American Protestants and the Debate over the Vietnam War, by George Bogaski

How did America’s Protestant leaders respond to the Vietnam War? His­torian George Bogaski wisely adopts a com­parative approach in his three-part analysis of denominational statements about what is arguably the most debated military conflict in recent American history. Focus­ing on both polity and theology, Bogaski produces an illuminating, if also unvarnished, story of prophets, priests, and by­standers. Main­line, evangelical, and black church leaders receive separate case studies.

The mainline Protestant narrative looks familiar at first glance: an antiwar denominational leadership is increasingly divorced from the silent majority in the pews. Bogaski does not challenge the thesis of mainline decline, which recent works have tweaked, but he does introduce some interesting wrinkles into it. His focus is not on William Sloane Coffin and other liberal stars, but instead on denominational officials and agencies whose march to the vanguard was gradual. Full-fledged opposition to American involvement in Vietnam came almost five years after the start of escalation. Even then, mainliners were mostly squeamish about supporting conscientious objection. Many thought at least notionally in terms of just war theology; they were not pacifists. However, the just war tradition proved too elastic to assist in “reaching moral judgment and resolution” in the case of Vietnam. The “office of the prophet” was a more direct means to this end. But alas, Bogaski notes, it served to alienate the laity as much as educate it.

Bogaski offers an intriguing survey of conservative mainliners who chafed at liberal activism but were not prepared to depart for evangelical pastures. The general debate over the Vietnam War often played out as a dispute about the propriety of dissent itself. That issue, in turn, was a spillover from arguments over the civil rights movement. One’s position on the advisability of civil rights protests usually foretold one’s stance on antiwar marches. Mainline leaders’ support for the cause of civil rights opened the door for assertive opposition to the war. Meanwhile, conservatives transferred their discomfort with civil rights demonstrations to antiwar activism. Looming over all of these issues was the question of whether denominations should engage politics at all. In these years before Jerry Falwell, the assumption was that church politics were liberal by default. That assumption was not accurate. Most theological conservatives in Bogaski’s book appear to have been political conservatives, too.