Church History

By Pratt, Andrew L. | Church History, September 2013 | Go to article overview

Church History


Pratt, Andrew L., Church History


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Did the National Council of Churches [NCC] represent a "Confessing Church" presence in the United States during the Vietnam War? Jill K. Gill's revised University of Pennsylvania dissertation dissects this question through analysis of NCC archival records, interviews with key NCC leaders, and careful reading of contemporary publications. Gill utilizes ecumenism as the interpretive and critical lens for the manner in which NCC leaders approached the war and their programs and actions in response to the war. Gill describes ecumenism as the interplay of "theological discussion, public witness, service actions, and church renewal" (24). In chapters 4-12, Gill traces the intricate history of the NCC's statements and programs relating to Vietnam from 1964 to 1973. In chapters 1-3, Gill provides historical context for these years. The book closes with a lengthy epilogue and appendix that attempts to give an account of what happened to the NCC and ecumenism after the war.

Gill sets the stage with a comparison of NCC action related to civil rights in the United States over against NCC action related to Vietnam. NCC leaders devised and implemented a strategy for educating and mobilizing churches with regard to civil rights. There was congruence and mutual affirmation between the NCC's prophetic stand on civil rights and the policies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The NCC adopted a similar strategy of education and mobilization with regard to the Vietnam War. NCC leaders came to see the war as a war for Vietnamese self-determination, an anti-colonial war rather than an effort to contain communism. Based on this view, the NCC consistently advocated a negotiated settlement of the conflict.

Through the Johnson and Nixon administrations, U.S. government policy never wavered from the view that the war was centered on containing communism and this was the view held by most people in the United States. NCC leaders were not able to convince government officials, their constituent denominations, and the majority of church lay members otherwise. The NCC lost access to the White House, experienced drastic budget cuts from contributors, and forfeited influence in churches. The self-critical, moral awareness that was so powerfully present in the civil rights movement, a moral awareness eloquently articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr., did not translate to the moral crisis of the Vietnam conflict. An irony of the Vietnam situation was the total lack of race consciousness in the thought of most U.S. citizens. NCC leaders, guided by an ecumenical vision, were open to the witness of non-white, non-Western Christians, especially Christians from Asian countries. Those who followed the NCC and Dr. King in the civil rights movement did not follow them in opposition to the war. …

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