As a federal commission reviews the Selective Service System and other issues regarding the American public’s relationship with military service, Anabaptists have given their input.
A diverse collection of representatives from Mennonite and other Anabaptist groups gathered this summer to share their concerns in a joint letter submitted Sept. 13 to the commission.
Mennonite Central Committee U.S. hosted the Anabaptist Church Consultation on June 4 in Akron, Pa. Spanning the spectrum from Mennonite Church USA to Old Order Amish, 13 groups were represented.
The meeting was prompted by an interim report of the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service. Congress established the commission in 2017 to review Selective Service registration, which requires all males ages 18 to 24 to register in case a military draft were to return.
Among other aspects of military and other public service, the commission is considering whether registration should be expanded to include women and how to increase participation in military or public service.
Missing among the meeting’s participants were representatives from the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, who were invited by MCC. USMB executive director Don Morris said the denomination did not attend and did not sign the letter because doing so could be perceived as offensive to some church members.
“We have in our constituency a large percentage of people that would not agree with the mandate or the philosophy of not picking up arms in a just-war situation,” he said.
In 2014, USMB modified Article 13 (Love, Peacemaking and Reconciliation) in its Confession of Faith to replace an explicit directive not to serve in the military with phrasing that notes nonparticipation in the military is a choice “many of us” make.
“We do still strongly push and desire peacemaking as a sentimental part of who we are as a denomination or conference of churches — peacemaking in all aspects of life,” Morris said. “But we also don’t want to offend those who might have a different position than a part of us.”
Gratitude and concern
During the June 4 consultation at MCC, Anabaptist representatives spent time reviewing the commission’s work and articulating their response.
Their letter expresses gratitude for the freedom and privilege to express deeply held Christian beliefs. It requests no law be created that requires universal obligation for men or women to serve in the military, and recommends against expanding registration to include women.
The letter requests that Selective Service registration include a way to indicate conscientious objection to war at the time of registration. This option has not been available since President Jimmy Carter restarted registration in 1980. The draft ended in 1973.
The letter also asks that the government not penalize people who do not register as a matter of conscience. Those who choose not to register are not eligible for federal education grants and loans and cannot hold a government job.
“We strongly value service but are concerned by the commission’s conflation of service to the community with military service,” states the letter.
MCC U.S. Washington Office director Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach said this kind of unity of diverse groups is similar to when representatives from the Mennonite Brethren, Brethren in Christ, General Conference Mennonite Church, (Old) Mennonite Church and Old Order Amish submitted a statement on military conscription in 1945 to the House Military Affairs Committee.
“I do think there is a shared interest among a broader set of Anabaptists on the issue of conscientious objection than is the case on other issues relating to the government,” she said. “That has been the case historically and is still true today.”
Light on details
About one year into its work in January, the national commission released an interim report. The document is focused mainly on the commission’s view that not enough young people are serving in the military and federally supported civil programs like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps.
Bill Galvin, counseling director at the Center on Conscience and War in Washington, has attended many of the commission’s public meetings over the last year and a half. He said that although the document is more than two dozen pages long, it says little about what the commission might recommend.
“It seemed, early on at least, that they had this notion to propose some kind of mandatory national service, but they have heard strong opposition to that,” Galvin said. “We don’t know what they’re going to do, to be honest, but I think they’re not likely to propose mandatory national service for everybody.”
Galvin said the commission’s final report is due out in March, and it could be that members are still split on conclusions.
“We’ve asked the staff point blank, ‘What are you going to do about women?’ and their response is they haven’t decided yet,” he said. “What they did say about registration and women is that they have heard strong opinions on both sides.”
Regardless of the final report’s recommendations, the likelihood of new legislation next year is slim. Bills to expand Selective Service to women or include a CO registration option have not gained traction in recent decades.
While registration is mostly an afterthought for the general public, it is a significant reality for some young men who take the decision seriously and for church organizations that must be ready to accommodate alternative service compliance.
Although the commission has no more public meetings scheduled, there is still time for public comment from individuals before a deadline at the end of the year. Comments can be submitted online at inspire2serve.gov/publiccomments, firstname.lastname@example.org or 2530 Crystal Drive, Suite 1000, Box 63, Arlington, VA 22202.
Morris said USMB might still write its own letter to the commission, using wording and positions it is comfortable with. The topic will be an agenda item at the next national board meeting in November.
Galvin said: “The staff told me they are writing stuff up now, so the sooner they hear comments from people the more likely it is to impact them.”
The letter’s signers
Signers of the Sept. 13 letter to the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service:
— Beachy Amish
— Brethren Church
— Brethren in Christ U.S.
— Church of the Brethren
— CMC (Conservative Mennonite Conference)
— Evana Network
— LMC (Lancaster Mennonite Conference)
— Mennonite Central Committee U.S.
— Mennonite Church USA
— Mennonite Mission Network
— Old Order Amish
— Old Order Mennonites