In military authorization vote, Quakers claim a victory

WASHINGTON (RNS) — As the U.S. House of Representatives began calling the roll last month to vote on a repeal of the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force, staffers at the Friends Committee on National Legislation couldn’t stop messaging each other.

According to Shoshana Abrams, a manager of advocacy teams at the FCNL, her colleagues began frantically chatting over Zoom as the votes trickled in. Meanwhile, members of FCNL’s volunteer network exchanged exuberant emails, their excitement peaking as they watched numbers tick up among a difficult-to-persuade demographic: Republicans.

“It was like: 20 Republicans! 47 Republicans!” Abrams said in an interview. “It was our team really seeing that their work was paying off.”

As with most legislative victories, many organizations played a role in the 268-161 House vote to repeal the 2002 AUMF, which originally authorized then-President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But few focused on the issue longer or more doggedly than the FCNL, which has toiled for years to stop what it describes as the “endless wars” launched by the United States. As the AUMF repeal effort moves to the Senate, activists are celebrating the culmination of decades of quiet — but persistent — faith-rooted advocacy.

“Peace is possible!” tweeted FCNL General Secretary Diane Randall after the vote.

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This content is written and produced by Religion News Service and distributed by The Associated Press. RNS and AP partner on some religion news content. RNS is solely responsible for this story.

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Founded in 1943, the Quaker group — whose tradition often refers to members as “friends” — has long taken an anti-war posture. It lobbied against conscription during World War II and launched a successful, decade-long campaign to defeat legislation in the 1950s that would have required military training for young men.

The group hasn’t let up since. Its headquarters still sits just across the street from Senate offices on Capitol Hill, often adorned with distinctive blue-and-white signs decrying war.

The anti-war theology of the Quakers, though, traces its roots back much further — to a 17th century letter sent by Quakers to King Charles II of England, according to Alicia McBride, FCNL’s director of Quaker leadership. The letter, now known as the “Peace Testimony,” condemned “all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever.”

According to historians, Quaker communities largely maintained those beliefs when they arrived in what would become the United States. Adherents generally declined to participate in the American Revolution: Some of their governing bodies declared neutrality in the conflict, and the small number of Quakers who aided the fighting were often exiled from the community for violating the Peace Testimony.

McBride said the original Peace Testimony likely had a lot to do with the politics of the era — namely, assuring a worried king Quakers wouldn’t rise up against him. But it nonetheless outlined a theology that has guided many Quakers ever since.

“(It’s) this idea that there is that of God in each person, and each person has access to the divine,” McBride said. “So to kill someone is to deny that of God in them.”

FCNL brings similar religious zeal for the dignity of life to a variety of issues, such as nuclear disarmament, ending gun violence, opposing the death penalty, acting to prevent climate change and “working to convince the U.S. government to put peacebuilding and violence prevention — not the military— at the center of its foreign policy.”

McBride was quick to note Quakerism expresses a range of beliefs; many eschew traditional ordained leadership, for instance, whereas some allow for clergy. The denomination can be traced back to George Fox, a 17th century Englishman who founded the tradition after growing frustrated with the Church of England and other religious voices of his day. In addition to insisting direct encounters with God can occur without assistance from clergy, he and others in his community developed atypical worship practices that reflect their interpretation of early Christianity.

It’s an old tradition, but not an especially sizable one. The Friends World Committee for Consultation estimated less than 400,000 members worldwide in 2017, and FCNL leaders said they don’t know of any Quakers currently serving in Congress. FCNL staffers told Religion News Service they are largely funded by individual donors, both Quakers and non-Quakers.

But what they lack in numbers they make up for in fervor. McBride described many of FCNL’s religious supporters as “unprogrammed Quakers” who engage in largely silent worship services — sometimes bringing that Quakerism to lawmakers.

“We have some teams that insist every lobby visit start with Quaker silence,” Abrams said. “You better believe that no one on Capitol Hill starts a meeting with four or five minutes of silence.”

The Quaker embrace of silence is often attributed to Psalm 46:10 from the Bible: “Be still and know that I am God.”

Religious opposition to war is hardly a Quaker invention. It’s one of three “peace churches” that champion forms of pacifism and anti-war sentiment, the other two being Mennonites and the Church of the Brethren. Similar beliefs can be found across a broad spectrum of faith traditions (Abrams noted she isn’t even Quaker herself), and FCNL’s work often involves building like-minded coalitions that span religious and political divides.

“You don’t have to be a Quaker to think it’s a bad idea to be in these wars,” McBride said.

Organizers for FCNL say theirs is a form of long-game advocacy that can garner results in the right moment, such as the recent AUMF repeal vote. When Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat who sponsored the bill, took a moment on the House floor earlier last month to thank groups that helped the cause, the first organization she named was FCNL. Lee, who also voted against war power resolutions in both 2001 and 2002, mentioned FCNL again a few days later during an appearance on MSNBC.

“FCNL is one of the most well-organized and strategic advocacy teams in Washington,” Lee told RNS. “Their advocates always speak with detailed knowledge and moral clarity. I have found them to be an invaluable ally in our shared efforts to end war and advance human rights and needs.”

Bipartisan support will be key as the effort reaches a divided Senate, Abrams said. In addition to President Joe Biden backing the idea of narrowing existing AUMFs in general, support for repealing the 2002 AUMF runs the ideological gamut, with advocates ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Heritage Foundation. Both Abrams and McBride also noted that FCNL’s long-standing efforts now coincide with waning support for military intervention abroad — not to mention Biden’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

“I think the moment is finally right,” Abrams said. Though it isn’t the first time the House has voted to repeal the 2002 AUMF, she noted that when it did so in 2020, it was with far less bipartisan support.

Abrams argued that FCNL benefits from relationships it has built with members of both parties, often by relying on a personalized form of advocacy. She recalled a recent meeting with a Republican lawmaker’s staff: When an activist for FCNL discussed the damage post-traumatic stress disorder can do to military families, a GOP aide perked up.

“Immediately the staffer in that meeting was able to connect with us and said, ‘You know, we experienced the same thing in my family,’” Abrams said.

The power of those relationships will soon be tested further. The 2002 AUMF is only one of several AUMFs, and Abrams said it isn’t currently being used for any ongoing military actions. However, a separate debate is already brewing around a 2001 AUMF authorizing war against the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001, attacks. Various presidents expanded its interpretation over the years — such as invoking it to justify aggression against the Islamic State group — and it is being used to defend ongoing military action.

“We spend a lot of time as the (FCNL) advocacy teams network educating members of Congress on what the difference was between the 2001 and 2002 AUMF,” she said. “It’s been a huge effort to separate those pieces of legislation in their view, and to really consider one and then move on to the other.”

Come what may, McBride said FCNL will continue advocating for the same religious ideal it has championed since 1943: protecting the divine in everyone.

“We have been so consistent in trying to carry out policies that are true to this belief for the entire length of our history,” she said. “Even if people don’t come to the position we’re asking them to for the same reason that we do — as Friends, there’s a respect for that consistency, that trying to bring something better into being.”

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