It was only a matter of time before the Methodist Church would move beyond the political turmoil of racial politics and into the realm of societal politics…national and worldwide. In 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower received the Methodist Council of Bishops at the White House. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had told him that the Methodists were the “largest” Protestant denomination and also the religious group “most active with public affairs,” being “very sympathetic to the point of view which you stand for internationally.” [Robert Moats Miller, Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam: Paladin of Liberal Protestantism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990) Page 211].
While in Washington, DC, the bishops also greeted various presidential candidates, including Senator and fellow Methodist Hubert Humphrey and Vice President Richard Nixon, a Quaker by background who sometimes would attend the Metropolitan Memorial Methodist Church in DC. Only four years earlier, Nixon had addressed the “thorny issue of race relations” at the Methodist assembly at Lake Junaluska, NC.
However, the bishops’ meeting with Senator John Kennedy got the most attention because of Kennedy’s ‘Catholicism’. Many Methodists had loudly opposed the last Catholic presidential nominee, Al Smith in 1928. TIME magazine likened Kennedy before the bishops to Daniel in the lion’s den. The Bishops grilled him about church-state relations. In 1960, right before the crucial Democratic West Virginia primary showdown between Kennedy and Humphrey, Bishop Oxnam publicly warned against discounting any candidate because of “his chosen faith,” while asking questions about Roman Catholicism’s commitment to democracy. [Robert Moats Miller, Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam: Paladin of Liberal Protestantism (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1990) Page 211].
Washington Bishop John Wesley Lord was even more dubious during the 1960 presidential campaign, wanting to know if Roman Catholicism would permit Kennedy to negotiate with communists. [“Methodist Poses Quiz”, Christian Science Monitor (November 3, 1960) Page 9]. That Kennedy was a product of Harvard comforted Bishop Lord somewhat but he still wanted Roman Catholicism to “disavow any political involvement in the affairs of state.” [“Bishop Lord Asks Catholic Political Assurance”, Washington Post (October 20,1960) Page B3]. The 1960 New Jersey Annual Conference rejected “religious bigotry” in the election while still asking “to what extent would the politically minded Roman Catholic hierarchy seek to take advantage of their new leverage?” [“N.J. Methodists Pose 2 Questions for Election”, Washington Post (September 17, 1960) Page A2]. The 1960 General Conference, meeting in Denver, declined to comment on the presidential election; as one delegate explained:”I’m sure we don’t want the Methodist general conference to interfere with who shall be a candidate for office.” [“Methodists Refuse Slap at Kennedy”, Chicago Daily Tribune (May 1, 1960) Page 6].
After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Alabama-West Florida Bishop Paul Hardin Jr. eulogized him, noting that “people are weeping outwardly and inwardly for the death of President Kennedy…” But then he suggested the president’s death reminded Christians of the “decision a man must make between his own desires and the will of God.” [“Methodists Mourn JFK”, United Press International (November 25, 1963)].
It was only a few months after Kennedy’s death and the seemingly put to file “Catholic question”, that Methodist voice found another political involvement. This time it was US support for South Vietnam in its war with communist North Vietnam and the Viet Cong guerrillas. “The seeming failure of United States policy, is arousing widespread concern,” proclaimed the General Board of Christian Social Concerns in early 1964. At its meeting in Tampa, the board warned that military power had “limited value” and urged the US to withdraw “troops and military support” in favor of United Nations “responsibility.” [“Vietnam”, Concern (March 15, 1964) Page 16]. This sounds to me like steps well beyond ‘voter guides’ in the narthex. The 1964 General Conference, meeting in Pittsburgh, did not address Vietnam. It urged confidence in the United Nations, denounced war as “contrary to the will of God”, affirmed “fellowship” of church members differing over military service, urges “world-wide safeguarded disarmament,” opposed US policies of “isolation” against communist China and Cuba, and denounced “materialistic ideologies’ while affirming “democratic institutions.” [“Methodists Speak on Peace and World Order”, Concern (June 1, 1964) Pages 10-14]. Sounds like this conference wanted a little bit of everything. The General Conference did not address the 1964 presidential campaign. However, Philadelphia Bishop Fred Corson, while visiting London, defended Republican nominee Barry Goldwater from attacks in the European press. His candidacy was described as resistance against the “increasing evidences of cynical sophistication in American life.” [“US Religious Leader Hits Press in Europe for Goldwater Comment”, Washington Post (July 24, 1964) Page A2].
Instead of the situation in Vietnam improving it only got worse as the ‘body bags’ started arriving at home. More on this in the weeks to come, but next week we are going to take a tour into today’s world of reality. Many of our church leaders have found comfort in believing they can avoid politics. Well, contrary to their beliefs, there are those including politicians who do not like the Christian church…in fact they hate it. As they gain power they do what they can to put it out of business. The time for intense prayer and the willingness to take a stand is coming or the the church had best be prepared to be stood on. Next week I will present facts that some church leaders would like to pretend do not exists.
– Bob Munsey
“The fruit of reconciliation is bittersweet…it includes both the recognition of wasted times and the anticipation of better ones.” Gary Inrig