Politics and the Church – The Hypocrisy of Politics in the Church [Part 38]

In 1969, the World Division of the Board of Global Ministries became the first church agency to directly condemn the war, explaining that if government policies serve death over life, then “Christians must move from criticism to active opposition to those policies.” [Peggy Billings, Speaking Out in the Public Space: An Account of the Section of Christian Social Relations, Women’s Division, The United Methodist Church, 1968-1984 New York: The United Methodist Church General Board of Global Ministries, Women’s Division, 1995) Page 49]. ( I can’t help but wonder where was this opinion in Roe v. Wade?)

     Dakotas Area Bishop James Armstrong accompanied an interfaith delegation to Vietnam in 1969 and reported that South Vietnam “relies more on police state tactics and American support than upon true representation and popular support.”  They bewailed “police and military suppression of religious and political expression” in South Vietnam but failed to comment on North Vietnam and the support it was receiving from China and the Soviet Union.  [“Thieu Support Found Lacking”, Concern  (June 26, 1969)].  In 1969, three Methodist bishops denounced antiballistic missile defenses for the US, opining that “defeat” of such a system could be a “great breakthrough” showing how a “major world power demonstrated its willingness to bring a new quest for peace and repented of the old, mad race toward war.” [“Clergymen Call on US to Reject ABM System”, World Outlook (June 1969) Page 43].  (I’m sure that the Soviet Union must have agreed with them and cheered them on.)

     Bishop Armstrong would become an increasingly prominent political voice among the bishops.  In 1970, with Richard Nixon now president, he editorialized against the “immoral” war in Southeast Asia.  He also bewailed a “military-industrial complex” that “dominates national policy” with “no effective checks and balances.”  He further condemned “flag-waiving chauvinism,” declaring, “If Auschwitz was inhumane, so was Hiroshima,” while likening Stalin’s genocide to US relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II.  He admitted there was Viet Cong “terrorism” but thought the US was little better. “Atrocities are not legitimized by being Americanized,” he concluded.  In an editorial, however, Los Angeles Bishop Gerald Kennedy regretted that some ministers were adopting the “spirit of the radical left” and had “adopted a martyr complex” by “taking an ungodly pride in their ability to offend and antagonize.”  [“On Church Rebels, Pastors, and Prophets”, Christian Advocate (June 11, 1970) Pages 7-10].

     At the special 1970 General Conference, meeting in St. Louis, to complete the Methodist merger with the Evangelical United Brethren, the bishops’ episcopal address declared: “We deplore the present war in Vietnam.”  “It had become a fiasco which presently is impossible to justify and from which we are striving honorably to extricate ourselves.” [Journal of the General Conference, The United Methodist Church (1970) Page 194].

     United Methodists flocked to an interfaith Emergency Religious Convocation in Washington, DC, in1970 where fellow Methodist Senator George McGovern warned President Nixon “in assuming powers he does not have, he has produced the most serious constitutional crisis since the Civil War.”  He denounced the US incursion into Cambodia aimed at disrupting the North Vietnamese supply lines. [“Churchmen Vow More Antiwar Efforts”, Christian Advocate (June 11, 1970) Page 24].  Other church officials, including Bishop John Wesley Lord, declared: “We protest the new US military actions in Cambodia and Viet Nam”, which “increasingly revealed the futility of military measures.” [“Churchmen Lobby Against War”, Christian Advocate (May 28, 1970)].

     The Women’s Division derided the Cambodia incursion as an “escalation of the war, a military intervention in yet another of the countries of Indo-China, and an act of aggression by the United States.”  [Billings, Speaking Out in the Public Space, Page 50].  Within a short time, Bishop Armstrong joined Democratic Congressman John Conyers in urging the recall of US Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker from South Vietnam because of “his role in the current suppression of South Vietnamese dissenters.” [“Two Bishops Criticize Presidential Emissaries”, Christian Advocate (June 25, 1970) Page 24].  In late 1970, Bishop Armstrong joined eight other Methodist bishops to condemn US air attacks on North Vietnam, deriding “official words of peace” that were “contradicted by the deeds of a deepening war.” [“Statements Question Bombing, Abortions”, Christian Advocate (December 10, 1097) Page 24].

     The year 1971 did not move the Methodist church any further from involvement with politics.  The Board of Christian Social Concerns and the Women’s Division, along with Bishop John Wesley Lord, joined in “Set the Date Now”, which demanded a specific departure time for all US forces from Indochina. [“Stop-War Decision Target Date Sought”,  Christian Advocate (March 18, 1971) Page 19].  Faculty and students from Garrett Theological Seminary outside Chicago endorsed the campaign, one representative explaining their “long-standing conviction that our national policy in Indochina has been and is a mistake.”  A “Set the Date Now” delegation told an aid to the National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger that the “credibility gap between the church and the administration is growing.” [“Religious Leaders Urge War-End Date”, Christian Advocate (June 24, 1971) Page 24].  ( I was told by a Methodist pastor that politics did not belong in the church, so how could there be a ‘growing gap’?)  

     The 1971 New England Annual Conference commended the “courageous journalism” of The New York Times and Washington Post for controversially publishing the classified “Pentagon Papers” which explained the Vietnam War’s origins, “giving the American people a more accurate perspective of this whole tragic conflict.” [“Two Conferences Take Strong Antiwar Stands”, Christian Advocate (July 8, 1971) Page 19].  Bishop John Wesley Lord endorsed a three-day mourning period for “all those who have already died in Southeast Asia”.  Lord was joined by another bishop in calling for the US Congress to end the military draft. [“Clergy Push Antiwar Drive”, Christian Advocate (May 27, 1971) Page 20].

     Next week the Methodist Church moves even further into the world of politics through international involvement and trying to influence the United Nations.  If I am not mistaken this is ‘politics’.  One thing that I am reminded of is that politics is in our lives whether we want it to be or not.  We can ignore it but it will not go away and if we ignore it long enough we can find that it can have a major negative impact on our lives, our families, our communities, our churches, our nation, and the planet earth.  We must be alert or be prepared to pay a price.

– Bob Munsey

“God whispers to us in our pleasures…but shouts in our pains.  If we refuse to listen when He whispers to us, He may use shouts to get our attention.”  The Problem of Pain   C.S. Lewis 

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