• U.S.

Clergy: Should Ministers Be Draft-Exempt?

3 minute read

Ever since conscription was adopted by the U.S. during the Civil War, ministers, priests and seminarians have been automatically exempt from military draft. Today, 101,500 men are classified as 4D— exempt as ordained clerics or seminarians. President Johnson’s proposed new selective service law, while tightening up on other categories of exemptions, maintains the clerical exception. Nonetheless, the ministry’s draft immunity has recently come under attack—chiefly by churchmen themselves.

At a recent conference in Washington of “Clergymen and Laymen Concerned About Viet Nam,” 500 seminarians signed a petition urging the abolition of their exempt status. In a letter to the New York Times last month, three antiwar clergymen, Lutheran Minister Richard J. Neuhaus, Jesuit Father Daniel V. Kilfoyle and Rabbi Lloyd Tennenbaum, contended that “far from aiding institutionalized religion, the total exemption of clergy does American religion a great disservice.” This month, Harvard Divinity School will sponsor a two-day seminar on the issue.

Opportunity to Protest. Objections to the traditional clerical privilege come from ministers with sharply contrasting views about the Viet Nam war. Probably a majority of them are strongly against the war, would like their draft exemption withdrawn so that they could register as conscientious objectors. “The exemption,” says Herbert Long, dean of students at Harvard Divinity School, “is a subtle way of not allowing the clergy the opportunity to protest.” On the other hand, some seminarians feel that they should have the privilege of being called to serve, and not simply as chaplains, who at present are all volunteers.

To still other critics, the objection to draft exemption goes deeper than the war and involves the broader question of the clergy’s relation to secular society. In their view, exemption from service, like the old “clergyman’s discount” at stores, unfairly and unnecessarily sets the cleric apart as a privileged member of society. Some seminarians even feel that their exemption stigmatizes them in the eyes of others as suspected draft dodgers. Still another argument against exemption is that clergymen, if faced with the real challenge of whether or not to serve, would be forced to evaluate more searchingly the morality of war and of duty. Asks Lutheran Theologian John Elliott of St. Louis’ Concordia Seminary: “How can clergymen who have not faced the draft advise men who face it?”

Symbolic Value. To be sure, there are still plenty of priests and ministers who see as still valid the traditional rationales for exemption: the clergy performs a vital function for society, and those who are dedicated to preaching God’s peace should not have their hands stained with the blood of human war. Jesuit Biblical Scholar John McKenzie argues that mustering ministers “would destroy the symbolic value that the clergyman ought to have. He is to represent in this world that man whose mission was to die for others and not to kill them.” Even so, there appears to be a growing consensus among ministers that, as the Christian Century recently argued, “the distinction and privilege granted to clergymen and ministerial students by the Selective Service Act preserve in the popular mind a repugnant clerical image.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com