Summing Up Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”

This is the forty-eighth and last in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today I’m going to try to sum up what we’ve seen.

Disclaimers first:

  • I relied on some naïve text searching through the optical-character-recognition versions of archived documents that were not always well-scanned or legible, so I probably missed some things.
  • I wasn’t able to review complete copies from .
  • The Mennonite was published by an arm of the General Conference Mennonite Church (now Mennonite Church USA) and so was biased towards the viewpoint and activities of that branch, and so these findings should not necessarily be extrapolated to Mennonites as a whole. (I’m sure you’re looking forward to my upcoming deep dive in to the Gospel Herald, organ of the Mennonite Church.)
  • I ignored a lot of “Peace Tax Fund” legislation boosting. If you consider that to also be a form of war tax resistance, you shouldn’t be misled by how little of it I’ve included in my excerpts.
  • My concentration on war tax resistance can make it seem like the magazine must have been full of talk of peace, love, and understanding and kind of a liberal peaceniky sort of place. But Mennonites are by and large a pretty conservative breed. To get the full flavor of the war tax resistance conversation in the pages of The Mennonite it may be useful to imagine the articles I’ve excerpted salted in a context full of anti-Papism, anti-Masonicism, temperance, rants about gambling and dancing and the movies, disgust at homosexuality, and fervent anti-abortion views.
“The Mennonite” logo, circa 1910

1886–1914 · 1914–1918

The General Conference Mennonite Church began to coalesce in Iowa in . It was a mix of more-or-less assimilated second-or-later generation American Mennonites of Swiss and South German descent, and more recent Swiss and Russian Mennonite immigrants, largely from the Midwestern United States, Pennsylvania, Ontario, and Manitoba. (I’m summarizing a bigger story told in An Introduction to Mennonite History, , edited by Cornelius J. Dyck, who also wrote the chapter on the General Conference Mennonite Church.)

The Mennonite began publishing in as a publication of the Eastern District of the Conference, and became the official paper of the Conference itself (official English language paper, anyway; there was also a German language one — Der Bote — which I haven’t reviewed). I found very little evidence in the early decades of its publication of any scruples about paying war taxes or buying war bonds. If taxes were scrutinized at all, a quick glance at the “Render unto Caesar” anecdote was enough to make stillborn any doubts.

(The “Render unto Caesar” verses would get a dead-horse beating throughout the years of the publication that I read, with little consensus on the riddle’s real meaning even from within the camps of opponents or proponents of war tax resistance.)

As World War Ⅰ comes on and war taxes rise along with ostensibly voluntary contributions to the war in the form of “Liberty Bonds,” there is almost no push-back to be seen in the pages of The Mennonite, even as American Mennonites in other branches are indeed suffering for their refusal to participate in the Bond drives.

Indeed, reports of Liberty Bond sales are reported matter-of-factly or even enthusiastically in The Mennonite, and Mennonite institutions unashamedly report that they have accepted donations in the form of such bonds. The Eastern District went on record both reaffirming its peace and non-resistance policies and recommending that its members stock up on bonds.

“The Mennonite and the Gospel Evangel” logo, circa 1934

1918–1939 · 1934–1935

It isn’t until that I see a mention of Mennonites refusing to buy war bonds (and that’s in the context of an editorial mocking such Mennonites for their peculiar scruples).

In the period between the world wars a little more nuanced discussion began to take place, but still the typical opinion was that Jesus said “Render Unto Caesar” and that’s all you need to know.

While there was some backwards-looking hand-wringing about the Mennonite enthusiasm for buying war bonds that had occurred during World War Ⅰ, I saw little sign that anyone was willing to step boldly out from that foundation and discourage Mennonites from buying war bonds in the future or from paying war taxes in the present.

“The Mennonite” logo, circa 1939

1940–1941 · 1942 · 1943 · 1944–1945 · 1946–1948 · 1949–1952

As World War Ⅱ approached, latent Mennonite guilt about war bonds clashed with Mennonite reluctance to go up against public opinion and actually resist paying for war. This eventually led to “Civilian Bonds” in the United States and “Victory Loan Bonds with a sticker attached” (the sticker ostensibly indicated that the subscribed funds were meant to be spent exclusively on relief work) in Canada. These fig leaves allowed Mennonites to buy war bonds without buying “War Bonds” and thus to assuage their consciences somewhat while keeping them in the good graces of the support-the-troops crowd.

It’s not even the case that Mennonite conscientious objection to military service was particularly well practiced at this time, though Mennonite organizations continued to pay lip service to nonresistance and peace. One report said that only 27% of General Conference Mennonite men who had been conscripted had been classified as conscientious objectors.

However, this time around there is a lot more evidence to be found in the pages of The Mennonite that Mennonites were seeking alternatives to the phony let’s-pretend bonds. Some instead purchased “Peace Certificates,” “Relief Certificates,” and other methods of supporting non-military relief work in lieu of bonds. But the orthodox opinion in The Mennonite was still all in favor of the fig-leaf war bonds. Readers were meant to understand that purchasing such bonds represented a sort of “witness of conscience against war financing” even while they were also, ahem, a source of war financing.

After the war, when it was safer, The Mennonite permitted outsiders — a Dutch Mennonite, Ernest Bromley and others in the “Peacemakers” movement — to broach the topic of war tax resistance in its pages. When Jacob J. Enz took over as acting editor for he took the opportunity to strongly hint, frequently, that Mennonites should reconsider their unconcerned attitude toward taxes. By the issue was finally out in the open enough that actual General Conference Mennonites were debating it front-and-center.

“The Mennonite” logo, circa 1952

1953 · 1954–1959

Continued murmurs about war tax resistance continued through , and Mennonite and Brethren institutions responded by considering how they should adopt corporately to these concerns.

A letter to the IRS from Don Kaufman, who would be prominent in discussions of this issue for decades to come, appeared in a issue, and a first stab at “Peace Tax Fund” legislation was proposed in order to give Mennonites a similar fig leaf to the “Civilian Bonds” of World War Ⅱ.

“The Mennonite” logo, circa 1959

1960–1961 · 1961–1962

By paying war taxes was seen as a definite problem that had to be addressed. People reached out to the government, to various boards and committees, and tried also to come up with individual solutions — such as income-reduction, charitable contributions, and refusal to pay some portion of the tax due.

For the first time also, a backlash emerged of people who still held to the old orthodoxy that one ought to unconcernedly render unto Caesar what Caesar demands. They at times patiently, and at times with exasperation, tried to talk Mennonites out of this newfangled foolishness, and their campaign would continue for the next few decades.

The idea that one could refuse to pay “the military portion” of one’s tax (usually defined as a portion equivalent to the portion of the national budget spent on warstuffs) caught on in this period, and became a mostly-unquestioned article of faith. The anti-resistance skeptics didn’t see any logic to it, but the resisters largely regarded it as self-evident.

The hope of a Peace Tax Fund law also became a rarely-questioned dogma among Mennonites who were troubled by paying taxes for war.

If asked why war tax resistance could be such a crucial issue of Mennonite faith today when Mennonites of the past seemed not to be so troubled, war tax resisters might respond in two ways: 1) they might find a few exemplars in Anabaptist history who could be shown to have indeed had sympathy with war tax resistance or something close to it, or 2) they could assert that the nuclear age, in which expensive technology was more threatening to the peace than masses of soldiers, had changed the rules of the game such that the only meaningful conscientious objection was one that included war tax resistance.

“The Mennonite” logo, circa 1963

1963 · 1964 · 1965–1967 · 1968–1969 · 1970 · 1971 · 1972

The Mennonite began to put concern about paying taxes for war at the forefront by , and it became commonplace to assert that Mennonites should at the least be troubled by paying taxes that support such a gargantuan military establishment, even if they didn’t feel they could go all the way to resistance.

Influential Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder came out as a war tax resister in the pages of a issue. Four members of the Church of the Brethren issued “A Call to Income Tax Protest” that appeared in a issue.

The Vietnam War started becoming more of a focal point than the nuclear sword of Damocles by . In the Peace and Social Concerns Committee of the General Conference issued a statement, which was adopted by the Conference’s Council of Boards and presented at the Mennonite World Conference and that asked Mennonites to “counsel together” about a new war tax surcharge and ask if “the Christian [should] object to payment of these taxes on the same grounds as he conscientiously objects to military service”. It also asked congregations to support war tax resisters among them.

The first corporate backlash resulted, with the Eastern District Conference passing a resolution censuring the Council of Boards for suggesting such an “unscriptural” thing. Still, the same resolution did back-handedly acknowledge the tension between Mennonite beliefs and taxpaying when it recommended that Mennonites take full advantage of charitable deductions to lower their tax bill.

In , 673 delegates to the General Conference triennial were polled about Vietnam-oriented activism. Only 27% agreed that war tax resistance was appropriate (51% disagreed). In an additional survey conducted at the “youth conference,” 51% agreed, so there was some generation gap stuff at work here too.

In the Mennonite Central Committee’s Peace Section created a mutual aid fund to help conscientious objectors, and explicitly listed conscientious objectors to military taxation as among those who were eligible.

also, the Western District Conference passed a resolution in favor of war tax resistance, indicating a West/East split to rival the young/old split.

Phone tax resistance also started to catch on around this time.

A hundred people met to discuss war tax resistance at Bethel College Mennonite Church in in a conference sponsored by the Western District Conference and the Commission on Home Ministries (a subgroup of the General Conference). Mennonite, Quaker, and secular war tax resisters spoke, and participants signed a joint pledge.

In 73.4% of the delegates to the General Conference triennial ratified a statement saying that “The levying of war taxes is another form of conscription… We stand by those who feel called to resist the payment of that portion of taxes being used for military purposes.”

That year also, a Mennonite church in Arvada, Colorado decided to stop paying the tax on its phone — the first example I saw of a Mennonite institution refusing to pay taxes.

There was another 100-person-strong war tax conference in , this time in the heartland. Another 50-person conference on the subject was held in Kansas. Mennonite intentional communities began to develop with war tax resistance as an explicit focus. Mennonite bodies began coordinating war tax redirection efforts.

Nonetheless, results from a Church Member Profile survey showed that 55% of those Mennonites surveyed opposed war tax resistance.

“The Mennonite” logo, circa 1973

1973 · 1974 · 1975 · 1976 · 1977 · 1978 · 1979 · 1980

As the Vietnam War wound down, Mennonite war tax resistance continued. Even those who weren’t brave enough to resist were eager to stand up and say that at least they were paying under protest. Redirection of war taxes to Mennonite institutions and projects increased.

In a second Mennonite church began resisting its phone tax corporately. “The World Peace Tax Fund Act” was introduced into Congress, raising hopes that a legislative solution might make the problem go away for Mennonite taxpayers.

In a Christian war tax resistance group kindled in Japan for the first time thanks to Mennonite pastor Michio Ohno. Sixty people would attend its first meeting and for a short while there would be an enthusiastic response in Japan to the movement, with eighty or more people in Japan refusing to pay war taxes.

The Mennonite General Conference triennial sessions in “ask[ed] all General Conference members to question prayerfully whether they want to pay war taxes voluntarily” and pledged that the General Conference itself would work to provide its employees with (vaguely-specified) support in war tax resistance.

In another 100+-person conference on war tax concerns was held, this time in an Ontario Mennonite Church.

The Commission on Home Ministries created a war tax redirection fund, and started a newsletter for war tax resisters, but stopped short of refusing to withhold taxes from its resisting employees’ paychecks.

That question — whether Mennonite institutions should honor their employees’ requests not to have war taxes withheld from their paychecks and submitted to the government — began to really bubble in . An encouraging (but short-lived) court decision gave some hope that such institutions could legally get away with refusing such withholding, and then the idea became hard to shake.

Several years’ of bureaucratic pass-the-buck followed:

  1. The Commission on Home Ministries’ Peace and Social Concerns Reference Council recommended that the General Conference stop withholding such taxes.
  2. The Commission on Home Ministries’ executive committee put that on its agenda and approved it “but referred [it] for further study by the Division of Administration and the General Board.”
  3. The Division of Administration wasn’t enthusiastic, thinking that many possible consequences hadn’t been fully considered. So the General Board asked the Division of Administration to come back to them later with their ideas.
  4. When the General Board met again, they decided to wait to decide until their next meeting.
  5. At the next meeting, the Council on Commissions asked the Commission on Home Ministries to prepare a study process in advance of the next triennial conference so everyone would get a chance to vote on it. And the General Board agreed that the Conference triennium should decide as a body.
  6. The triennium decided to commit itself to 18 months of “serious study” on the matter, followed by a special midtriennium conference at which they would decide once and for all.
  7. Educational materials were prepared and distributed, and an invitational consultation on civil responsibility was held to help prepare people for the responsibility that had been put upon them.
  8. The midtriennial conference was held, and they decided “to engage in a serious and vigorous search to use all legal, legislative, and administrative avenues for achieving a conscientious objector exemption from” withholding, and to come back for another try if they couldn’t figure anything like that out within three years.
  9. The General Conference established a board to implement this, which later expanded to be a multi-sectarian task force on war tax issues.
  10. The task force quickly ruled out administrative avenues as being frankly unavailable and began to explore legislative ones (Peace Tax Fund schemes).
  11. That seeming just as unlikely, “a resolution seeking approval to initiate a judicial action to exempt the General Conference from withholding taxes from the income of its employees” was prepared for the next triennial, which passed it 1,156:353.

None of this was in the abstract. A General Conference employee named Cornelia Lehn asked for war taxes not to be withheld from her paycheck, and her request caused everything to go haywire for a good long while in the General Conference bureaucracy. On the one hand, not much got accomplished for many years, but on the other hand, the dust Lehn kicked up rained down as ink that filled several columns of The Mennonite for many an edition, and the buck-passing by the Mennonite bureaucracy meant that everybody got a chance to get their hands dirty trying to figure out their position on the issue. All of the heat and light at the midtriennium also kindled a nonsectarian Christian war tax resistance group in the city where it was held. Lehn gets a lot of credit for keeping war tax resistance at the forefront of Mennonite deliberation for years, simply by making her request, explaining herself, and holding firm.

The “A New Call to Peacemaking” initiative began in and would for several years advance the cause of war tax resistance particularly in the “traditional peace churches” (Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers).

Meanwhile more Mennonite institutions were refusing their phone taxes, new Mennonite intentional communities were forming with tax resistance as part of their charters, other religious denominations and secular groups were jumping on the war tax resistance bandwagon, Mennonite conservatives were becoming more and more frustrated with liberal innovations like war tax resistance, and hopes for the World Peace Tax Fund legislation continued to drain support from war tax resistance proper.

“The Mennonite” logo, circa 1981

1981 · 1982 · 1983 · 1984 · 1985–1986 · 1987 · 1988 · 1989 · 1990

Robert Hull began in to circulate plans for a “Sabbatical Service” program in which conscientious objectors would devote one year in seven to volunteer service, and in exchange the government would grant them conscientious objector to military taxation status. This was elaborated at length, but never seemed to get off of the drawing boards and into an implementation or a legislative proposal.

Individual Mennonites created a vast variety of symbolic withholding ideas, choosing particular small amounts to withhold based on numerological symbolism or on correspondences with the amounts or percentages of federal budget spending on offensive items. In general it seems that there was very little consensus about how to resist war taxation among those who had decided that resistance was appropriate, instead a thousand different techniques bloomed.

The IRS began responding to certain varieties of tax protest by issuing “frivolous filing” penalties. This increased the fear and uncertainty around the decision of whether or not (or how) to resist. Secular and Mennonite institutions responded by creating mutual aid insurance funds to help penalized resisters, such as the “War Tax Witness Relief Fund” established by the MCC (U.S.) Peace Section in .

A conservative backlash to the advance of war tax resistance (and other innovations), largely in the conservative Eastern District, led to the “Smoketown Consultation” which would eventually lead to a rupture in which the Alliance of Mennonite Evangelical Congregations split off from the General Conference to go on their own. (Today the issue of same-sex marriage is causing a similar exodus of conservative congregations.)

Having been given the green light by the assembled delegates at its last triennial, the General Conference prepared to file a lawsuit against the IRS to assert its right to stop withholding taxes from the salaries of conscientiously objecting employees. They began by meeting with the IRS to try to work out an 11th-hour administrative compromise, but had no luck. Then they began to assemble witnesses and co-plaintiffs with standing. But then the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in U.S. v. Lee — a case in which a man from the Old Order Amish conscientiously objected to participation in government social insurance programs. That unanimous ruling firmly indicated that the Supreme Court had zero tolerance for arguments about conscientious objection to taxation (“The tax system could not function if denominations were allowed to challenge the tax system because tax payments were spent in a manner that violates their religious belief.”). The General Conference decided to put its suit on the back burner.

Having been blocked in its search for administrative and judicial remedies, and with the legislative remedy (some sort of Peace Tax Fund law) languishing in the back-alleys of Congress, the board of the General Conference prepared to tell its congregations that the ball was back in their court as to how to proceed: should the Conference throw in the towel and continue to withhold taxes from objecting employees, or should it refuse in outright civil disobedience? The Conference would decide, as a body, at the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania triennial in . A 70% majority of delegates there opted for corporate civil disobedience.

Seven employees registered their objection with the Conference, which on stopped withholding federal income taxes from their paychecks. (By the number of such employees had dropped to five; by , to four; by , to three.) The IRS doesn’t seem to have taken any action against the Conference for this, though there is some indication that the employees in question paid all but “symbolic” amounts of the tax themselves.

The Historic Peace Church Task Force on Taxes narrowed its focus to the legislative avenue, going all-in to lobby for the World Peace Tax Fund bill.

A small group of Canadian Mennonite war tax resisters began to emerge in the early 1980s. One, Jerilyn Prior, tried to get a court to grant her the right to conscientious objection to military taxation, to no avail. There were also reports of Mennonite war tax resistance from the Netherlands. The First International Conference of Military Tax Resisters and Peace Tax Campaigns was held in West Germany in , with support from Mennonites there.

Meanwhile, the war tax resistance bug was spreading through other Christian denominations, including those not found under the “traditional peace churches” banner. This put additional pressure on the Mennonites, who had to ask themselves if they still qualified as a peace church when other churches seemed at times more willing to take the lead on such conscientious objection and activism.

In the Mennonite Central Committee decided not to follow in the General Conference’s footsteps and stop withholding taxes from its objecting employees’ paychecks. None of the individual conferences they consulted with were supportive of them opting for civil disobedience. This is somewhat surprising, given the 70% support for civil disobedience at the triennial, and may suggest that was the high-water mark for war tax resistance in the General Conference.

The Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church opted to begin the process of merging in , and simultaneously the Mennonite Church decided to also adopt the policy of refusing to withhold taxes from its objecting employees. (The vote though was narrower than the vote of the General Conference delegates — 59% in favor this time — and the General Board of the Church would later stall on implementing the decision.)

“The Mennonite” logo, circa 1991

1991 · 1992–1993 · 1994 · 1995–1998

The urgency of the war tax resistance question had deflated by the . Christian Peacemaker Teams tried to breathe some life back into it through a “Taxes for Life” symbolic redirection campaign, beginning in .

The years when hardly an issue would come out that didn’t have some war tax resistance content in it were behind us. Now in some years there might be a single tax-season issue that profiled some steadfast Mennonite war tax resisters, and in other years the topic would hardly be mentioned at all, or would only be mentioned in passing. The triennial endorsed Peace Tax Fund campaigns but did not issue any shows of support for war tax resistance.

The Commission on Home Ministries decided in to extend its Student Aid Fund for Non-Registrants so that it would also cover students who were denied loans because of their war tax resistance.

An informal study of 17 Mennonite and Brethren in Christ institutions found that few had official policies concerning war taxes, and that even of those who did have a policy of honoring requests from employees not to have taxes withheld from their paychecks — “[m]ost institutions surveyed had not fielded such requests within the past 10 years.”

Some Mennonite institutions adopted the policy of gently pushing back against IRS attempts to levy the salaries of resisting employees, for instance by writing the agency a letter explaining their reluctance to participate in violating their employee’s conscientious act.

“The Mennonite” logo, circa 1998

1999 · 2000–2001

Mennonites continued to evolve new ways of reducing, refusing, or resisting paying for war with their taxes as the new millennium dawned. But the new “Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund” bill got most of the press. Editorial mentions of war tax resistance became increasingly vague and noncommittal.

“The Mennonite” logo, circa 2002

2002 · 2003–2006 · 2007–2010 · 2011–2014

The stories of individual Mennonite tax resisters of the past and present were occasionally told in the pages of The Mennonite in the early years of the 21st century, but the idea that this was a subject of fiery debate and collective concern in the Church was gone. Instead readers learned of individual prophets, protesters, eccentric heretics, or hopeless idealists (depending on your perspective).

Desperate war tax resistance evangelists increasingly were reduced to begging people to withhold tiny symbolic amounts from their taxes, such as in the “$10.40 for Peace” campaign.

Most distressingly, as the War on Iraq raged, Mennonite discussion of war tax resistance seemed to diminish even further (at least in The Mennonite). Had the Mennonite Church come to be “at peace with war” as one editorialist put it? One sober assessment of “How are we doing as a peace church?” in concluded that “[E]ach year our church members pay for cruise missiles, smart bombs, and unmanned drones — with barely the slightest tinge of conscience, let alone a whimper of protest.”

In the Mennonite Central Committee (U.S.) announced a war tax redirection effort — “Turning toward peace” — with a goal of helping aid programs in Afghanistan, and this program would continue to operate for several years.

“The Mennonite” dot org logo, circa 2018


It’s an extraordinary arc. War tax resistance built slowly and steadily until it had become a frenzy of debate, activity, and corporate commitment, and then astonishingly rapidly it mostly dissolved.

It’s hard to know quite what to make of this, or of the similar “forgetting” that took place in the Society of Friends around the same time. To a cynic, this might just look like a craze — with war tax resisters being the Cabbage Patch Kids of the historic peace churches.

Some other possible explanations that occur to me:

  1. The end of the Vietnam War and then the Cold War took the wind out of the sails of the peace movement in general, dampening the general interest in war tax resistance that the Mennonite war tax resistance movement was drafting off of.
  2. The drive to pass “Peace Tax Fund” legislation displaced interest in war tax resistance among people who shared a concern about taxpayer complicity. Potential tax resisters or war tax resistance advocates devoted themselves instead to letter-writing, lobbying, and fundraising for this doomed and increasingly counterproductive legislative effort.
  3. Those who were sympathetic to the arguments for war tax resistance quickly converted to some form of resistance by the peak of Mennonite war tax resistance activity in or so. Once these low-hanging-fruit had been collected, it was an uphill battle to get anyone else interested because they did not find the arguments as compelling, and so outreach and evangelism stalled.
  4. The “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s was in part inspired by conservative anger at high taxes and conservative politicians’ promises to lower taxes. This might have made the more liberal Mennonites, from which war tax resisters were drawing most of their support, less eager to be associated with a tax-resisting cause.
  5. Some resisters may have had exaggerated hopes for what war tax resistance would accomplish, and as those hopes faded with time and experience, so did enthusiasm for war tax resistance.