Another in our series of interviews with people long associated with Quakers and Quaker Universalist Fellowship. Cherie Roberts interviewed Daniel A. Seeger in November of 2013.
Daniel Seeger served as the clerk of Quaker Universalist Fellowship. He has worked in key senior positions in Quaker organizations such as American Friends Service Committee, Pendle Hill, Friends World Committee for Consultation and the World Conference of Friends.
He is known in the Quaker community and beyond for his success in the unanimous Supreme Court decision of United States of America vs. Daniel A. Seeger declaring that it was not reasonable to exclude agnostic people who did not believe in a Supreme Being from the conscientious objector classification.
QUF: We would like to open our discussion your story. How did you come to embrace universalism? We’d like to hear about your life’s journey and about the events of the CO. How your journey related to the Quaker tradition and universalism.
SEEGER: I think there are three sources of my universalist perspective. Two were related to my Supreme Court case and one was related to my work with American Friends Service Committee….
I was raised a Roman Catholic. When I went to public high school I fell away from the faith, and I became a teenage agnostic. [In college] I took two years of a variety of courses that were required, including one which was called Western Civilization…. I read Gandhi, and also Tolstoy and Thoreau (not Tolstoy’s novels, but his religious thought, which especially developed toward the end of his life).
These three people were anti-war people, nonviolent people. This was the part of the western civilization course which stuck with me. I don’t know why that occurred but nevertheless it did. I am sure it was not the intent of the course’s designers….
I proceeded through college…, becoming more and more convinced that I could not participate in war. Without any advice or counsel from anyone experienced in Selective Service procedures, I did write to my draft board telling them that I did not intend to enter military service. I did not know the term conscientious objector, so I did not use it…. I just said that I could not in good conscience participate in war-making and in killing….
Nothing seemed to happen until I lost my student deferment near the end of my college career…. I called their attention to my earlier letter…. [They] located my letter and sent me something called Form 150 – a special form for conscientious objectors. This, at least, acquainted me with the term conscientious objector.
But there was another surprise: The first question on Form 150 was “Do you believe in a Supreme Being?” followed by two checkboxes. The first checkbox was for the answer “yes,” the second for the answer “no.”
The second question was a request that I explain my how my belief in a Supreme Being required me to be a conscientious objector. I had a vague notion about the separation of church and state, and so I was surprised that an agency of the U. S. Government would ask me questions like this.
I was an agnostic; Gandhi, I now know, was a great devotee of the Bhagavad Gita, and so presumably he was a theist, but I had not picked this up in the excerpts of his writings I had read. I tended to regard these first two questions as more or less irrelevant.
I pondered for a few days. Then, to meet the deadline, I completed the application by checking neither box, but by drawing a third box which said “Please see attached pages.” I included an eight page essay on the knowability and unknowability of God, but claimed to have a religious sort of concern for peace and non-violence.
So the first thing about this journey toward universalism is that I became a conscientious objector to military service not by the inspirational example of one or more personal acquaintances, which is the way most people come to this if they have not been raised into it by their families, but I came to my conviction by book reading, primarily by reading a writer from Asia who practiced Hinduism.
My effort with Form 150 made no impression upon the local draft board, and I received another order to appear for a pre-induction physical…. I ran afoul of an explicit provision of the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 1948, which required people to base their beliefs on a Supreme Being if they were to receive a conscientious objector exemption from military service…
[I] found my way to the local American Friends Service Committee office for draft counseling…. [Staff] members of the American Friends Service Committee were apparently frequently meeting people whom they regarded as sincere conscientious objectors, but who were being tripped up by this theological or dogmatic test.
When they at looked me and my eight-page essay, they thought that there might be the basis for a constitutional claim under the First Amendment of the Constitution guaranteeing us both freedom of religion and freedom from religion and prohibiting the state from preferring one religion over others or all religions over no religion…. [They] asked if I would agree to be a candidate for a test case of the constitutionality of the Selective Service law, of the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 1948….
The second thread of universalism occurred when the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a verdict in my favor declaring that it was not reasonable to exclude agnostic people who did not believe in a Supreme Being from the conscientious objector classification. They actually delivered an opinion that was 9-0, that is, unanimous, in my favor. This is known as the case of the United States of America vs. Daniel A. Seeger ….
[There] were five concurring decisions. William O. Douglas wrote one of the decisions. He likened me, with my eight-page essay, to a Buddhist. He was, apparently, himself interested in eastern spirituality. Not only did I have Gandhi, but I also had Buddhism now thrust at me. I said Hmmmm. Justice Douglas’ concurring opinion gave me a second push into an interest in eastern spirituality. This was the second push toward Quaker universalism.
The third push occurred when I was working with the [AFSC]…. [I] was appointed to the position of College Secretary…, charged with organizing work camps and other volunteer projects for college-age constituencies, and [I] did a lot of speaking at campuses in the New York area about Quakerism and pacifism. About four years later I was appointed Regional Director of the New York AFSC office.
All of us in the [AFSC] were very concerned that the work be an authentic expression of spiritual values. …saw their involvement as an expression of a religious quest, even though a few of us were agnostics, or even atheists. Many people in [AFSC] were devout Christians or Jews. (I suppose some might have been Muslim, but I didn’t know of any.) Thus, there were all kinds of people in American Friends Service Committee — people of many faiths and backgrounds.
But the problem that I sensed as a leader and administrator was that, out of deference to this diversity and to everyone’s individual religious views, we tended not to talk about religion at all. We talked about social change and political activism in strictly secular terms.
There were periods in my life in the [AFSC] when one didn’t hear any discussion or vocabulary that one would not hear in a public school classroom. This seemed to be an impoverishment of our internal dialogue about the witness we were trying to make, about the work we were carrying out.
I became interested finding diverse ways of expressing spiritual truth so that it wouldn’t seem sectarian, narrowly Christian or narrowly Quaker, but would acknowledge the fundamental spiritual reality that undergirded the work for peace and for justice.
Drawing on pacifist strains in Buddhism and Hinduism, and on my own interest in eastern spirituality which germinated out of the Supreme Court case, and expanding to a utilization of like concepts drawn from Jewish and Christian sources, I began to try to articulate a spiritual basis for our AFSC endeavors which would be broadly acceptable to a diverse constituency.
I also was concerned to nurture the cross-fertilization between the AFSC and the Religious Society of Friends which had long been a vital source of regeneration and renewal for both the AFSC and the Religious Society, and which seemed to be beginning to atrophy.
I became an activist Quaker and religious spokesperson within the Religious Society as well as being an AFSC executive. The universalist slant to my Quaker perspective caught the attention of other Friends of like mind, and so in the natural course of events I was drawn into the life of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship.
I did bring a particular flavor to the universalist dialogue. Many universalists, being refugees from Christian malpractice experienced in other denominations, were profoundly allergic to Christian references and thought forms, and seemed bent on excising its Christian heritage from the Religious Society of Friends.
I felt, however, that it was inauthentic to be welcoming to the perspectives of Buddhists, Hindus, Shintos, Taoists and Muslims, and then to be hostile to Christian and Jewish ways of thinking. So I practiced a kind of smorgasbord approach, or syncretic approach, in terms of my interest in expressing spiritual truths.
But I also became wary of universalist dabbling — you know, a little Buddhism here, and a little pinch of Taoism there. I began to feel that to have an authentic and deep spiritual life one had to specialize in one tradition and its particular disciplines and vocabulary.
At the same time, everyone could be helped and enlightened by an appreciation of the fine and good things that had been discovered in other branches of civilization during humankind’s long pilgrimage on this earth.
Finally, I tended to be wary of the thought that all religions are essentially alike, another belief to which some universalists were inclined. There are, indeed, some tantalizingly common themes which can be discovered throughout different spiritual cultures, particularly in the ethical sphere. The various versions of the golden rule, which crop up in different religious cultures is an oft-cited example.
But there is also great diversity and some outright contradictions, among religious cultures, and not to appreciate and savor these, and ponder their implications, is to deprive the universalist exploration of its capacity to stretch and challenge us.
So, these were the three sources of my universalist interests: reading Gandhi in college and becoming a conscientious objector to military service; being impelled by Justice William O. Douglas’ concurring opinion to look into Buddhism; and trying to serve the American Friends Service Committee’s religiously pluralist constituency.