Ethics & Public Policy Center

On Getting Involved


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


It is no longer a curiosity these days for a county medical society in the midst of discussing its professional business to pass a resolution on a nuclear test ban (supportive, almost invariably); or for a deanery, taking a pause from an argument about, say, the prayer book, to declare itself on administration policy in Central America (against, usually); or for a group of architects to conduct its own foreign policy vis-à-vis agencies of the Soviet state (friendly to the max, as they say on the street). That doctors probably know very little about nuclear testing or deans about Sandinistas or architects about apparatchiks doesn’t seem to worry anyone very much.

There is a certain democratic charm to these exercises. But they can also be dangerous-to the organizations involved and to the wider civic community. Professional organizations, gathered for their own distinctive purposes, can become the instruments of the politics of whatever cadre within the organization is the best organized, the loudest, and/or the most passionate. Then the authority of the organization in question (doctors, clergy, teachers, whomever) ends up as a buttress for policies that may have little or nothing to do with the organization’s formal purposes, and still less with many members’ values and convictions. Rancorous division within the organization is the kindly outcome of many such enterprises; the really bad outcomes can be left to the imagination of readers.

Perhaps no man in contemporary America has a broader experience working with voluntary organizations on war/peace issues than our James Madison Foundation board chairman, Robert Pickus of the World Without War Council. His record, as he will be the first to admit, is a decidedly checkered one. Opening an organization to its right role in the war/peace debate can also set the stage for the organization to play dramatically different roles. Getting the National Federation of Priests’ Councils (NFPC) into the war/peace debate is one thing; watching the NFPC later adopt positions supporting the most intransigently violent forces in Central America is, sadly, another.

Yet Pickus keeps at it. Most recently, he brought, as he inimitably put it, “. . . a lifetime of experience in aiding groups as diverse as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Association of Evangelicals, Seattle-First National Bank, and the Ex-Latvian Miners’ Association (a Chicago-based Communist party front group of the 1950s) . . .” to bear at the 1987 annual conference of the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs (NAFSA). NAFSA is the professional association for advisers to foreign students on American campuses. Some within NAFSA wanted their organization to get into the passing-resolutions-on-Central-America-and-South-Africa business.

It seems a natural, for NAFSA has “… special credentials: regular experience in encountering people from so many parts of the world directly and personally, and doing so from a base in American centers of learning.”

Yet Pickus warned that “… a judgment on NAFSA’s entry into the war/peace policy arena is not obvious. Much depends on how the organization enters the public arena. I have seen organizations deeply damage themselves, and even relationships within an entire profession, while doing little that in fact serves the public good. Organizations like NAFSA can make a legitimate and important contribution to public opinion and the public policy arena. But you will most likely do so only if you give serious attention to designing your appropriate role and to charting guidelines for fulfilling it.”

Pickus urged NAFSA to enter the war/peace debate on a playing field considerably larger than passing-resolutions-on-Central-America-and-South-Africa. To begin the process he suggested NAFSA should analyze seriously, and without moral humbug, the many reasons not to get into the war/peace debate and have a thoughtful answer to them (that alone would help raise the level of civic argument).

Get a set of guidelines that don’t so much say where you stand as why you stand there-guidelines that make clear, in other words, the beliefs and values the organization intends to serve.

Have a set of standards, related to those core values, which will help you judge your success (and failure).

Get all the perspectives represented in your organization into the debate, and let them be fairly heard.

Be clear on the difference between genuine education and propagandizing and/or lobbying.

Don’t, in other words, start with passing-resolutions-on-Central-America-and-South-Africa.

But if, eventually, an organization does want to get into the resolutions business, Pickus had further suggestions, applicable far beyond the boundaries of NAFSA:

“1. Define clearly the routes for determining whether the organization will take a stand on this issue. These routes should be well understood by the membership. Constraints on the board or committees issuing statements in the organization’s name should also be defined.

“2. Require that responsible information-gathering precede action on a resolution and that the results are available to those asked to make a decision.

“3. Address your own membership first. Only address the wider community after assessing the levels of agreement and the points of disagreement within your own membership.

“4. Treat data in your statements responsibly, so as to preserve confidence in the reliability and credibility of your organization’s contributions to public issues.

“5. Provide opportunities for a well-conceived educational program. . . . We have almost forgotten what it is like to hear different perspectives on an issue and to probe them for their differing assessments of the facts, their expectations with regard to the results of policy choices, and their fundamental purposes and values. . . . Don’t underestimate the difficulty in setting up such a program but do help change a very bad situation by making the effort.

“6. Accurately report who supported the resolution and with what authority. Also report how many didn’t. Distinguish between the sense of a particular meeting and the formal policy position of the organization.

“7. Provide for minority reports and see that they are also publicized.

“8. Give priority to areas in which your special knowledge and experience applies. . . .

“9. Think through the conditions which should determine to whom you address your resolution.”

Foreign policy professionals, and the realist school in particular, often wish that the great unwashed would keep clear of the war/peace debate. The experience of the past generation suggests that there is wisdom in the professionals’ cautions. But cautions are one thing and political celibacy another. Organizations of doctors, educators, architects, clergy, and everyone else “for social responsibility” are going to be at least a semi-permanent feature on the American landscape. If, with appropriate adjustments for particular situations, those wishing to get into the passing-resolutions-on-Central-

America-and-South-Africa business would take Robert Pickus’s suggestions to heart, their efforts might make agreement on this country’s right role in world affairs more, rather than less, likely.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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