When the Left Liked Conscientious Objection

Progressives love the Berrigan brothers, but eagerly torch conscientious objection when it involves the Little Sisters of the Poor, Hobby Lobby or churches opposed to abortion and contraception.

Do you remember the name Daniel Berrigan?

Berrigan was a Jesuit priest well-known for his protests of the Vietnam War. He became a household name in the 1960s, along with his brother, Philip Berrigan, also a priest. They were the “Berrigan Brothers,” leading lights in the anti-war movement. He died last week at age 94.

The most prominent display by the Berrigan brothers came in May 1968, when they and seven others entered a draft-board office in Catonsville, Maryland and seized the records of hundreds of young men destined for Vietnam. They removed the files, took them outside, doused them with homemade “napalm,” and ignited them.

The Catonsville Nine were sentenced to jail terms. The Berrigans expressed no regrets for their action. Daniel would later say his only regret was that he hadn’t done it sooner.

It would not be the only episode that landed Daniel in handcuffs. And to his credit, he was not some mere leftist picking and choosing his moral outrages in alignment with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. He also vigorously protested abortion, a resistance to violence where he parted with his comrades on the left.

For the record, I am (as readers know) a staunch anti-communist. I have my share of criticism as well as respect for Daniel Berrigan. That is not my focus today. My focus here is how liberals lined up to applaud Berrigan at the time and at his death for his work on behalf of conscientious objection, and where they stand on conscientious objection today.

Berrigan’s death brought encomiums in left-wing sources from the New York Times to the Huffington Post to The New Yorker to even People’s World, house organ of Communist Party USA and successor to the Soviet-directed Daily Worker. The Times obituary headlined Berrigan as the “Defiant Priest Who Preached Pacifism.” It praised his “civil disobedience” and crusading against an “unjust society.”

Hey, it’s always exciting to see the New York Times muster nice things to say about a priest. But the Times and its allies do so with hypocrisy. How so? Because these citadels of secular-progressivism could, in truth, care less about conscientious objection, or at least consistently applied conscientious objection. They laud and demand conscientious objection when it serves their purposes, such as opposing the forced conscription of American boys into a war in Southeast Asia they oppose. They enthusiastically invoke it as the Berrigan brothers and their buddies set ablaze draft files.

But these same progressives eagerly torch conscientious objection when the Little Sisters of the Poor or Hobby Lobby or Conestoga Woods or various churches and denominations beg the feds not to force them to fund abortion and contraception. They angrily boycott restaurant chains whose owners dare assert that their Bible tells them not to redefine marriage. They harass, sue, fine, debase, demonize, and seek to destroy the Christian baker, florist, photographer, or caterer who asks to be left in peace and not be coerced by Caesar to service a same-sex wedding that they believe their God would not want them to support. They literally put in handcuffs a clerk like Kim Davis, and then mock her in skits on “Saturday Night Live.”

Under the “inclusive” rainbow flag of the “LGBT” movement, liberals hate away on the likes of Kim Davis—in the name of “tolerance.”

In truth, if they could manage to set aside their emotions and biases, liberals would realize that Kim Davis, like Daniel Berrigan, is acting on behalf of conscientious objection. She is violating certain laws of the state that she believes are unjust and in conflict with her faith and conscience, regardless of whether they agree with her. Progressives can sneer at that, but it’s true.

Kim Davis is just one of those that the left steamrolls as it “progresses” forward. For modern progressives, when it comes to sacred cows like “gay marriage” and “abortion rights,” they spurn conscientious objection. Measured against these causes, the conscientious objector is a pariah not to be tolerated. All that lofty rhetoric from liberals about conscientious objection during the Vietnam War is today lit up like an American flag on the corner of Haight-Ashbury.

It’s an appalling double standard. Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice, a consistent and thoughtful liberal, famously noted that for the left, the motto is in actuality, “Free speech for me but not for thee.” It sure is. We see this on display constantly.

“Diversity” for me but not for thee.

“Tolerance” for me but not for thee.

Conscientious objection for me but not for thee.

And so, liberals proudly elevate Daniel Berrigan as one of theirs, as a symbol of their self-virtue. They pride themselves with his example. In fact, his example stands only to illustrate their intolerance today. He reminds us less that liberals once fought for conscientious objection than the reality that today they do not.

May Daniel Berrigan rest in peace. Sadly, his symbol of conscientious objection today likewise rests in peace.

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Crisis magazine.)

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About Dr. Paul Kengor 53 Articles
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century, Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage, and, most recently, The Devil and Karl Marx: Communism's Long March of Death, Deception, and Infiltration.