Politics and the Church – The Hypocrisy of Politics in the Church [Part 36]

The 1966 National Conference of the Methodist Student Movement, meeting in Washington, DC, voted “no confidence” in South Vietnam’s government, while hearing radical speakers praise the “new revolutionary.” Meanwhile Board of Christian Social Concerns chief Dudley Ward implored AFL-CIO chief George Meany to attend a Soviet-front labor conference in Switzerland. “The American labor movement must take its position as a leader,” Dudley wrote.  Meany rejected the idea, noting the conference “represents a Communist-totalitarian nation.” [“Asks AFL-CIO Delegation”, Christian Advocate (July 14, 1966) Page 4].

     The 1966 Rock River Annual Conference in Illinois voted “opposition to the goal of military victory in Vietnam”, which it declared to be a “cruel illusion.”  It demanded negotiations with the Viet Cong, while confessing America’s “sin and guilt.”  It invited churches to join the “peace movement”.  [“Statement on Vietnam”, Concern (August 1-15, 1966) Page 17]. Ward’s agency, a successor to the Old Board of Temperance, traditionally was wary of Roman Catholicism.  But Ward and other board officials hailed Pope Paul VI as deserving “enthusiastic support from Methodists” in late 1966 for urging peace in Vietnam. [“Methodists Leaders Laud Call for Peace Prayers”, Concern (October 15, 1966) ]. 

      More cautiously, Virginia Bishop Walter Gum asked President Johnson in early 1967 to “take whatever steps you consider necessary” for a “cease-fire”, relying on “every honorable means to find honorable solutions to the Vietnam War.” [“Aid Vietnam Cease-Fire, Virginia Bishop Urges”, Washington Post, Times Herald (January 7, 1967) Page E17].  Several Methodist officials, including Dudley Ward and two bishops, were harsher with their “moral indignation” over Vietnam in a 1967 public letter to President Johnson. “How can your call for negotiations and a peaceful settlement be taken seriously,” they asked, ” when the United States forces escalate their actions at a time like this? The world looks upon this as an act of bad faith.” [“Deplore Viet Nam Bombing”, Christian Advocate (January 26, 1967) Page 3].  They urged the US to “prove” its sincerity by acting for peace without “prior commitment” by adversaries. [“An Open Letter to President Johnson”, Concern (January 1-15, 1967)].  Bishop John Wesley Lord joined in a Washington, DC, antiwar protest in early 1967, urging clergy to “risk the displeasure of the powers that be in order to challenge dogmatisms that imperial ourselves and the world.” [“Clergymen to Protest Vietnam War”, Concern (February 1, 1967) Page 15].

     Contrary to not wanting to offend anyone in church leadership, a North Hollywood, California, Methodist minister in 1967 protested the antiwar open letter to the president signed by Methodist prelates with his own letter to President Johnson.  “They do not represent the thinking of many social liberals like myself,” the minister wrote.  My denomination has long suffered misrepresentation on the crucial issues of war and peace because of the unofficial pronouncements of highly placed liberals of a past generation, who at their best, look at the world through rose tented glasses of unreality, or at their worst, would like nothing better than for the United States to pull back its forces so groups which come closer to their ultra left-wing ideology can take over.” [“Dear President Johnson”, Concern (February 15, 1967) Page 11].

     Some clergy introduced Vietnam politics into their congregations in ways perhaps not seen since the days of prohibition activism, encouraged by the Board of Christian Social Concerns. [“Methodist Churches Urged to Raise Vietnam Issues”, Concern (June 1, 1967)].  In 1967, Foundry Methodist Church in Washington, DC, hosted a Vietnam peace prayer vigil, though the ministered there were of “conflicting opinions” in the congregation. [“Vietnam-Peace Prayer Vigil Set”, Washington Post, Times-Herald (April 1, 1967) Page C23]. (Didn’t he know that he could have offended some members of the congregation?)  Another Washington, DC, Methodist minister wondered, “How can the President justify conscripting young men for Vietnam, playing Russian roulette with their lives?” [“Minister Questions Purpose of War”, Washington Post, Times Herald (April 17, 1967) Page B4]. A Baltimore Methodist minister denounced the war from his pulpit as a “bloody mess, a tragic mistake, a blundering misadventure,” resulting from “our paranoid anti-communism.” [“Rev. W.A. Keese Decries Vietnam”, Baltimore Sun (May 29, 1967) Page C20].

     In a nearly unanimous vote by 38 directors, with three others abstaining, the Board of Christian Social Concerns resolved in 1967 that the US should unilaterally withdraw from Vietnam and facilitate a “coalition” government in South Vietnam that represents “all the people.”  No mention was made of democracy in North Vietnam.  On top of this the board unanimously opposed any antiballistic missile defenses for the US. [“Vietnam”, Concern (May 15, 1967) Page 10].  During this same timeframe, three Methodist bishops issued a public letter to the commander in Vietnam…General William Westmoreland…defending the right of dissent by Americans who believe that “thousands of our youth are being needlessly sacrificed.” [“Letter to General William C. Westmoreland”, Concern (May 15, 1967) Page 25].  The Methodist Board of Missions similarly issued a resolution defending “dissent” over the war. [“Vietnam War Protested As Violation of Human Rights”, Concern (October 15, 1967) Page 15].  Three Methodist bishops later in 1967 protested US bombing raids near North Vietnam’s Chinese border as “reckless and irresponsible.” [ “Condemn New Viet Raids”, Concern (September 7, 1967)].  The full Council of Bishops, meeting in Miami in late 1967, commended President Johnson for seeking negotiations but opposed any “escalation” of the war.

     Next week we will see a continued political involvement of the church with a slight twist…Republicans vs Democrats.  We start seeing parties villainizing each other.  At this point I must again remind readers that I do not condemn the church for expressing political positions.  My ‘beef’ is when church leadership denies the churches’ involvement in politics or its obligation to speak up when a wrong according to the Word of God is detected.  It is just not true!

– Bob Munsey

Keeping in mind that during the ‘Foundation Period’ religion was synonymous with Christianity. 

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  John Adams

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