Religious Communities and the Vietnam War

Jill K Gill. Vietnam War Era: People and Perspectives. Editor: Mitchell K Hall. ABC-CLIO, 2009.

Religious organizations are not political entities. Although they may speak to sociopolitical issues, they exist to point human beings toward transcendent truths and concepts of morality. When they look at problems, they place them against the backdrop of their own spiritual teachings and understandings of the Divine’s wishes for humankind. Therefore, for most religious communities, the Vietnam War was always about more than the war. They tended to see it as a symptom or manifestation of something greater, and this shaped their responses and priorities. Yet because religious communities disagreed about the will of the Divine, they sometimes fought one another and jockeyed for influence through their responses to the conflict. The war occurred during a time of traumatic transition for America’s religious organizations, adding stress and high stakes to their choices. Their desired relationships with the government and mainstream culture also affected their actions on Vietnam as “church” and “state” struggled to woo, and even use, each other for their own desired ends.

With the exception of such groups as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which eschew political involvement and patriotic loyalties as idolatrous, most religious communities fell into one of four “camps” with respect to the war. The first can be called “religious crusaders,” for its adherents viewed the Vietnam War as part of a larger spiritual crusade against Satan’s scheme to control humankind. America was God’s mighty arm called to crush the forces of evil, especially communism. They saw the war simplistically as one front in America’s global struggle against communism, ignoring Vietnam’s own history, desires, and culture as irrelevant. They deemed the war “good,” and urged using all necessary means to ensure victory. Seeing God on America’s side, they conceived of no possible reason to lose this fight other than sheer lack of will to win. They equated dissent with opposing God, and therefore actively organized against the antiwar movement like crusaders on a mission (Pratt 1988).

Protestant separatist fundamentalists made up the bulk of this camp, the loudest of whom was defrocked Presbyterian minister Carl McIntire, who founded an organization for fundamentalist groups called the American Council of Christian Churches (ACCC). McIntire spearheaded most of the planned responses for religious crusaders to the Vietnam War. Other spokespersons included fundamentalist preachers Billy James Hargis and Edgar Bundy. They remained a small but vocal group that mastered the media and made their message more influential than their numbers might suggest.

Protestants by no means stood alone here. The stridently anticommunist Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, Francis Joseph Cardinal Spellman, added his considerable influence. So too did Father Patrick O’Connor, the key correspondent stationed in Vietnam for NC News Service, the American bishops’ official news organization. Like many Protestants, Catholics viewed atheistic communism as a threat to their churches. Because South Vietnam’s first president, Ngo Dinh Diem, was an anticommunist Catholic who drew many Vietnamese Catholics into the top ranks of his military and government, the U.S. Catholic community was especially drawn to his cause. Some—usually Orthodox—Jewish Zionists also aligned closely with this camp. They described communist advances anywhere as threats to Jewish freedom and Israel’s survival, and they saw communists in league with Israel’s Arab enemies. As Meir Kahane (2004) asserted in the Orthodox newspaper the Jewish Press, “the State of Israel is a bitter target of the communists in general and the Chinese and Vietcong in particular” (150).

The second camp, the “religious nationalists,” shared the basic anticommunist worldview of the crusaders. They were not, however, as militant about the war, nor as blind to its historical and cultural factors. They supported America’s Vietnam policy, especially when presidents asked them to, but they did not demand victory at all costs. They were far more devoted to preserving their notion of faith and nation as righteous partners than to winning the war. Only saving souls counted as a higher priority. They also viewed their uncritical blend of piety and patriotism as the remedy for whatever ailed the United States in the 1960s. When the war went well, they waved flags and cheered. When it went poorly, they kept waving flags while chastising clergy who would not muffle their criticisms, advising clerics to stick to spiritual matters and to trust government and military experts. Most remained officially disengaged from the specifics of the war because these threatened to spark critical examination of American perceptions; rather, they promoted anticommunism, patriotism, and the purely spiritual activities of religious communities. This patriotic avoidance strategy became a way to hold together their vision of a godly nation amid a bad war. Dissenters drew the rebuke of religious nationalists, not for being wrong on Vietnam, but because they did not submit to the worldly authorities God had placed over humans to restrain sin and preserve order. Religious nationalists showed little interest in the Vietnamese other than converting them or dispensing occasional relief supplies. When the war seemed all but lost, some religious nationalists interpreted America’s troubles as divine punishment for its ingratitude and disobedience. The solution became more flags, revivals, conversions, and prayer, not analyzing the war itself.

Most conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons in America fell into this group, making it the largest of the four. So, too, did some Jews, generally from Orthodox and Conservative traditions. White middle-class Americans often felt most comfortable with this ideology. Religion had boomed in 1950s suburbia, often marching in lockstep with what came to be known as the “American way of life.” Evangelist Billy Graham became the poster boy for conservative evangelicals, popularizing the posture, language, and arguments of this camp in prominent venues. So, too, did the well-known evangelical magazine Christianity Today and the National Association of Evangelicals, the main umbrella organization for evangelical churches. Dr. J. A. O. Preus, conservative president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), echoed similar sentiments. For Catholics, Jews, and Mormons who were moving rapidly into the mainstream of American life, patriotic expressions became badges of inclusion, inoculating them against accusations of radicalism or “foreignness.” Even when the Vatican came out early against the Vietnam War, American Catholic bishops generally stood behind U.S. government actions. Catholic and Mormon beliefs about deference to state authority added impetus. The Catholic journal America often voiced the religious nationalist position. Although many religious nationalists grew disillusioned with the war after 1968 for practical reasons, seeing it as mismanaged rather than mistaken, they remained supportive of America’s objectives and righteous intentions.

The third camp, called “religious dissenters,” consisted of those religious bodies and individuals who judged U.S. policy in Vietnam to be misguided, unjust, and immoral. Although nearly all disliked communism, they analyzed the war within the historical context of Vietnamese history and U.S.-Vietnamese relations, not purely in ideological terms. In fact, they criticized the American government’s simplistic bipolar view of communism, the domino theory, and containment policies based on them. More important, they put their transnational spiritual ties with brethren overseas ahead of bonds to country. They saw the war as symptomatic of an “arrogance of power” stemming from an overly nationalistic, militaristic American worldview that defied God’s higher values of love, justice, reconciliation, community, and peace. They also believed the war presented a “kairos” or teachable moment that could expose and transform destructive worldviews into ones better suited for living and leading in a justice-based international community. To them, this was vital religious work. They stood in the tradition of the ancient Jewish prophets, calling for loyalty to God and neighbor before nation. They urged religious bodies to remain separate from the state and, as the Quakers often said, “speak truth to power.” As Rabbi Abraham Heschel asked, “Do they [government leaders] have the wisdom? … Can I turn over my soul and conscience to them?” (Friedland 1998, 59). In these ways, the religious dissenters directly challenged what the religious nationalists wanted most to preserve: the fusion of Americanism and faith.

The moderate to liberal mainline (i.e., long-established) Protestant churches such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and American Baptists produced the greatest number of dissenters. Most held membership in the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC), which often spearheaded official antiwar statements and actions on behalf of its large membership. Two popular Protestant periodicals, The Christian Century and Christianity and Crisis, remained strong prophetic voices for debate and action on Vietnam. Unitarian Universalists also lined up largely with the dissenters. So, too, did many Jews, especially from the Reform and Reconstructionist traditions. A Catholic minority also moved into these ranks as the war increasingly defied Catholic principles of “just war theory,” and Vatican II reforms invited Catholics to engage the world more actively. Commonweal and the National Catholic Reporter carried Catholic concerns about the war. When the dissenters’ religious bureaucracies moved too slowly, individual Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic leaders came together to create independent action groups such as Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV). Rounding out this camp were a handful of theologically conservative yet socially conscious evangelicals who echoed the basic concerns of the dissenters while staying within the evangelical fold and usually at arms length from liberal Protestants. Oregon senator Mark Hatfield became an evangelical antiwar spokesperson, as did clergy such as Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, and several professors at Calvin College who penned articles for the Reformed Journal. By and large, religious dissenters maintained some distance from radical, secular, New Left antiwar groups. They did so to preserve their respectable images, access to middle America, and separate identities as religious groups driven by spiritual, not ideological, motivations.

The fourth group, the pacifists, echoed the dissenters’ religious arguments on the war, but they brought unique concerns and preferred strategies. First, they rejected all war and violence as ungodly, not just U.S. actions in Vietnam. Second, the most radical of them insisted that nonviolent civil disobedience was essential to force the government’s hand and refuse cooperation with evil. In contrast, most religious dissenters only opposed wars deemed unjust, and saw civil disobedience as a method of last resort. Many members of the traditional peace churches, such as the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Mennonites, and the Brethren, worked through the system—respecting legal channels preferred by dissenters. However, radical pacifists within these groups often confronted the political establishment in dramatic extra-legal ways that made dissenters uncomfortable, yet prodded them further. No one pushed this envelope more than Philip and Daniel Berrigan, two Catholic priests. Radical pacifists collected in several groups, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the War Resisters League (WRL), the Catholic Peace Fellowship (an offshoot of the Catholic Worker Movement), and other peace fellowship groups situated within religious denominations.

It is useful to examine the specific responses of religious communities within each of these camps as the war progressed through four stages: the buildup (1954-1965), the escalation (1966-1967), the turning point (1968-1969), and America’s struggle for disentanglement “with honor” (1970-1973).

The Buildup, 1954-1965

With rare exception, like the rest of the nation, religious communities paid little attention to troubles in Vietnam before the deployment of U.S. combat troops in 1965. In the mid-1950s, religious groups established relief operations for Vietnamese refugees when Diem withdrew from scheduled elections and split south from north. The Mennonite Central Committee, Catholic Relief Services, and Church World Service (a branch of the NCC) each dispensed aid, much of which the U.S. government donated along with transportation and logistics support. Diem invited church assistance, and, before 1965, the churches saw little danger in collaborating with the U.S. or South Vietnamese governments. Helping the needy was God’s work. The fact that the churches were working within the U.S. government’s Food for Peace program, which granted relief only to anticommunist allies in the effort to win their populations’ “hearts and minds,” seemed acceptable. Warning signs foreshadowed later trouble as Mennonites chafed against American government attempts to control their personnel, and the Vietnamese assumed mistakenly that church and state were one and the same. The U.S. government intentionally co-opted relief organizations into doing its diplomatic nation-building work. The militaries swung the sticks, while the churches doled out the carrots.

As a religious distress call in 1963, Buddhist monks self-immolated (burned themselves to death) in Vietnam’s streets while Diem responded with repression. In June, about a dozen concerned Christian and Jewish clergy formed a Ministers’ Vietnam Committee. Through full-page ads in the Washington Post and New York Times, the group criticized America’s alliance with Diem’s undemocratic regime, as well as the use of defoliants and strategic hamlets. It also questioned U.S. military involvement in a civil war that required political solutions. By August, this committee boasted having more than 17,000 unnamed supporters for its ads, but few clergy would challenge the president outright.

Between 1963 and 1965, the civil rights movement was in full swing, and clergy advocates—both black and white—feared alienating Lyndon Johnson by criticizing the war when they sought his cooperation on civil rights legislation. Many had supported his election in 1964 over Republican Barry Goldwater, who seemed ready to introduce nuclear weapons into Vietnam. Nevertheless, Johnson’s approach to the conflict made liberal and pacifist clergy increasingly uneasy. By 1965, waves of critical voices, both domestic and from overseas, converged within the more liberal religious communities, sparking several condemnatory statements by year’s end from major religious bodies.

Within liberal Protestant circles, pressure built for prophetic church criticism of the war. Nationwide, young adults within the Student Christian Movement began speaking and organizing for this within church denominational meetings. Asian Christians overseas, especially those in the East Asia Christian Conference and Japan’s Christian Council, sought meetings with the NCC to educate American church leaders about Vietnamese nationalism, resistance to Western imperialism, and the improper blurring of church/state identities in dispensing relief. The editorial boards of Christianity and Crisis and The Christian Century published a flurry of articles questioning the Johnson administration’s explanations of the conflict. They called the NCC to step up and lead the churches in a prophetic response to the war similar to its efforts on civil rights. Pacifists such as A. J. Muste urged the NCC to stop “marking time” on Vietnam. The NCC dispatched a study team to Southeast Asia and gathered information from other Christians making fact-finding trips there. In these ways, religious communities accessed data independently from the U.S. government.

Meanwhile, pacifists began demonstrating against the war. In April 1965, FOR created the Clergymen’s Emergency Committee for Vietnam, which published ads on behalf of “2,500 ministers, priests, and rabbis” asking the president to, “in the Name of God, STOP IT!” (Friedland 1998, 148-149). It then formed an Interreligious Committee on Vietnam, which brought about 1,000 Protestants, Catholics, and Jews together for a silent May vigil at the Pentagon. The well-known Trappist monk Thomas Merton published essays about peace and mentored a few priests who had just formed the Catholic Peace Fellowship, including Daniel Berrigan. Daniel Berrigan’s brother Philip criticized the racist aspects of the war. The Catholic Church silenced Merton from publishing on peace, and both Berrigans were transferred suddenly to different parishes when they got too controversial. Some suspected Cardinal Spellman’s hand behind the latter move and picketed his chancery.

Pacifists also began addressing the draft. Both the Catholic and Jewish Peace Fellowships distributed information on attaining conscientious objector status; CPF’s New York offices fielded more than 50 inquiries a week. Pacifist groups such as the CPF, WRL, and American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) united with others to organize antiwar demonstrations in Berkeley, Chicago, and New York. Some sponsored controversial draft card burnings (Friedland 1998).

When three religious persons in America self-immolated to express their distress over the war and empathy for the Vietnamese, they stunned the nation. The first, Holocaust survivor Alice Herz, did so in Detroit’s streets in March 1965. In early November, the Quaker Norman Morrison turned his body into a torch within feet of the Pentagon. A week later, Catholic pacifist Roger LaPorte self-immolated in front of the United Nations. He lived long enough to tell paramedics that “I did this as a religious action” (Friedland 1998, 160). Clerical leaders noted the spiritual anguish caused by the war. Others dismissed the three as kooks.

Between November 1965 and January 1966, important bodies within the Protestant and Jewish communities released official statements critical of U.S. policy in Vietnam, and Pope Paul VI condemned the hubris that led to war without mentioning Vietnam. The NCC reminded its flocks that “the reason Christians have a specific responsibility to speak and to criticize is that they have a loyalty to God which must transcend every other loyalty….” (NCC Message 1965). The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the NCC, and the Synagogue Council of America each called for a bombing halt and questioned the unilateral military means rather than the goals of U.S. policy. The statements were mild by later standards. Nevertheless, these gave their organizations official marching orders to begin taking action against the war. National church bodies, such as the NCC and its member denominations, could not move without them, and it often took time to build enough consensus among their leadership to pass them.

Responding to this rising tide of religious dissent, President Johnson called Billy Graham and Cardinal Spellman for support and got it. Graham railed more frequently against communism’s global agenda and implored clergy to stay silent on specific foreign policy issues, especially Vietnam. Johnson pressed dissenting Jews to see parallels between Israel and South Vietnam and to reconsider their criticism. Soon Israeli president Zalman Shazar praised Johnson’s military defense of small nations. Orthodox rabbis tried unsuccessfully to coerce dissenters such as Rabbi Abraham Heschel to desist. Jewish acquiescence to the war pained Heschel deeply, for he remembered how the silence of “good Germans” allowed the Holocaust to happen. “To speak about God and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous,” he asserted (Kimelman 1983). Overall, religious nationalists followed Graham’s lead, remaining overtly patriotic and quietly supportive of the president’s Vietnam policy.

Religious crusaders became more active. Their vocal support for the war grew in proportion to Johnson’s bombing campaign and the dissenters’ criticism. In October 1965, Carl McIntire’s ACCC produced its own resolution declaring the Vietnam War a noble part of America’s fight against global communism. He and fundamentalist John Stormer visited South Vietnam in November and returned convinced of the rightness of their cause. Stormer’s book, None Dare Call It Treason (1964), which sold several million copies, had accused the liberal churches of being conduits for communist infiltration in America. By the end of 1965, the crusaders, the religious nationalists, the religious dissenters, and the pacifists had each crafted the basis for their positions on the Vietnam War.

The Escalation, 1966-1967

As the war escalated, so did the positions and actions of religious communities within their respective camps. Religious dissenters launched multi-pronged efforts to stimulate “debate and action” at the pew level, among religious denominations, and within the government. The newly born CALCAV, which blossomed rapidly with 100 local chapters nationwide, aimed to educate, train, and activate local religious people from all faith traditions on the war and help bring their voices to government. The prominent names among its leadership—such as Reverends Martin Luther King Jr., John Bennett, Daniel Berrigan, William Sloane Coffin, and Rabbi Abraham Heschel—and its close relationship with the NCC imbued it with legitimacy and respectability. King’s famous April 1967 antiwar speech at New York’s Riverside Church gave the entire antiwar movement a boost. CALCAV also gave clergy, who might feel unable to act within their official religious bodies, an outlet for quick collective action. It organized vigils, fasts, workshops, marches, book projects, literature drops, and lobbying sessions. As frustrations with the war grew, the group gradually embraced draft resistance. In 1967, Yale chaplain and CALCAV leader William Sloane Coffin was arrested for collecting draft cards in a church, thereby “aiding and abetting” violations of Selective Service laws. The former World War II veteran and Central Intelligence Agency officer embraced civil disobedience as a way to call attention to God’s higher laws that address peace with justice; he hoped his later court appearance would allow him to put the war on trial instead. Philip Berrigan went further. He and others poured blood on draft card files at Baltimore’s U.S. Customs House. Both Berrigans quit CALCAV for being too cautious. Philip even left the CPF, calling it overly “safe, [and] unimaginative” (Friedland 1998, 193-207).

At its first annual religious “mobilization” in February 1967, CALCAV brought more than 2,000 participants to the nation’s capitol. As they marched respectfully before the White House, McIntire led 100 heckling counterprotesters waving signs declaring “God and the Devil Don’t Co-Exist” and “Fight to Win in Vietnam” (Friedland 1998, 177-179). Meanwhile Carl Henry, editor of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, peered disapprovingly from his office window and urged both sets of ministers to go home. McIntire dubbed such detachedness “cowardice,” while the liberal Christian Century said Henry “looked down in sanctimonious aloofness and serene neutrality” at the marchers below (Pratt 1988, 195, n. 118). This painted a perfect picture of the opposing postures struck by the crusaders, nationalists, and dissenters.

Whereas CALCAV rallied individuals, the NCC and its denominations worked to mobilize education, discussions, and action within congregations and denominational structures on the war. This proved difficult for many reasons. Laity tended to be more conservative theologically and politically than mainline Protestant church leadership, creating what some called the “clergy-laity gap.” In addition, the 1960s mantra to question authority had reached the churches, and laity grew increasingly reluctant to follow clergy blindly. Finally, the war was highly divisive, and congregations resisted discussing it for fear of disrupting parish unity. Therefore, church leaders tended to be far more vocal and antiwar than laity—which resulted in several denominational statements against the war—while many laity echoed the religious nationalist stance and denied that their leadership spoke for them. One member of the Lutheran Church in America asked if the NCC sought “peace at the price of an atheistic (Godless) form of government [in Vietnam]” (Settje 2007, 109). Many would have preferred their church executives to mimic Graham in 1966: visit the troops—on General William Westmoreland’s invitation—trust national leaders, and hold one’s tongue on the war. LCMS president J. A. O. Preus affirmed the patriotic preferences of such laity when he asserted that “we owe much more to our soldiers in Viet Nam than we do to irresponsible clergy [who urge bombing halts over Vietnam]” (Settje 2007, 109).

The NCC also sought to convert members of the Johnson administration, not only with respect to Vietnam policy but also to a whole new set of assumptions about peace, security, and power based on liberal religious principles. NCC international affairs director Robert Bilheimer targeted Secretary of State Dean Rusk, a fellow Presbyterian. Rusk, in turn, sought to woo the influential NCC back onto the side of the administration, for politicians wanted religious authorities to provide an appearance of godly blessing over national actions. In the summer of 1967, Bilheimer led a team of highly respected, moderate, denominational leaders on a “Mission of Concern” to Vietnam to study the situation and express care for peoples on both sides. He had Rusk’s support, for Rusk hoped the trip would help bend the churches toward embracing U.S. policy. Bilheimer, in turn, hoped his team’s report would convince Rusk to look more critically at his deepest assumptions about the war. Both failed to persuade the other. From that point on, the NCC found it increasingly difficult to get respectful White House audiences—once easy for mainline churches to do—as the White House courted conservative religious nationalists for blessings in exchange for access to power. Meanwhile, seeking to counter every dissenter action, McIntire’s ACCC sent his own delegation to Vietnam. He created Vietnam resolutions contradictory to those produced by the NCC and encouraged letters from laity admonishing its positions.

For religious moderates seeking a less radical outlet than CALCAV or the pacifist groups, Negotiations Now! formed in 1967. It refrained from blaming either side for the war. It merely urged a negotiated rather than military settlement, and did not push for an immediate withdrawal. Its “realistic” mild tone drew a few U.S. Catholic bishops for the first time into the movement, along with religious anticommunists seeking to keep South Vietnam independent and free from communist control. In spite of the pope’s 1966 encyclical Christi Matri, which urged a diplomatic peace in Vietnam, American bishops stated that “our [military] presence in Vietnam is justified” (Friedland 1998, 175). Therefore, this move by a few was significant, especially after Cardinal Spellman declared the Vietnam conflict to be a “war for civilization” and distributed Christmas cards with photos of himself standing next to U.S. bombers. He was not alone. Archbishop John Cardinal Cody of Chicago sprinkled holy water on tanks headed for the war zone. The 60 Catholic seminarians who protested the ceremony with signs reading “Stop Blessing Death” were directed by superiors to undergo psychiatric examinations (Friedland 1998, 175).

Two events in 1967 divided religious communities with respect to the war. First, scandal erupted when the National Catholic Reporter broke the story about Catholic Relief Services’ (CRS) humanitarian aid being given as payment to Popular Forces units within South Vietnam’s army. The payments happened at General Westmoreland’s request. This, in effect, made the Catholic Church part of the war effort and a pawn of the U.S. military, defying injunctions on separation of church and state, as well as marring the church’s mission to care for all who hunger and thirst regardless of political or ideological boundaries. Speaking for many, the National Catholic Reporter demanded that CRS “Get Out of the War,” while others said that the Popular Forces were needy too and that CRS had to obey America’s “Trade with the Enemy Act” forbidding relief to the Vietcong (Flipse 2002).

Protestant relief agencies found themselves in a similar bind. Vietnam Christian Service (VNCS), a joint project of the Church World Service, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), and Lutheran World Relief, received pressure from military commanders to become “part of the team” and stop its workers, such as the young Mennonite David Hostetter, from giving relief to both sides. Aided by his fluency in Vietnamese, Hostetter followed VNCS guidelines to preserve independence from U.S. officials and the military; he associated most closely with locals, and refused official U.S. protection. He also sent relief aid to local churches operating in enemy-held territory, aided four U.S. Army deserters, and became increasingly outspoken against the war. Hostetter told the MCC’s Peace Section leaders that he was most concerned about “how much of our God and gospel … we [are] willing to withhold or have perverted to stay in Vietnam” (Bush 2002, 210). A U.S. colonel called for his transfer, asserting that no American who questioned U.S. policy should be working in country. U.S. ambassador Ellsworth Bunker pressured VNCS director Paul Leatherman to stop relief workers from aiding potential Vietcong, warning that “if you’re helping VC, that is treason.” Leatherman retorted that “there is no treason in the church” (Bush 2002, 210). But VNCS leaders also tried to hush Hostetter. The NCC ran into additional trouble with Asian Christian partners overseas who questioned its integrity for condemning the war on one hand while apparently assisting U.S. military imperialism via VNCS’s charity work on the other. Like Hostetter, many Christian aid workers ultimately quit or ignored U.S. laws. Called “the politics of charity,” these dilemmas created boiling arguments over church relationships to governments and their responsibilities to war victims on all sides.

Second, when Israel crushed an Arab attack and then took control of Palestinian territory in the Six-Day War, American Jews quieted dramatically on Vietnam. How could Jews criticize one war when they desired U.S. military support for another? Further, because liberal Christians often felt sympathy for displaced Palestinians, tension erupted between Jews and Christians who had marched together for peace in Vietnam. Interfaith relations cooled, and Jews found it suddenly awkward to be part of the antiwar movement. Divisiveness within the nation worsened over the next two years, exacerbating splits within and between religious communities, even as the population began to sour on the war.

Turning Point, 1968-1969

The year 1968 commenced with a surprise Vietcong attack called the Tet Offensive. Tet exposed the U.S. government’s credibility gap on the war and convinced Johnson to seek a diplomatic end to the conflict. Except for the crusaders, who preferred military conquest, optimism rose among religious communities for a quick settlement. Hope blossomed further when Johnson pulled himself out of the presidential race, clearing the way for a new leader who might offer a fresh peace policy. With strong leadership supplied by the Methodist Church, the NCC and CALCAV pushed hard for congressional and presidential candidates to include peace planks in their platforms, and they urged electoral support of those who did. Church World Service even began planning to aid postwar reconstruction. By the end of 1969, however, these hopes were dashed as newly elected president Richard Nixon revealed his desires to win the war and to crush the peace movement.

Many religious communities were willing to give Nixon’s policies a chance. The evangelical dissenter Senator Hatfield supported Nixon’s candidacy but grew quickly disillusioned. Hatfield’s 1968 book, Not Quite So Simple, urged Americans—especially fellow evangelicals—to take a more complex view of the war. He and writers for the Reformed Journal were often lonely voices among evangelicals, who rarely questioned Vietnam policy. The NCC also approached Nixon optimistically at first, for Nixon had invited its input. In addition, NCC president Arthur Flemming knew Nixon and Secretary of State William Rogers personally, for they had all served together at top levels of President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration. Therefore, the NCC assembled a prestigious group of experts on a wide variety of subjects related to the war and wrote up recommendations for Nixon. However, the president and Secretary of State Rogers ignored the document and criticized the NCC for not using its influence to promote Nixon’s policies. FOR received similar treatment when it—along with CALCAV, the Disciples of Christ, the Episcopal Church, and the Brethren—sent a high-profile study team to South Vietnam to explore issues of religious and political freedom. Its report condemned U.S. support of the repressive regime in South Vietnam. The Nixon administration gave it detached acknowledgment, but no more. Team member, Congressman John Conyers, later read it into the Congressional Record.

As Nixon threw the polite religious dissenters a cold shoulder, he opened White House doors warmly to religious nationalists. Billy Graham sat with Nixon’s family at the 1968 Republican Convention and led the first of many Sunday worship services at the White House. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr noted disapprovingly “what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical faculties” (Friedland 1998, 216). The services had a political purpose: to court and reward conservative religious supporters and to provide Nixon with an aura of religious blessing. Discerning religious dissenters blasted them for their partisanship and for blurring the line between church and state.

CALCAV continued offering annual February religious mobilizations in Washington to lobby elected officials and to train the faithful to organize action on Vietnam at home. Carl McIntire brought counterprotesters to each one. Along with pacifists, CALCAV also heightened attention to the draft. It began a ministry to deserters in Sweden and helped draw the NCC into a joint ministry with the Canadian Council of Churches to serve U.S. war resisters who had fled to Canada. Various American congregations situated near the Canadian border already participated in an “underground railroad” of sorts, helping young men make their way north to avoid the war. Pacifists continued urging draft resistance and staging draft card burnings. The radical Berrigans even torched draft files in Catonsville, Maryland, with homemade napalm. Although many radical pacifists applauded their motives, not all approved of this particular action, which bordered on a type of violence. Even Merton wondered if it crossed a line. When the Berrigans later fled the law rather than turn themselves in, religious dissenters criticized their abandonment of a key principle of civil disobedience: paying the penalty. Religious nationalists had little sympathy for lawbreakers, period. When members of the Catholic Left joined civil disobedience protests of Dow Chemical’s napalm production, evangelicals defended napalm as justified in defending the free world and urged obedience to law as God’s means of preserving order.

The issue of civil disobedience challenged religious communities. Many believed their faiths’ calls to be peacemakers included respecting the system and the law, but peaceful civil disobedience also had long historical roots in many religious traditions. White clergy gradually accepted the tactic when used by black churches against Jim Crow statutes in the South. However, civil rights protesters had the backing of federal laws in their pursuit of justice. By contrast, civil disobedience against the Vietnam War stood against the U.S. government in its appeal to higher justice, making it harder for some to do. By the late 1960s, however, religious dissenter groups largely, albeit cautiously, embraced nonviolent civil disobedience, provided that protesters submitted to legal penalties as part of their witness. They also stood strongly in favor of selective conscientious objection. Some even argued with draft board administrators that churches, not the government, should be authorized to judge their members’ consciences in making conscientious objector determinations, for the state did not specialize in matters of “conscience.” Some urged as well that military chaplains be placed under the authority of their churches, not the military, so that they could be freer to counsel potential objectors without military pressure against doing so. In lieu of this, the NCC worked in conjunction with the General Commission on Chaplains to develop materials for conscientious objector counseling that denominations could distribute to chaplains.

The close of 1969 brought a series of some of the largest nationwide protests against the war, and religious communities were thoroughly involved with them. Former seminarians David Hawk and Sam Brown organized the Moratorium, which called for a one-day general strike on October 15 to reflect on the war in various local ways across the nation; each month a strike day would be added until the war ended. Although the sequential observations lost steam, the first Moratorium was massively successful. The solemn call to reflection drew religious participation. The NCC, CALCAV, Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy(SANE), FOR, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Boston’s Catholic bishop Richard Cardinal Cushing, and several denominational leaders supported and observed the Moratorium. Churches, chapels, and synagogues opened their doors for vigils, special masses, educational events, and prayers. Evangelical dissenters also took part. Even Christianity Today’s editors applauded its dignified tone. However, 10 days later about 7,000 religious crusaders responded disdainfully with a “Bible-believer’s March” in New Jersey to “call for victory in Vietnam” (Pratt 1988, 223). Nixon countered too by appealing for a national day of prayer for October 22. He then swung popular support his way with his famous “Silent Majority” speech on November 3, and proclaimed November 9 “national unity day,” whose patriotic spirit was reinforced by Veterans Day on November 11. Although regretting the war’s destructiveness, religious nationalists applauded Nixon’s speeches and policy, echoing support for the nation.

The New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (New Mobe) and second Moratorium antiwar protests that followed in mid-November were the largest to date. Although more radical than the October observances, they remained largely nonviolent, thanks in part to Quakers who trained thousands of peacekeeping marshals. Religious groups took part in numerous ways, even though they may not have agreed with every aspect of the Mobe’s platform. They helped coordinate the March Against Death, a highly spiritual ceremony that honored and mourned war dead from all sides. William Sloane Coffin and president of the World Council of Churches Eugene Carson Blake led a powerful ecumenical prayer service at the Washington Cathedral during the 36-hour march. Of course, McIntire appeared at both with about 100 counterprotesters in tow. He tried but failed to disrupt the prayer service (Pratt 1988). Jewish groups participated in Mobe and Moratorium events, too. The National Jewish Organizing Project set up antiwar resource centers at various places around Washington, read names in the death march, and demonstrated in front of the White House. About 150 Jews marched around Nixon’s residence seven times blowing the shofar and singing “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” intimating that its walls should come tumbling down (Masch 2004).

Through his speeches, Nixon cleverly managed public perceptions, painting the protesters as the nation’s larger threat, not the war. Religious nationalists did the same, and it worked. Average Americans denigrated and detested protesters more than the war, and in their minds religious dissenters were no better. The religious activists’ efforts to distinguish themselves from the New Left failed to resonate with the masses.

Disentanglement “With Honor,” 1970-1973

Nixon went to war against the peace movement, and his enemies list included the dissenting religious communities. The Internal Revenue Service targeted both the NCC and CALCAV for punitive audits, the NCC’s phones were bugged, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation included CALCAV in its “Internal Security Investigations.” All audits and investigations came up clean. Vice President Spiro Agnew also threw verbal spears at the NCC, mocking progressive preachers as ones “more interested in fighting pollution than fighting evil” (Cornell 1970).

Ironically, Nixon’s Vietnamization policy inspired McIntire’s ACCC to question the president’s own commitment to fighting evil. Vietnamization aimed to return greater combat responsibilities to the South Vietnamese while increasing U.S. training and air support. Whereas religious dissenters condemned the policy for merely changing the color of the bodies, religious crusaders pilloried Nixon’s lack of will to use U.S. military might to its fullest. McIntire led his most successful pro-war March for Victory in April 1970, which drew between 50,000 and 100,000 participants. He wanted South Vietnamese vice president Nguyen Cao Ky to give the keynote address, but the U.S. government prevented Ky from doing so. McIntire read Ky’s talk aloud instead. Crusaders repeatedly complained that U.S. soldiers were deployed to war “with their hands tied, with orders to die, but not to win….” Most thought a U.S. victory could be ensured in six to eight weeks if its military were freed fully to fight. When Nixon visited communist China seeking détente, McIntire demanded that he “apologize to the Christians of this country” for shirking his duty to crush communism (Pratt 1988, 275-277, 286).

Religious nationalists rallied around Nixon and boosted patriotism by raising the prisoner of war issue. LCMS president Preus was so zealous in doing so that Nixon rewarded him with preaching engagements at the White House. Antiwar Lutherans accused both men of political motives, charging that “the Nixon administration began this business of turning the prisoner issue into a trick to arouse world opinion against Hanoi.” They noted that “within a week of this [Preus’s] news-release, he [Preus] becomes the guest preacher at the White House” (Settje 2007, 140-141). Other religious nationalists, buoyed by Nixon’s affections and rising Silent Majority, turned their attention away from the war and onto America’s own cultural upheavals. This included targeting dissenters as dangerous to the nation’s values, fabric, and traditions, which also suited Nixon’s purposes. Nixon was photographed with Billy Graham at a revival as both bowed their heads in prayer. Graham then hosted an Honor America Day, seeking patriotism as a salve for the nation’s scars. Although he harbored private concerns about the war, he concealed them. This frustrated the handful of fellow evangelicals, such as Jim Wallis and Lewis Smedes, who wanted this icon to separate God from nation and become more prophetic on the war. Hatfield explained that, “even if they [evangelicals] had misgivings about past policies, [they] found it difficult to break with their allegiance to President Nixon” (Pratt 1988, 323).

Meanwhile, religious dissenters sought to make their break as visible and vocal as possible. Like others in the antiwar movement, they excoriated Nixon when he appeared to expand the war into Cambodia and Laos. Twenty-six Lutheran seminarians told him that “such increased entanglements can only prolong this already fruitless and disastrous conflict and … further undermine our confidence in your professed desire for peace.” Frederick A. Schiotz, president of the American Lutheran Church, urged Nixon to negotiate, reminding him that “God has not ordained that the U.S. shall always ‘win’” (Settje 2007, 126). Along with holding more public vigils, prayer services, and marches, groups such as CALCAV got more creative. It participated in an advertising project to “Unsell the War,” running ads in magazines highlighting its destructiveness. It also conducted protests in stockholders’ meetings at Dow Chemical and Honeywell to condemn their manufacture of napalm and antipersonnel weapons. Many CALCAV members shifted to the Left, getting more radical, while sacrificing some of their appeal to the mainstream parishioners that it had originally sought to attract (Hall 1992).

Along with 23 other religious groups, CALCAV supported a new organization called “Set the Date,” which pushed the administration to declare a troop withdrawal date. The NCC and many of its denominations backed it, too. The NCC also created an Emergency Ministries Program to aid ailing Vietnam veterans who showed up at church doorsteps seeking help. It was highly successful, using local churches and experts in a variety of cities. Along with other antiwar activists, religious dissenters also put greater pressure on Congress to stop the war through legislative means.

Realizing that neither practical critiques of war policy nor discussions of presuppositions and worldviews had any effect on the White House, the NCC switched to making a strong moral argument against the war. It did this to deprive Nixon of moral cover for his war policies. In January 1972, it sponsored a huge Ecumenical Witness conference, which the New York Times called “the most comprehensive religious gathering ever assembled in the United States over the peace issue” (Fiske 1972). It boasted more than 132 official sponsors and drew about 650 high-profile delegates from Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Orthodox communities worldwide (Gill 1996). The conference focused specifically on making theologically grounded moral arguments against the war, as well as challenging the fusion of patriotism and piety nurtured by Nixon and the religious nationalists as doctrinally unsound and spiritually damaging. The war, therefore, became a religious battleground over morality, worldviews, and the relationship of church and state. The NCC sought to swing the mainstream faithful to its side, but its impact largely missed the pews.

The Paris Peace Agreement of January 1973 got America’s military out of Vietnam without ending its civil war. Each religious camp responded differently. Religious crusaders were angry, deploring it as a sellout that stopped short of victory. Evangelist Billy James Hargis’s book, Our Vietnam Defeat! What Happened: A Study in International Defeat, Shabby Betrayal, Shameful Retreat (1975) presented this view. Religious nationalists applauded the president, as did Preus when he said, “Let me add my congratulations to those I hope will come from millions of our fellow countrymen for bringing peace with honor” (Settje 2007, 103). Nationalists also expressed relief, urged detachment from the subject and recommended that the nation move forward to deal with domestic issues. Conversely, religious dissenters pressed the point that America had sinned in Vietnam and called for national repentance, reflection, and worldview transformation. To them, this was how the war might yet redeem America from its hubris and juvenile sense of innocence. Although by the early 1970s most Americans wanted the war ended, and judged it a failure for practical reasons, they resisted moral criticisms that implied America had sinned. Thus, although the religious dissenters were largely correct in their analysis of the war from 1965 forward, they lost the battle for the hearts and minds of average citizens who, like the nationalists, wanted to preserve their blessed image of America and themselves.


In 1970, Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a CALCAV founder who became a leading religious neoconservative in the 1980s, predicted correctly which of the four religious camps would “win” the war of public opinion. If America failed in Vietnam, he foresaw that religious groups that remained officially neutral on the war, while staying in the public’s good graces, “would feel confirmed … and be in a position to congratulate themselves.” However, those who opposed the bad war and critiqued the systemic causes would be rejected by a public seeking to hang on to its self conceptions (Pratt 1988, 349-350). He was right. In the 1970s and 1980s religious nationalist groups boomed, especially conservative evangelicalism, which became part of the Republican political establishment. Mainline Protestant groups, which made up the bulk of religious dissenters, lost much of their previous cultural, political, and financial clout. Their underlying goal of using the war as a self-reflective mirror to help transform American self understandings and ways of interacting in the world failed.

When U.S. soldiers returned home, Americans wanted to forget, not reflect on, the war. Because few Americans had explored the war’s causes beyond simple administration rhetoric about containing communism, and most wanted to retain their assumptions about the nation’s righteousness, they were vulnerable to flawed interpretations that supported these desires. Besides, the war had not dramatically shaken up the lives of Americans not directly involved in it, and the disaster in Southeast Asia had not significantly altered America’s superpower status. This made it easier to perpetuate old worldviews. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, in part by wooing religious nationalist voters, he helped resurrect and confirm the crusaders’ explanations for the war’s failure. Along with bitter generals such as Westmoreland, Reagan implied that America could have won had the military’s hands been untied by the weak-kneed politicians who lacked the will to stay the course. He also demonized dissenters as traitorous and the media as sellouts. These interpretations, which ignored historical evidence, have become mainstream in part because religious nationalists adopted them, too. These became the “lessons” that future president George W. Bush echoed as he waged an ill-begotten war in Iraq. They were not, however, the deeper lessons dissenters tried to teach. They knew the Bible’s warning that prophets are rarely accepted by their own country; yet they believed a religious group’s real power resided in its independence and willingness to speak its truth, regardless of popularity.

For religious communities, the struggle over the Vietnam War was always about something bigger than the war. It embodied a larger clash over worldviews, religious values, visions of God and country, the relationship between church and state, and the influence of conservative and liberal religious visions in America. These struggles continue.