An Historical Study of United States Religious Responses to the Vietnam War : A Matter of National Morality
TitleAn Historical Study of United States Religious Responses to the Vietnam War : A Matter of National Morality
PublisherEdwin Mellen Press
E-Book Keywordsmoral behavior % Vietnam War % Americans % ASEAN countries %
One of the great puzzles in the historiography of American religion is the dearth of studies on the role of religion during the Vietnam War. The untimely death of Walter Capps, member of Congress and former professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, probably contributes to the relative absence of such studies, but it remains something of a mystery why so few scholars have stepped into the breach. This is all the more puzzling when one recalls that the Vietnam era in American history was a time of extraordinary religious ferment. Young people in particular, disillusioned with tradition and distrustful of all things institutional, embarked on an unprecedented quest for spiritual fulfillment and religious experimentation, a journey that introduced them – and, by extension, all Americans – to an array of gurus, various meditative techniques, and the rich panoply of Eastern religions. Finally, one has only to think back over the twentieth century to realize that some of the most important theological reflection has occurred during times of war; the names Richard Rubenstein, Jacques Ellul, Karl Barth, Elie Wiesel, and the Niebuhr brothers, Reinhold and H. Richard, come immediately to mind. The American response to the Vietnam War was not without its religious dimension. Consider the activism of William Sloane Coffin, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dorothy Day, A. J. Muste, and another set of brothers, the Berrigans, Phillip and Daniel, not to mention the work of organizations like the American Friends Service Committee, Clergy and Laity Concerned, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. When Martin Luther King Jr. strode to the lectern at New York City's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before his tragic assassination in Memphis, he added his considerable moral voice to the chorus of religious opponents of the war. Not all religious voices opposed the war, of course, and these ranks included a spectrum of voices from Billy Graham and Carl McIntire to John Bennett and Paul Ramsey. It is in sifting through these complexities surrounding religion during the Vietnam War that Rick Nutt's work is so important. After providing a brief and useful history of the Vietnam War, Nutt delves into the vagaries of religious life during the Vietnam era in American history. The author finds that those religious leaders who supported the war generally did so because they, like Lyndon Johnson himself, viewed it through the prism of the cold war. Add to that, very often, the notion of American exceptionalism – the conviction that the United States occupies a special place in the divine economy – and you had a very powerful rationale for prosecuting the war in Southeast Asia. Nutt also provides a nuanced reading of various theologians and their attitudes toward the war. American exceptionalism was also invoked by opponents of the war to call Americans to a higher moral standard. The author finds that the just war doctrine also cut both ways, invoked both to defend and to denounce the war. Such are the complexities of a vexed and vexing age. And Nutt demonstrates evolving attitudes toward the war, showing how people like John Bennett and organizations like the National Council of Churches altered their positions over time. The author expertly navigates these troubled waters, and the result is a judicious treatment of religious attitudes toward the Vietnam War. This is a good and important book, exhaustively researched and compellingly presented.
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