It has been interesting for me to watch the reactions this past week as news stories illuminated yet again the contested territory where the free exercise of religion meets civic considerations and obligations. As I observed other LDS people comment on these stories, I realized that in our recent past, we have experienced something even more egregious and more threatening than being pressured to refrain from performing proxy baptisms for Holocaust victims.
In the Vietnam era during the late 1960s, all young men were required to register for the Selective Service and make themselves available for the draft. Young men who were healthy, single, and heterosexual were classified as 1-A, eligible for military service, and they were quickly inducted into the service to undergo basic training. There was a different classification for ordained ministers, 4-D, and a young man with that classification would not be drafted. Among LDS people, young men who anticipated serving missions often succeeded in getting their classification changed from 1-A to 4-D. But as the war grew more serious and more troops were needed, the Selective Service became more and more reluctant to grant 4-D status to our missionaries, and it notified the church that all our young men should consider themselves candidates for the draft.
The church was alarmed. This policy would have a devastating effect on the missionary effort and severely limit our ability to perform one of our primary missions. The biography of Gordon B. Hinckley documents how he was delegated to negotiate with the government and seek a compromise. Eventually an agreement was reached which allowed each ward to designate one young man for missionary service every six months. In effect, each LDS ward could send out two missionaries per year. Although the restriction still crippled our outreach and missionary work, it was the best arrangement we could make, and better than nothing. The church recognized that it had obligations not only to itself and its mission, but also to the surrounding society. Freedom of religion is defined not only in imperative terms, but also in terms of considerations and responsibilities to those around us.
I’ll leave it to others (and I hope you do, too) to debate whether this example applies to some of the latest Mormon Moment news. What I’d like us to contemplate is how difficult this policy must have been to implement in wards with many young men who wanted to serve a mission. What would you do if you were a bishop and had 5 young men who were worthy and eligible and willing to be missionaries, but could only call one of them? These are young men who have been in your home and with whom you have camped. You have talked to them about girls and dating and how to get along with mom and dad. You have taken them to the temple and advised them about education and careers. They have saved their money and attended seminary and looked forward with great anticipation to a mission call. What would you do? The worst part is that your Sophie’s choice would not just keep a young man from serving a mission. You would also be exposing him to a 1-A draft status and to good odds that he would be killed or injured in war. The reality of this situation became immediate for me when I was quite young and opened our small town’s weekly newspaper. In the center of the page was the picture of a young man from our ward, KIA in Vietnam. I remembered him from just a year before, blessing the sacrament and handing the trays to the deacons. I wonder what it must have been like for our bishop. If you were in that calling, how would you decide?