Politics and the Church – The Hypocrisy of Politics in the Church [Part 39]

The full Council of Bishops met for three days at the United Methodist Church Center for the United Nations in 1971 to discuss how the church could help make the UN “the force for peace, justice, and progress which it ought to be.”  Bishop Lord declared: “The United States has no choice but to support the UN, for if we did not and the UN were allowed to die, the chances that man would blow himself from the face of the earth would be vastly increased.” [“Bishops Spend Entire 3-Day Meet on UN”, Christian Advocate (April 1, 1971) Page 22].  When the bishops met later in San Antonio, they commended President Nixon for his diplomatic overtures to communist China. [“Bishops to Propose Peace Emphasis”, Christian Advocate (April 29, 1971)].  Overall, Methodist political concerns remained focused on Vietnam.  A United Methodist minister in 1971 joined a Protestant Leaders’ Consultation on Vietnam that journeyed to Paris to visit with peace talk negotiators, including a Viet Cong representative. The minister noted, ” Whereas we have been withdrawing our forces…the war has grown in intensity and scope”. [“Peace Talk Visitor Sees War End Hope”, Christian Advocate (April 15, 1971) Page 21].  Another Methodist minister in Paris observed, “Our government is being less than candid with us…to put it mildly…at all levels”, while admitting the North Vietnamese were “not negotiating in good faith.” [“Churchmen Conduct Peace Talk Inquiries”, Christian Advocate April 15, 1971) Page 24].

     Bishops James Armstrong, Gerald Kennedy, and James Mathews in 1971 endorsed the presidential candidacy of antiwar Senator George McGovern, a fellow Methodist. The bishop called McGovern a moderate who conformed to Judeo-Christian ideals. [“Three Bishops Support McGovern Candidacy”, Christian Advocate (December 12, 1971) Page 21].  (All this, while a voter guide produced by a Christian organization placed in the Narthex of a church for anyone to pick up as desired was too much!).  The Council of Bishops, in late 1971, asked every United Methodist minister to “lead his people into an ecumenical call to ‘Prayers for Peace'”, as part of an interfaith “witness concerning the moral issues in the Indochina war”, that began with prayers of protest outside the White House. [“Religious ‘Witness’ Formed on War Issues”, Christian Advocate (December 23, 1971)].  This “Ecumenical Witness” campaign concluded in 1972 with a call…with Bishop Armstrong as a drafter… for churches to give sanctuary to draft avoiders…dodgers, to withhold some taxes…a violation of law, to publish congressional voting records in church bulletins…politics at church expense, to focus on the Vietnam War during the presidential campaign, and to urge the US Congress to end all war funding. [“Anti-War Witness Plan Grows”, Christian Advocate (February 3, 1972) Page 23].  An “aghast” Bishop John Wesley Lord asked President Nixon, in response to a resumption of US bombing of North Vietnam, “Is there no decency left? Are we worse than savage? Is there not a more excellent way?”  He wondered if Americans felt “betrayed by such madness.”  [“Bishop Lord Scores US Bomb Raids”, Washington Post, Times-Herald (January 8, 1972) Page C10].

     The 1972 General Conference, meeting in Atlanta, endorsed the “Bishops’ Call for Peace and the Self-Development of Peoples”, which denounced the Vietnam War as “immoral.”  They admitted that “many nations” continued to arm North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.  They acknowledged that most US troops had been withdrawn.  But they asked United Methodists to admit “complicity” for the ongoing deaths of many Asians. They confessed: “We have paid our taxes without protest; we have closed our eyes to the horror of our deeds; we have driven families from their homes into endless lines tracking across the pockmarked  earth.”  They denounced the war as a “crime against humanity”, demanded the end of all support for “military activities in the war in Southeast Asia”, and urged “reparations to victims of the war.” [The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church 1972 (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1972) Pages 9-21].  ( I look forward to researching what the Methodists did in the fight against abortion.)

     Later that year, the Board of Missions reiterated the call for US withdrawal from Vietnam and told President Nixon in a telegram, “We share co-responsibility with you for American involvement in Vietnam and all of Indochina.” [“Antiwar Views Pressed on Churches, Firms”, Christian Advocate (June 8, 1971) Page 24].  Bishop John Wesley Lord complained of his inability to visit with the president to transmit his colleagues’ disapproval of renewed bombing of North Vietnam.  He contrasted Nixon with presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who “asked for the church’s voice and were willing to listen, even if they disagreed.”  Three Women’s Division staffers were arrested when protesting at the office of US Speaker of the House Carl Albert, a United Methodist himself.  Forty-two Methodist missionaries endorsed a Japanese newspaper ad demanding President Nixon end the war. [“Bishop Raps President Following Rebuff”, Christian Advocate (July 6, 1972) Page 24]. Five United Methodist theologians endorsed an ecumenical antiwar manifesto claiming US policies in Indochina had caused a “human disaster comparable to the Nazi Holocaust.” [“Indo-China War Deplored by Theologians”, Christian Advocate (December 21, 1972)].

     In late 1972, the United Methodist New York Conference dispatched a lawyer to investigate US war crimes in North Vietnam, where he was introduced by Hanoi’s mayor to a celebratory audience.  (I can’t help but wonder if “Hanoi Jane” Fonda was present?)  “You never saw such an enthusiastic response for Americans who are supposed to be enemies”, he recalled.  “We were handshaken, backslapped, and kissed.”  He saluted the North Vietnamese for their practical application of Christian principles, even if they denied the “epithet” of Christian. [“Lawman Visits North Vietnam, Reports War on Civilians”, Christian Advocate January 4, 1973)]. After US bombing of North Vietnam resumed when North Vietnam quit peace negotiations, three bishops, with Board of Christian Social Concerns officials, telegrammed President Nixon. They denounced the suffering of Southeast Asians and the state of America’s spiritual health, while doubting that North Vietnam was entirely to blame.  Six bishops, along with officials of the Women’s Division, implored the US Congress to end war funding. [“Church Leaders Protest Escalation of War”, Christian Advocate (January 18, 1973) Page 24].  The Council on Evangelism also called on President Nixon to “end all hostilities now.”  Bishop James Armstrong accompanied an ecumenical delegation to Europe to create pressure against US support for South Vietnam. [“Six Clerics, War Critics, Plan Tour”, Washington Post, Times Herald (January 6, 1973) Page A1].  After returning, he insisted Americans “must refuse to be further manipulated by the most politicized administration the nation has known and further dehumanized in our response to people on the other side of the world.”  He later told a New York meeting of 160 missionaries that the US had allowed the “military-industrial complex to become the overriding presence in our national life…” Further he stated “there are other Vietnams, places where we presume to impose our will, protect our dollars, and flaunt our political and military power.” The missionaries declared the “present exercise of US power is a perversion of the Gospel.”  They heard a speaker praise the accomplishments of communist China, despite its “dictatorial, atheistic and Maoist government,”  which challenges Christians who think “we have the superior and only answers to questions.” [“Diverse Groups Express Opposition to War”, Christian Advocate (February 1, 1973) Page 20].  Separately, retired Bishop Kenneth Pope suggested the US president should have limited power to wage war, and “he should be locked up” if he exceeds it. [“Churches’ Next Assignment in War Areas: Rebuilding”, Christian Advocate (February 15, 1973)].

     Next week we will see a move toward peace terms but not without Methodist involvement and not without opinion commentary after the war’s conclusion.  I still search for that time in history when politics no longer belonged in the church.  It would appear the church leadership certainly did not hold that opinion.

– Bob Munsey

“[We] must pray even when [we] don’t see the need. [We] need God just as much when [we’re] being blessed as when [we] are in crisis.”  Julie Ackerman Link

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