The Professoriate Turns: Evangelical Antiwar Dissent at Calvin College

A few weeks ago I looked broadly at the Evangelical left and Vietnam, focusing particularly on Jim Wallis and the Post Americans. Of course, not all evangelicals who ended up opposing the war would have described themselves as leftists, nor would they have been comfortable with the extent to which the Post Americans critiqued American society.

More often, evangelicals who opposed the war came gradually to their stance by reflecting on the problems of the war: civilian bombing, the use of chemical defoliants against agricultural crops, and the perceived incongruity of a nation as powerful as the United States seeking to impose an unrepresentative government on a small Asian country.

Calvin College at the old Franklin Campus

Calvin College at the old Franklin Campus – Calvin College

Today, I’d like to continue a theme that Chris initiated by looking at the faculty of Calvin College as they grappled with Vietnam. I’ll be primarily using a 1988 dissertation by Andrew Pratt which deals with evangelical responses to Vietnam. Pratt, currently the  Dean of Chapel at William Jewel College, includes a section on the faculty of Calvin College that chronicles their stances on the war as seen through the faculty-edited (and now-defunct) Reformed Journal.

The new Knollcrest Farm campus

The new Knollcrest Farm campus – Calvin College

Although Calvin and Bethel come from different religious traditions (Calvin from the Dutch Reformed faith and Bethel from dissenting Swedish Baptists), the schools were fairly similar. Both were small liberal arts colleges linked closely with a governing denomination, both spent the decade of the 1960s relocating from semi-urban campuses to isolated suburban areas, and both were occasionally viewed as ‘liberal’ by more conservative constituency (As James Bratt and Ronald Wells’ chapter in the 1997 Models for Christian Higher Education describes, during the McCarthy era the school was criticized by the constituency when a dozen faculty condemned the denominational magazine for endorsing red-baiting. Suspicions lingered into the sixties, as they did at Bethel after a local pastor accused the school of harboring communist sympathizing professors).

In reality, if Calvin (or Bethel) professors might have been more to the left than their constituency on Vietnam, the process by which they arrived at that position revealed anything but communist sympathizers or closet reds.

The April 1966 issue of Reformed Journal saw an article by Calvin speech professor Lester DeKoster entitled, “A Prayer for Vietnam.” The piece, relying on the domino theory first articulated by president Eisenhower in a 1954 speech (that if one state in a region fell to communism, the other nations would soon topple), positioned Vietnam primarily in a missional context. Pratt characterizes the article as representative of the Journal’s position when DeKoster wrote:

Make clear first of all to us … that war is an instrument of thy revelation. … Turn by thy grace the invasion of that semi-pagan land by the children of God-fearing homes, an invasion now so rudely distorted by the instruments of war, into the blessed proclamation of that only name known among men whereby Vietnamese, too, can be saved.

Lewis Smedes

Lewis Smedes

Nine months later, during Operation Cedar Falls – the largest ground operation of the war, another Calvin professor wrote an article echoing a common claim from evangelical leaders. Lewis Smedes, a professor of theology and ethics who would later rise to prominence on the faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary, claimed that the church ought not to seek to influence policy in Vietnam because the “Church’s ability [as opposed to the government’s] to know for sure what the facts are is questionable” (Pratt, 206). Such sentiment had been expressed before by other prominent evangelical leaders, including Billy Graham, who held that policy decisions were best left to those with the most expertise, in other words, the government.

However, by February of 1967, Smedes was no longer sure that his earlier injunction could be followed. Citing the ‘credibility gap’ (the space between what the Johnson administration maintained and what independent observers in Vietnam reported), Smedes suggested that Christians, who had established criteria to judge the justness of wars, were incapable of making that determination: “But how can we know whether these ingredients are present?” (“The War Nobody Wants”, Reformed Journal, Feb 1967) Although unstated, I can only assume the “ingredients” Smedes refers to are components of the historic Just War theory.

If Smedes’ questioning of the war was the first hint that the editorial board of the Reformed Journal might be divided, a March 1967 article, “Vietnam: Time for Decision,” by John Resenbrink exposed the stark contrast in positions among Calvin faculty.

Resenbrink outlined three common evangelical stances on the war. The first was that of the patriot who accepted without question the Johnson administration’s justification of the war. These evangelicals accepted the domino theory and saw the war as part of a global struggle against communism. Another stance was the antiwar position, among which Resenbrink numbered himself. The third group – the dangerous middle – was of most concern to the author. Neither pro- or anti- war, these were the evangelicals who viewed the costs of staying or leaving as equivalent. To Resenbrink, these evangelicals were mistaken – critically so – when they failed to consider the historical context of Vietnam.

Portrait of Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh in 1946 – Wikimedia Commons

The colonial heritage of the country was essential to understanding why the war effort floundered, Resenbrink argued. Ho Chi Minh was not a communist puppet, but was viewed by the Vietnamese as a nationalist leader. In continuing the war, the United States was casting itself as the inheritor of the hated French colonial legacy. Resenbrink concluded with a sober assessment: “We believe that the war has become a foolhardy and pernicious enterprise, costly beyond imagination, militarily implausible, morally sickening, and politically a trap.”

Six Calvin professors responded to the article. Four sided with Resenbrink while two continued to hold that the war was justified, accepting, with minor variation, the argument that Vietnam was part of the global war on communism. Among those who joined Resenbrink’s dissent were Lewis Smedes, Edwin Van Kley, Clifton Orlebeke, and Dirk Jellema (Van Kley was a professor of history and the later two of philosophy).

While the other three joined Resenbrink on the grounds that various moral principles were being violated in Vietnam, Smedes added a theological appeal to his response, positioning his own dissent as one forced by faith: “…I have come to the conclusion that I must speak as I am convicted that Jesus Christ would want me to speak. And I am sure that He demands a No from me to Vietnam”.

Nevertheless, Smedes’ opposition went only so far. In that restraint, he implicitly rejected the outer limits of the Post American critique, maintaining that

our government has let itself become trapped in a morally unjustifiable war … But I do not believe that ours is a warmongering, expansion crazy government… it deserves and must get respect, even if it cannot have our approval (Reformed Journal, December 1967).

Unfortunately, Bethel lacks its own version of Calvin’s Reformed Journal – a place where faculty could record their views in a formal manner. Although the Bethel Faculty Journal was begun in the early 1960s, it was not published from 1967 to 1975. This Tuesday, I’ll be spending the day in The History Center, the archives of the Baptist General Conference and Bethel University, where I’ll begin reviewing faculty senate minutes. From them, I’ll hopefully be able to get a picture of how Bethel’s faculty responded to the war.

Until then, leave a comment below or email bethelatwar@gmail.com with your memories of what it was like to be a Bethel student, faculty member, or staff during the Vietnam War. 

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2 comments

  1. […] of good stuff at our project blog: with Fletcher examining the rise of anti-Vietnam war sentiment among professors at Calvin College, and me concluding my series on what anti-immigrant nativism meant for the Swedish-Americans of […]

  2. […] A second series — of sorts — that I’ve written looks at the activities and arguments of the evangelical left during the Vietnam era. I began by blogging through an important chapter in David Swartz’s new book, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. And I contrasted Bethel’s experience with that of a peer institution, Calvin College, which saw a significant shift in the way faculty viewed the war. […]

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