A new film on one of America's most famous pacificists holds insights for present and future religious freedom debates, even though it's set in World War II. "Hacksaw Ridge," which is now in theaters, highlights how difficult it can be to resolve conflict between individual beliefs and social expectations.
In general, the long and complicated path to today's conscientious objection law in the U.S. helps explain why battles over the appropriate way to balance religious liberty with nondiscrimination protections seem far from over.
"The debate over military service got heated at times, and in some ways, it's the highest-stakes example of the religious exemption," said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia, to the Deseret News in 2013.
The subject of "Hacksaw Ridge," Desmond Doss, was bullied by his commanders and fellow soldiers. A Seventh-day Adventist, he signed up to be a combat medic in WWII so he could obey God's commandment against killing and fulfill his duty to serve.
A plaque describing the personal story of Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Desmond Doss, is part of the Okinawa display at The National WWII Museum, in New Orleans. | Max Becherer, Associated Press
Doss saved dozens of lives on Okinawa without carrying a weapon, earning the respect of his companions and, eventually, a medal of honor. The film explores his success in staying true to his beliefs, in spite of how few people supported him.
"'Hacksaw Ridge' is about conflicts of many kinds: duty to God versus duty to country, individual freedom versus communal responsibility, healing versus killing, love versus hate, and so on," wrote Brett McCracken for Christianity Today.
Political leaders have struggled to know what to do with pacifists, or people who morally object to violence, since before the Revolutionary War.
"Quakers and Mennonites did not join in when their neighbors fought the Indians and worked on their forts," according to a brief history of conscientious objection published by Swarthmore College.
Members of these groups refused to serve as soldiers and often declined to pay taxes during the Revolutionary War, asserting that their beliefs kept them from, in any way, condoning violence. These pacifists were sometimes imprisoned and forced to pay penalties, the article noted.
In March 1863, around the midpoint of the Civil War, Congress passed a national conscription act, allowing conscientious objectors to avoid the battleground by paying $300 or sending someone in their place.
Pacifist policies were further refined during the first and second world wars, as a "larger and more diverse group," including Jehovah's Witnesses and socialists, came forward to seek exemptions from military service, Swarthmore College reported. Some conscientious objectors were assigned to noncombatant roles. Some volunteered, as Doss did, to serve as medics. Some worked on agricultural and other domestic projects, and some were imprisoned for failing to cooperate.
"Of the men who registered for the draft (during WWII), there were 72,354 who applied for conscientious objector status," the article noted.
Pacifists were provided with more civil service options during the Korean War, as the objection process continued to be adjusted. However, the Vietnam War threw the system for yet another loop because some potential soldiers objected specifically to this conflict, rather than violence in general.
Heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali, center, leaves the Armed Forces induction center with his entourage after refusing to be drafted into the Armed Forces in Houston, April 28, 1967. | Associated Press
Around this time, Muhammad Ali grabbed headlines for refusing his draft notice on religious grounds. He was refused conscientious objector status, fined, sentenced to five years in prison and forced out of the boxing ring.
Ali's case eventually was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, and justices ruled in his favor on June 28, 1971, according to SCOTUSblog. A few months before, the court had expanded the definition of conscientious objector to include all those who oppose war for moral reasons, even if they don't believe in God.
In 1973, government officials ended the draft, but there are updated conscientious objection regulations in place in case it's reinstated.
"If there were to be a draft today, conscientious objectors would be required to make their case before a government Selective Service board, which could reject their pleas or assign those they deemed legitimate pacifists to perform alternate community service for the same amount of time they would have served in the military," noted the 2013 Deseret News article.
Conscientious objectors register with the Selective Service by writing a statement or providing witnesses to attest to how their beliefs confirm their stance on war.
"Beliefs may be moral or ethical. However, a man's reasons for not wanting to participate in a war must not be based on politics, expediency or self-interest. In general, the man's lifestyle prior to making his claim must reflect his current claims," the Selective Service website explains.
Opportunity for understanding
Director Mel Gibson, center, interviews Desmond Doss Jr., the son of Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Desmond Doss, at a screening of the movie "Hacksaw Ridge" at The National WWII Museum, in New Orleans, on Oct. 26, 2016. | Max Becherer, Associated Press
"Hacksaw Ridge" educates viewers about the discrimination faced by people like Doss, who did what they could to support America's soldiers in spite of objecting to war for religious reasons. The film also reflects on how people move forward together when they struggle to understand one another's beliefs, McCracken wrote.
"Coming as it does just a few days before the most divisive U.S. presidential election in recent memory, 'Hacksaw Ridge' ponders a timely question: How can we live alongside one another amidst differences, bearing with and respecting one another's convictions, even when we vehemently disagree?" he continued.
In all legal battles over believers' rights, the core question is the same: How do you address the needs of one individual or group when they're in conflict with the needs of others?
"Pluralism is all well and good when a 'to each their own' ethos allows people to do their thing in the privacy of their homes and communities. It's when one's personal expression has implications on others that it becomes a problem," McCracken wrote.
Like the debate over conscientious objection, efforts to sort out tensions stemming from same-sex marriage and other ongoing religious freedom debates will take time. The important thing is that Americans on all ends of the spectrum work together, noted Robin Fretwell Wilson, director of the Family Law and Policy Program at the University of Illinois College of Law, in a recent interview with the Deseret News.
"We don't need more 'I win. You lose,'" she said. "How about we all win, or we all just be civil and figure it out."