20 April 2023

Quakers in Politics ... what Quakers can bring to political life

Quakers are fond of the phrase “speak truth to power,” often citing it as their mission and their way of acting in the public realm. It is a phrase with great resonance that has entered the general vocabulary of progressive activists, and there are times when it is both apt and necessary. However, there is a certain danger in using the phrase too blithely. It suggests that Quakers who have truth are on one side of an equation and that people with power are on the other—that we are the virtuous outsiders speaking to those others who are insiders. We might better think, along with Catherine West, of trying to “reform the practice of power” through our comportment and practices.

Quakers in Politics.

In this compact and well-organized little book, Carl and Margery Post Abbott consider what it means for Friends to be political "outsiders" (virtuous or not) as well as "insiders." In just 82 pages, they look at our historical record from our earliest years, the ways our beliefs shape our attitudes to politics, and the experiences of Friends who have actually served in political office and in organizations that lobby the politicians.

This distinction between remaining outside the actual process of political tradecraft, on the one hand, and working actively to influence political outcomes, on the other, recurs again and again. As the authors show through well-chosen cases, the balance between the two approaches has varied through history, and even in the lives of specific Friends. In the 17th century, George Fox gathered our movement through his passionate evangelism, proclaiming that "Christ has come to teach his people himself"but that same sense of prophetic immediacy led him to plead for social justice in petitions to Oliver Cromwell. When the monarchy was restored and Friends faced severe repressions, he counseled a lower-key approach. Later, he and other Friends once again went public with their calls for religious freedom and social justice.

Anyone with a strict sense of integrity and personal modesty faces a dilemma when considering a life in politics: a certain degree of self-advancement and a readiness to compromise and accept trade-offs usually come with the territory. The Abbotts provide case studies of Friends both accepting and refusing political involvement based on this reality. Confronted with a demand to finance military forces in colonial Pennsylvania, for example, Friends gave up their central role in the colony's government in 1756. Young Quaker men facing conscription in the two World Wars didn't have the option to retire into private life. In the USA, the American Friends Service Committee and the Friends Committee on National Legislation were parts of the Quaker response to those wartime realities. (Margery Post Abbott has been involved in leadership roles within FCNL.)

The book's case studies include several individual Quakers whose lives often reflect a progression from being an outsider to active political involvement. Among the Quaker politicians in the book, the experience of John Bright (the second Quaker ever to serve in the British Parliament, after Joseph Pease) is an interesting example:

John Bright had a family problem.... A majority of voters in Durham wanted him in Parliament, but his wife was dubious, and in-laws deeply concerned. It was commendable, they thought, for Friends to work as quiet persuaders in the manner of John Woolman or public advocates in the manner of Elizabeth Fry, but not to go over completely to the other side to become a politician.... John Bright bridged some of the divides as an unquiet Quaker from a quietist background (literally unquiet because he was one of the most powerful orators of his day). He had no doubt that his Quakerism connected seamlessly to his political liberalism, which took the form of efforts to expand the elective franchise, limit the influence of the landed aristocracy, promote free international trade, disestablish the Church of Ireland, and break up monopolistic power.

In addition to such iconic Quakers as Margaret Fell and John Woolman, some of the political activists and politicians mentioned in the Abbotts' book include John Greenleaf Whittier, Elizabeth Fry, Herbert Hoover, Emily Greene Balch, Nitobe Inazō, Paul Douglas, Lon Burman, Thomas Lung'aho, Simeon Shitemi, A. Mitchell Palmer, Raymond Wilson, Richard Nixon, Elton Trueblood, Miriam and Sam Levering, Bayard Rustin, Catherine West, Marian Hobbs, Jo Vallentine, Judith Kirton-Dowling, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, and many others, some of whom the authors interviewed personally. Some of these figures were advocates and reformers; some operated ecumenically or collaborated with secular movements while others stayed within Quaker structures; and some were elected to political office themselves. The authors treat Nixon with conspicuous fairness, it seems to me; and I was glad to see Madlala-Routledge included, since she had a government role in South Africa that would rarely if ever fall to a Friend: Deputy Minister of Defense.

Margery Post Abbott and Carl Abbott;
The Abbotts also describe how Friends have built organizations for more effective influence on politicians, for creating forums where political actors can meet for candid, off-stage conversations, and for raising awareness among Friends based on these activities. The American Friends Service Committee and its British counterparts are among those organizations; the authors also cite the Quaker United Nations Office, the Quaker Committee on European Affairs, and the Quaker Peace Network - Africa.

Inevitably, an introductory treatment of Quakers in politics could not cover every possible angle and remain within the "Quaker Quicks" series format. Evangelical Friends are acknowledged (including an interesting quotation from Lon Fendall) but not treated at the same length as more politically progressive Friends; and the country with the third largest Quaker population in the world, Bolivia, is not represented, though the dilemmas faced by Friends are generally similar to the patterns already covered in the book. Several of the earlier chapters beg for enlarged treatment, such as the relationship between personal faith and public policy, and the role of the Bible in forming Quaker approaches to politics, both in terms of policy and in terms of personal discipleship as a political activist. Some faith-in-politics subtopics may already be covered in earlier "Quaker Quicks" (peace, for example), and maybe Quakers in Politics will inspire others.

Despite these limitations of scale, the Abbotts' book definitely keeps its persuasive promise:

We believe that it is important that there be Quaker voices inside the political process as well as outside, and we address both the pitfalls and promise of being a “political Quaker.”

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