances of avoiding nuclear war and ushering in a more peaceful international order. Even hawkish politicians were crowing about the “peace dividend” that would come from reduced military spending as a result. War tax resistance may have slackened because peace work in general was seen as less urgent.
  2. The “peace tax fund” idea had gained traction in Quaker circles. Some Quakers who were concerned about their taxes paying for war may have chosen to refrain from taking action in the hopes that such a law would eventually give them an easy-out, or in the misapprehension that the absence of such a law made the Quaker taxpayer’s dilemma really a problem for the legislature and not for the Quaker.
  3. It may have been simple demographics: Those Quakers who were so confident in their war tax resistance stand that they were willing to start resisting when very few Friends were, and who as a result were the leaders and pioneers of the war tax resistance Renaissance, were reaching the ends of their lives at this point. The younger resisters who joined up during the Renaissance may have been less self-sustaining, less confident, and less persuasive — following a trend more than they were following a compelling conscientious leading. (This was a worry among Friends as far back as , when John Churchman wrote “Such build on a sandy foundation who refuse paying that which is called the provincial or king’s tax, only because some others scruple paying it whom they esteem.”)

In the Friends Journal, feeling it had reached the end of its legal appeals, threw in the towel and paid the IRS levy on the salary of its editor, Vint Deming.

Two German Quakers were prosecuted for war tax resistance, and their court hearing was attended by some forty Quakers. Meanwhile in the U.S., the “peace tax fund” legislation got its first and only congressional hearing. Several Quakers attended and a few testified in favor of the bill.

In a stage dramatization based on the IRS seizure of the home of war tax resisters Randy Kehler & Betsy Corner was part of the program at the Friends General Conference Gathering. The Canada Yearly Meeting, after years of debate, adopted a policy of refusing to withhold taxes from the salary of war tax resisting employees.

In U.S. President Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which seemed to offer some hope for a new court challenge against the government’s insistence on taxing religious conscientious objectors to pay for military spending. In Quaker Priscilla Adams began a case using this argument; Quakers Rosa Packard and Edith & Gordon Brown filed similar suits soon after. These suits didn’t make any headway. In , Adams filed a final appeal to the Supreme Court, with the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting contributing a friend-of-the-court brief on her behalf, but the Court turned down the case.

By this time, sad to say, a superstitious, blinkered, panglossian take on the “peace tax fund” has become the norm, and on the rare occasions when war taxes are even discussed (for example, in the Friends Journal), it is taken for granted that should Congress pass such a law, American Quakers will finally be freed from having to worry about paying for war (and implied, in the spirit of the “forgetting,” is the sentiment “and until then, well, what can we do?”). Statements from Quaker meetings about war tax resistance are increasingly endorsing the “peace tax fund” idea not in addition to supporting war tax resistance, but in lieu of it.

As dawns, most of the mentions of war tax resistance in the Friends Journal are found in the obituary column. War tax resistance is presented as something that noble and honored Friends used to do; only rarely as something they are currently doing.

Nadine Hoover wrote an earnest plea for Quakers to adopt war tax resistance as a corporate testimony in , but it seems to have fallen with a thud and produced little effect or even debate.

In there were still some Quakers trying increasingly desperate legal arguments to try to get the courts to legalize conscientious objection to military taxation. Dan Jenkins tried a Ninth Amendment argument, which is the constitutional equivalent of a hail mary pass (the court would not only reject the case, but found it so far-fetched that they also upheld a frivolous filing penalty).

That case is notable, though, for the amount of support he got from the New York Yearly Meeting. They used a clearness committee to help Jenkins work through his stand and his process. The Purchase Quarterly Meeting provided some financial backing for his legal challenge. The Yearly Meeting filed an amicus brief in the case. Alas, this meeting too seems since to have been thoroughly infected by the magical thinking surrounding the “peace tax fund” idea, and the most active Friends there now sound almost as though they think of war tax resistance less as a logical expression of the peace testimony and more as a pressure tactic to use in the hopes of getting Congress to pass such legislation.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting had held out as long as they felt able to in the Priscilla Adams case, finally writing a check to the IRS for the amount it demanded. (They would continue to resist withholding and levies for years not covered by the exhausted legal suit.) Martin Kelly, who would become the Friends Journal editor in , wrote bitterly of this in :

We talk big and write pretty epistles, but few individuals engage in witnesses that involve any danger of real sacrifice. … When the IRS threatened to put liens on Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to force resistant staffers to pay, the general secretary and clerk said all sorts of sympathetic words of anguish (which they probably even meant), then docked the employee’s pay anyway. There have been times when clear-eyed Christians didn’t mind losing their liberty or property in service to the gospel. Early Friends called our emulation of Christ’s sacrifice the Lamb’s War, but even seven years of real war in the ancient land of Babylonia itself hasn’t brought back the old fire. Our meetinghouses sit quaint, with ownership deeds untouched, even as we wring our hands wondering why most remain half-empty on First Day morning.

In the midst of this terrible decline, the Friends Journal devoted a fourth special issue to the problem of war taxes in . One thing it shows is a divergence of tactics between Quakers in the New York Yearly Meeting (who were concentrating on legal challenges) and those in the Pacific Yearly Meeting, who were trying to spread the practice of war tax resistance by asking Quakers to take baby steps like refusing tiny symbolic amounts of tax or paying “under protest” (but who struggled even to meet these exceptionally modest goals). In the Pacific Yearly Meeting did announce a policy pledging $100 in matching funds to any monthly meeting in its demesne that reimbursed war tax resisting Quakers for penalties & interest the IRS had been able to seize from them.

The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting reaffirmed its policy of resisting withholding and levies on the salary of its war tax resisting employees. But when it did so it noted that “very few Friends actively practice war tax resistance.” , the Meeting would report that it no longer had any war tax resisting employees, and so its policy, while still in effect, had gone into suspended animation.

The Britain Yearly Meeting issued a booklet on The Quaker Peace Testimony in . It mentions war tax resistance only once, in a list of historical examples of Quaker peace work, but does not allude to it as a current practice that is available to modern Quakers. It encourages Friends with concerns about paying war taxes to get in contact with Conscience, a non-Quaker group, rather than suggesting that they get guidance from their own meetings or from Quaker traditions.

When British Quakers released the fifth edition of Quaker Faith and Practice in , it included some inspirational quotes from war tax resisting Quakers of yesteryear, and reaffirmed its statement on the subject from :

We are convinced by the Spirit of God to say without any hesitation whatsoever that we must support the right of conscientious objection to paying taxes for war purposes… We ask Meeting for Sufferings to explore further and with urgency the role our religious society should corporately take in this concern and then to take such action as it sees necessary on our behalf.

But the fact that they reaffirmed this wording betrays that in , despite the “urgency,” the Meeting for Sufferings had not come up with a sufficient corporate response.

So that’s where we are today. There are still Quaker war tax resisters, certainly, but there is no groundswell of Quaker war tax resistance, and the obituary column is still where you are most likely to find a mention of a Quaker war tax resister in the Friends Journal, which is an ominous sign. The resurgence of war tax resistance during the Cold War perhaps would be better described as a fad than, as I hopefully did, as a renaissance.

But whether a renaissance or a fad, it represents hope that the current forgetting won’t be forever, but that Quakers may again reclaim their place at the head of the conscientious tax resistance movement. When they do so, they will be able to draw on the experiences of Quakers from the previous eras in order to sharpen the persuasiveness of their messages and discover the best and most appropriate techniques. And they will surely be led out of this wilderness by a few self-motivated Friends who kept the faith through the forgetting period.