When the Left Liked Conscientious Objection

The death of Father Daniel Berrigan, well-known for his protests of the Vietnam War, received a notable amount of publicity, especially from liberals who admired him for assisting conscientious objectors and resisting a wartime draft that they viewed as unjust.

The Jesuit priest, who died at age 94, became a controversial name in the 1960s, along with his brother, Philip Berrigan, also a priest. They were the unforgettable “Berrigan Brothers,” leading lights in the anti-war movement. Their most prominent display 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 went to trial and were convicted and sentenced to jail terms. The Berrigans expressed no regrets for their action. In fact, Daniel would later tell America magazine that his only regret was that he hadn’t done it sooner. It would not be the only episode that landed Daniel in handcuffs.

For the record, I am (as many readers know) a staunch anti-communist and Cold Warrior, and yet, I have my share of sympathies and respect as well as criticisms of 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 work on behalf of conscientious objection. His death brought encomiums in leading left-wing sources from the New York Times to the Huffington Post to The New Yorker to even People’s World, successor to the longtime Soviet-directed Daily Worker. Not surprisingly, the comrades at People’s World—house organ of Communist Party USA—have long lauded Berrigan’s confrontation with the Evil Empire; that is, with the “Evil Empire” that was the United States of America. Now here was a priest that communists could like!

The Times obituary headlined Berrigan as the “Defiant Priest Who Preached Pacifism.” It praised his “civil disobedience” and crusading against an “unjust society” as an “intellectual star of the Roman Catholic ‘new left’” in the ’60s.

Hey, it’s always exciting to see the New York Times muster nice things to say about a Catholic priest. But the Times and its allies do so with typical unwitting hypocrisy. How so? Because these citadels of American 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 that they oppose. They will invoke it as the Berrigan brothers and their buddies set ablaze draft files.

But these same stoic progressives merrily torch conscientious objection when the Little Sisters of the Poor or Hobby Lobby or Conestoga Woods or various churches and denominations are begging the feds not to force them to fund abortion and contraception. They angrily boycott restaurant chains whose owners dare to assert that their Bible tells them not to redefine marriage. They harass, sue, fine, imprison, debase, dehumanize, demonize, and seek to destroy the Christian baker, florist, photographer, or caterer who simply asks to be left alone 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 as a knuckle-dragging, Bible-thumping “fundamentalist” in skits on “Saturday Night Live.” She is portrayed as a moron at best and a cretin at worst.

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

In truth, if they could manage to set aside their emotions, their biases, and their hysteria, and try to observe themselves and their positions with a thoughtful mind, 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. Enlightened “progressives” can sniff and sneer at that all they want, but the truth is the truth.

Kim Davis is just one of those that the modern left steamrolls as it “progresses” forward. For modern secular progressives, the enemies list to extort and extinguish is increasingly endless. When it comes to sacred cows like “gay marriage” and “abortion rights,” they allow for no conscientious objection whatsoever. Measured against these causes, the conscientious objector is a pariah, not a moral objector but a moral reprobate. To hell with conscience and objection. 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 is relegated to ashes.

Like so much of what the left does, its claims are marred with hypocrisy. Recall Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice, a genuinely consistent and thoughtful liberal, who famously noted that for the left, the motto is in actuality, “Free speech for me but not for thee.”

We see it on display constantly by the left today.

“Diversity” for me but not for three.

“Tolerance” for me but not for thee.

Conscientious objection for me but not for thee.

And so, liberals today want to proudly elevate Daniel Berrigan as one of theirs, as a symbol of them and their perceived great self-virtue. They flatter and pride themselves with his example. In fact, his example stands only to illustrate what a bunch of intolerant bullies they have become. He reminds us less that liberals once fought for conscientious objection than the reality that today they could give a rip about conscientious objection. Like their “diversity” and “tolerance” heresies, conscientious objection is another handy tool to be invoked when it helps them and ignored when it does not.

May Daniel Berrigan rest in peace. Sadly, his symbol of conscientious objection today likewise rests in peace, burned and interred by liberalism’s modern disciples.


Paul Kengor is Professor of Political Science at Grove City College, executive director of the Center for Vision and Values. He is the author, most recently, of The Devil and Karl Marx (TAN Books, 2020).

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