In 1965, after President Lyndon Johnson’s reelection, the US roles in Vietnam escalated. Four officials from the Board of Christian Social Concerns, including two bishops and board chief Dudley Ward, urged Johnson to “seel every possible means of ending the conflict through United Nations action…in preference to further unilateral military action.” [“Methodist Officials Ask End of Viet Nam Conflict”, Concern (March 1, 1965) Page 15]. Did the church leadership realize that the bulk of the UN forces would be US military? The board urged a cease-fire and negotiations to achieve “independence, freedom, and self-determination” for Vietnam. [“Statement of Vietnam”, Concern (April 15, 1965) Page 5]. Once again the church leadership did not seem to understand the nature of the communist enemy.
After President Johnson in 1965 announced openness to unconditional negotiations in Vietnam, the Board of Christian Social Concerns officials “warmly” commended him. Bishop John Wesley Lord told President Johnson, “Your address was all that we had prayed and hoped it might be.” Lord had earlier signed an antiwar newspaper ad aimed at President Johnson, demanding: “Mr. President, in the name of God, stop it!” [“Applaud Viet Nam Stand”, Christian Advocate (May 6, 1965) Page 22]. But it was only a couple of months later, the board’s leadership was again distressed and wired President Johnson, along with the Secretaries of State and Defense, “to declare unequivocally that US intervention in Vietnam is to be strictly limited…” and to seek both a cease-fire and “supervised elections whatever the outcome.” [“Methodists Speak on Vietnam”, Concern (August 1-15, 1965) Page 19]. (Just as a reminder, this is the same UMC that now claims politics does not belong in the church.)
In mid-1965, Bishop Lord addressed an anti war rally at Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Washington, DC, whose trustees had objected to the rally’s “political overtones”, but whose antiwar pastor was adamant. Lord was joined by Nashville Bishop Charles Golden, along with Board of Christian Social Concerns chief Dudley Ward in claiming that US policy in Vietnam “violates the nation’s faith.” [“Peace Vigil at Pentagon”, Christian Advocate (June 3, 1965) Page 24]. United Methodist officials and staff were also denouncing other US military policies. When strife prompted US military intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965, 55 of 68 Methodist missionaries in Latin America denounced it. They opined that “social revolution is underway throughout the region,” which was “essentially good.” [“Missionaries Deplore ‘Intervention'”, Christian Advocate (July 15, 1965) Page 3].
Several prominent Methodist clergy visited Vietnam on a peacemaking journey in 1965 to recover “moral consciousness”. A New York pastor insisted the struggle was not between communism and freedom but instead a conflict against “need, hunger, poverty, the lack of justice.” ( In the future I will write about Methodist defense of communism as though the church leadership does not realize who the real enemy is.) The pastor also denounced trying to “shoot our way to victory”. Memphis pastor James Lawson went so far as to describe North Vietnam communist dictator Ho Chi Minh as his country’s “George Washington”, while noting the South Vietnamese regime lacked popular support. [“Entrapment in Viet Nam”, Christian Advocate (August 12, 1965) Page 3]. Several Methodist clergy attended a 1965 Soviet-fronted “peace” conference in Helsinki and were surprised by its “one-sided” anti-American bias. “We knew when we came to this Congress we in the US were sinners as expressed by our government’s foreign policy”, one Detroit minister told the conference. “But we did not know until we came here that we were the only sinners!” While none of the delegates denounced the Soviet Union or China, he pronounced he was “sorry that the United States government’s policy in Viet Nam and other places in the world is disturbing the peace.” [“Clergyman Questions ‘One-sided’ Peace Conference”, Christian Advocate (August 26, 1965) Page 3].
In late 1965 the Board of Christian Concerns urged US support for seating communist China at the United Nations. [“Urge Parley with Viet Cong”, Christian Advocate (November 4, 1965) Page 23]. The Methodist Council of Bishops, meeting in Houston in 1965, lamented the Vietnam War’s “threat of unbelievable destruction for all mankind” and asked all sides to seek negotiations. [“Bishops See Age of Peril, High Opportunity”, Christian Advocate (May 6, 1965) Page 23]. In 1966, the bishops, meeting in Chicago, more explicitly criticized the war. The bishops implored President Johnson to offer a “truce” in the “hope of provoking a similar response from North Vietnam.” They also suggested “world consultation” of religious leaders to mediate peace. [“Resolution on Vietnam”, Concern (December 1, 1966) Page 9].
At this point it might be of value to remind the reader that I started writing “Politics and the Church” not because of the church providing input to government function but because I was told politics did not belong in the church. I write this weekly in search of finding out when this became true. I do not condemn the church for acting as the conscience of the government, but I condemn that church leadership which believes it can ignore politics and still perform its duties to society.
Meeting in Pennsylvania in early 1966, the Methodist Missions Board urged US communication with communist China while also protecting Taiwan’s “autonomy”. About the same time, the Methodist Student Movement’s national council criticized US policy in Vietnam. “The church has a clear responsibility to engage in open dialogue on American foreign policy in southeast Asia”, it insisted. [“Criticize Viet Policy”, Christian Advocate (February 10, 1966) Page 21]. About 65 students protested against President Johnson in 1966 when he addressed Methodism’s Bicentennial celebration in Baltimore. The President had quoted from the Methodist Social Creed, which had first been read in the very same theater when the 1908 Methodist Episcopal Church General Conference met there. [“President Johnson Drops by”, Christian Advocate (May 5, 1966) Page 24].
Then at the 1966 World Council of Churches meeting in Pennsylvania, Boston Bishop James Mathews debated Christianity Today editor Carl Henry over the church’s involvement in politics. “Those who would have the church remain silent forget that this is exactly what is imposed…under totalitarian regimes”, Mathews warned. Henry countered that the the church had “no biblical mandate” or “divine authority” for “involvement in the day-to-day political decisions.” [“Bishop Mathews Defends Church’s Political Involvement”, Christian Advocate (May 19, 1966) Page 3]. While such debates were rare in prominent Methodist circles, the Vietnam War era is the first indication in my research that church leadership starts to question politics in the church.
Next week we will get to see how some church leadership wanted to separate the church from US political concerns while entertaining liberal socialist concepts. I hope that we get to see that it is not only necessary to question the social motives of our government but those of some of our churches. Fear of offending “dues paying” members has caused some churches to apply their own twist to the Word of God so that it will not offend. In the process many who have a deep respect for the Word of God have left denominational churches and moved to churches who are accountable to God and not some board of bishops.
– Bob Munsey
It’s better to declare the truth and be rejected than to withhold it just to be accepted.” Julie Ackerman Link