Quakers and the Pa. Primary

The British colony of Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn, a Quaker, in 1681 as a safe haven for the Society of Friends—at the time a persecuted sect. And though Quakers currently number less than 1 percent of the Keystone State's population, they hope to have an impact far beyond their numbers in Tuesday's Democratic primary.

In the years after Penn founded the commonwealth, Quakers dominated local government and politics. "Pennsylvania does have a tradition of listening to Quakers," says Steve Gulick, who has been a Friend for 30 years. "We have been very instrumental in pushing certain causes along."

Key among those causes is opposition to violence and warfare. With opposition to the war in Iraq growing, the society's antiwar advocacy is increasingly in the mainstream—particularly among Democratic primary voters. The faith's strong views on nonviolence are rooted in the "Peace Testimony," one of the Quakers' most important beliefs.

"It is a way of manifesting respect for that of God in all people," says Peter Larson, a teacher at Morristown Friends School. "That respect can't possibly be manifested by any sort of regime or any sort of situation that inflicts violence or force on people."

This pacifist belief has often put the Friends at odds with U.S. foreign policy. "I don't really support all the policies [of the United States]," says Hayward Deniver, who attends Green Street Quaker Meeting in Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood. "But I guess that's the dilemma Quakers have had for 300 years."

Traditionally, Quakers have been unified in their social activism but pluralistic in their political preferences. Two Quakers have been elected to the U.S. presidency: Herbert Hoover in 1928 and Richard Nixon 40 years later, both on the GOP ticket. But in 2008 most Pennsylvania Quakers seem to be voting for one of the Democrats.

David La Fontaine, who also attends the Green Street Meeting, volunteered for Barack Obama before the Texas primary, making calls to potential voters. His desire for peace has thus far prevented him from contributing to Obama, however. "I don't really believe in giving Democrats money before the general election," he explains. "I don't want to fund their fighting with each other."

Doris Clinkscale, a Green Street member for 40 years, says many Quakers prefer quiet persuasion. "We don't really advocate that kind of very strong pushing people to vote," she says. "We encourage. We inform. We tell them our position, and then we wait for their inner light to show them the way to go."

Quakers advocate for peace through the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Quakers worldwide in 1947, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation. These programs include assistance for Iraqi refugees in the Middle East and trying to influence U.S. policy in a peaceful direction. Recently, though, that direction could involve something previously anathema to Quakers: keeping some boots on the ground, at least temporarily.

"We still call for immediate withdrawal, and we have to explain what that means," says Peter Lems, who directs the Iraq efforts for AFSC from an office in downtown Philadelphia. "We realize it doesn't mean all of the U.S. troops leave tomorrow or next week or within two months. But we do say that there needs to be a timetable … We all want law and order. We all want justice. But … law and order and justice in Iraq comes around faster with a deliberate removal of military law, of U.S. troops."

Even Quakers who are unwavering about pacifism are often willing to engage in the mainstream political process. "I'm not going to find a candidate that fits my views on pacifism," says Mary Lord, a Quaker who has worked for AFSC on peace and conflict resolution. "What I have to look for is who is more likely to move where I am … One of the questions I ask is, 'Of the two Democratic candidates—both are trying to move us away from the Iraq war—but what are the lessons we're going to draw from the war, to keep us from going into another war?'"

Preferring a candidate who has a post-cold war view of the world, Lord says, "I'm leaning to Obama, although I worry, because I lived in Washington, D.C., for many years, and it's an unforgiving place. Hillary has surrounded herself with people who are more traditionalist, and so I worry that she would fall back on the same kinds of policies."

Like many Democrats, many Quakers say they will support the ultimate victor between Clinton and Obama. "What ever Democrat is nominated, I'll be out on the street working for the Democrats," La Fontaine says. "The distinction between the Republicans and Democrats is much stronger than the distinctions between the Democrats."