Final peace terms between the US and North Vietnam were concluded in early 1973 after the US 1972 “Christmas” bombing that so outraged many church officials. But the war in South Vietnam continued, as North Vietnam violated the treaty…no surprise…and continued to war against South Vietnamese forces. Even after US troops were removed, United Methodist officials condemned US support for South Vietnam. The time had not come for the church to back out of politics…and we are fortunate to know that our politicians were being monitored, which I believe is one function of the church. The United Methodist Board of Church and Society (successor to the Board of Christian Social Concerns) and the Women’s Division in 1975 joined a “Coalition to Stop Funding the War and the United Campaign for Peace in Indochina.” As one church official explained, this coalition was formed “to help overcome the deception of official US proclamations of Peace.” Bishops Mathews and Armstrong also endorsed the coalition. [“Washburn Featured as Antiwar Groups Schedule Protests”, Newscope (January 10, 1975) Page 1].
The Board of Global Ministries World Division denounced proposed US aid to forestall South Vietnam’s and Cambodia’s collapse to communism: “We commend the Congress on its increased courage to stand against an Indochina policy which for more than 20 years has been destructive of both Southeast Asian and American people.” [“World Division Opposes Further Aid to Southeast Asia”, Newscope (February 14, 1975) Page 1]. The Council of Bishops made a similar call. [“US Bishops Oppose More Intervention in Southeast Asia”, Newscope (April 11, 1975) Pages1-2]. As president of Board of Church and Society, Bishop James Armstrong declared of America: “We have been sinfully wrong in Indochina.” He warned against future “similar foreign adventures.” [“Indochina Reaction: Reaction on Airlift, Concern for Refugees”, Newscope (April 18, 1975) Page 4]. During the war’s final stages, several General Board of Global Ministries officials visited Vietnam at North Vietnam’s invitation. “Help us to have peace,” one official recalled being told. “Then we can take care of reconstruction.” [“Global Ministries Reminded Indochina Among Major Issues”, Newscope (May 2, 1975) Page 2]. The Board of Global Ministries quickly urged amnesty for all US draft evaders (dodgers). [“Global Ministries Adopts Comprehensive World Hunger Program”, Newscope (May 9, 1975) Page 1].
Not all Methodists appreciated such politicking by church officials. Bishop Armstrong declared: “When I visit Vietnam or represent a church agency during the siege of Wounded Knee (this was in response to a South Dakota criticism) or appear before a Senate subcommittee, or support a particular candidate for public office, I do so on the basis of deep ethical and religious convictions, not because of a desire to stray from my Christian vocation. I try not to separate my world into neat compartments, drawing false distinctions between the ‘secular’ and the ‘sacred’. The Bible draws no such distinctions.” He surmised that had more church members similarly applied their faith to politics, “There would have been no Watergate and we would not be facing our present moral crisis.” [“Questions Raised on Roles of Church Leaders”, Washington Post (September 27, 1974) Page C15]. (He sounds like my kind of bishop.)
Regarding Watergate, many United Methodist officials were long hostile to President Nixon and were quick to urge his resignation as details emerged across three years about the 1972 break-in of Democratic Party offices by White House operatives. (I can’t help but wonder where the church leadership is today after what we have experienced over the past four years in a constant effort to remove a sitting president from office?) New York Bishop W. Ralph Ward in 1973 cited the Watergate scandal as emblematizing the “appalling immorality of our time.” [“Bishop Asserts Watergate Typifies US ‘Immorality'”, New York Times (June 13, 1973) Page 51]. (In the next coming weeks we will see how church leadership responded to the legalizing of ‘infanticide’.) Western Pennsylvania Bishop Roy Nichols in 1973 noted the Nixon Administration had “lustily” touted law and order. (What we see politicians doing today is nothing new.) But he concluded that “it now appears that the attorney general of this administration masterminded this embarrassing act of lawlessness.” Despite lots of “God talk” in Washington, DC, “ethical responsibility” was neglected. [“‘Watergate Major Item on Church Agenda’ …UMs Told”, New Pittsburgh Courier (June 23, 1973) Page 23]. In 1973, the Board of Church and Society expressed “its dismay, shock and outrage at the recent action of the President,” declaring “he should not continue to hold this highest office of the nation,” and urging Congress to “initiate immediately impeachment proceedings.” [“Church/Society Board Debates Personnel, Nixon Impeachment”, Christian Advocate (November18, 1973)]. Somewhat more cautiously, the Women’s Division directors, by a vote of 43-21, called for the “impeachment process to begin.” [Billings, Speaking Out in the Public Space, Page 60].
Bishop James Armstrong complained, “We have had few if any administrations in recent years that have been more self consciously religious.” He warned that Nixon’s “God-talk” was “cheap” unless “backed up with integrity in government.” [“Clerics View Watergate Differently”, Washington Post (May 18, 1973)].
In the wake of Nixon’s resignation in 1974, the pastor of prominent Metropolitan Memorial Methodist Church in Washington, DC, which the Nixons had attended in the 1950’s, urged “mercy and forgiveness for Richard Nixon.” [“Pastor Says All Share Watergate Guilt”, Washington Post (August 12, 1974) Page A9]. But some church officials like Dudley Ward, denounced President Ford’s 1974 pardon of Nixon as “pre-mature.” He added, “Selective justice in this case is inconsistent with God’s love. The poor, the dispossessed, the war resisters, and others involved in the events of Watergate should receive equal consideration.” (We need to question some of the ‘justice’ we are seeing in Washington nowadays.)
After Watergate and Vietnam, United Methodist officials began to politically focus on emerging issues of the new era, including economic justice, women’s issues, global liberation theology, and abortion.
Instead of going right into these issues, in the next couple of weeks we will look at some of the official policies and positions of the Methodist Church when it comes to politics. I was quite surprised as these policies and positions are more in line with my view of church responsibilities and obligations, contrary to what an ordained minister of UMC had told me.
– Bob Munsey
“Repentance isn’t about feeling bad, but about owning [our] sins…without rationalizing or minimizing them…and then turning to move in a new direction.” Gary Inrig