A College’s Denomination: The BGC and the Vietnam War, 1970-1975 (Conclusion)

This is the last of a five part series on the Baptist General Conference during the Vietnam War era. You may find it helpful to begin reading from the beginning.

Writing this post feels a bit like an unnecessary repetition. The themes covered in the previous installment continue, unaltered in content and purpose: the military was still a missions field, the service still held many dangers — the least of which were drugs and alcohol – for Christian soldiers, and the defeat of communism was still a pressing concern.

Servicemen listen to a chaplain's sermon, Vietnam (August 23, 1971 Standard) - Bethel University Digital Library

Servicemen listen to a chaplain’s sermon, Vietnam (August 23, 1971 Standard) – Bethel University Digital Library

But although the content remained static, the Standard evinces a new-found concern for defending the military to the young men out of whom it was constituted. While earlier pieces tended to assume the validity of the military apparatus (if not the war in which it was presently engaged) and of the chaplain’s function within it, these later pieces assume a defensive tone; in the twilight years of Vietnam, Conference writers took care to defend the validity of military institutions themselves.

That the American military needed defending is hardly surprising. In November 1969, news of the My Lai massacre had become public, inflicting further damage on a military image that had already been sullied by the use of napalm on civilian crops. By January 1970, a Gallup poll indicated that only thirty-three per cent of Americans thought the war was not a mistake.

A December 12, 1969 cartoon from the Clarion

A December 12, 1969 cartoon from the Clarion

In response to this deligitimization of the military, Conference writers pursued a tricky path. While cognizant of the spiritual and physical dangers the military posed to youth — dangers they had themselves warned of in previous years — the Standard also sought to advertise the potential benefits military service could yield. One writer, Walter Anderson (then president of the Conference-affiliated Vancouver Bible Institute and retired Air Force chaplain), compared the military to an athletic contest where the rules and demands were clear and certain. In contrast to civilian life, Anderson positioned service as a time of reflection: “Life in the military is out of the ordinary, to say the least. I see it as life in depth and dimension. Here is where one sees life in true perspective” (May 18, 1970 Standard).

And where Anderson challenged young men to overcome the rigours of the military (perhaps in hopes that they would rise to meet him), another chaplain, Berge Hoogasian, sought to minimize the spiritual dangers of the military, arguing by implication that only noncommittal Christians would be swamped in their faith:

“Suppose you do enter military service. Won’t the military have a desultory effect on your spiritual life? That surely is a legitimate fear of both the potential inductee and his parents. Nor is it without some basic substantiation… [But to say that all servicemen suffer this effect is] a gross injustice to the thousands of Christians in the military who daily grow in Christ. (August 23, 1971 Standard)

Later in that same issue, yet a third chaplain argued against seeing the military as an unwelcome intrusion upon the normal process of growing up. In his article entitled, “Military Service: Parenthesis or Focal Point,” Roger Bradley cast a brief look back towards America’s earlier wars, concluding that

When our country became embroiled in World War 1 and 2 there again was no problem in getting the soldier to sense the validity of his participation in war. [But] since the [Vietnam] war promises no lasting settlement between the peoples involved, and since other wars have erupted in Cambodia and Laos, the wind has been knocked out of the sails of the new recruit to military life.

It was in this depressing environment that the young man faced being called up for service, a summons Bradley described as “one of the most dreaded events of the late teen-years.” Being drafted meant “feeling […] that everything to which they aspire must be postponed, their forward momentum comes to a screeching halt, and they must now suffer the harassment of a boring parenthesis in their lives.”

And while Bradley went on to blame the media and dissenting voices which represented “only a minority of Americans” for creating such a demoralized military that soldiers turned to drugs for comfort, he also argued that military service could serve a valuable function:

Many of our youth are lost in a maze of demands on the one hand and self-seeking on the other which prevents them from gathering a proper perspective on life: why they are here and where they are going. Often, we must stop what we are doing before we can think clearly. Businesses close down their activities so that an inventory can be taken. Military service is just such a shutdown on personal, self-centered activity which may lead to an inventory of personal values and life objectives.

It was during that period of inventorying, Bradley concluded, that “the message of God’s redemption in Christ becomes acutely pertinent.” That was why, to double back to Hoogasian’s article, the armed forced were “the greatest mission field in America.”

A soldier gives his testimony at a pulpit made by the men of B battery, 6/33 Artillery (Standard, 23, 1971) - Bethel University Digital Library

A soldier gives his testimony at a pulpit made by the men of B battery, 6/33 Artillery (Standard, 23, 1971) – Bethel University Digital Library

While it’s not surprising that the military establishment needed defending in the last years of the war, what I do find surprising is that the Conference felt the need to defend the military. I suspect that for all of their Baptist-inspired skepticism of the Federal government, the Conference’s public theology simply couldn’t bear to watch idly as such a central American institution was dragged through the mud. After all, Conference Baptists had showed little reticence to join World War II after Pearl Harbor, and while Swedish Americans were generally opposed to the First World War, those at Bethel responded with somewhat more enthusiasm to the call to serve God and country. Vietnam then, was the first American war which any number of Conference Baptists voiced significant opposition. And with even Conference chaplains such as Berge Hoogasian admitting that “some of our own Conference youth have “skipped” to Canada to avoid the draft and Vietnam,” I suspect the Conference felt forced to act.

Obedience to authority, particularly among youth, was an important theme in BGC discourse and the reluctance or refusal to serve among Conference men was a challenge to that value. As much as the BGC affirmed selective contentious objection and other “soft” forms of protest against the war, I suspect that the denigration of the military was simply too far outside the realm of respectable action. When the Conference Baptist’s convictions against the war clashed with his responsibility to uphold social order, the latter won. And even upholding order was less important than evangelism. As Donald Anderson wrote in a October 19, 1970 editorial,

It is interesting to note the place of dissent in the life of the New Testament church. [Paul wrote his epistles to seven churches and three individuals]; we have no extant writing of Paul to the Roman government or Jewish establishment in Jerusalem, in which he might have protested against decadent morals, intolerable treatment of slaves or corrupt religion. … Paul did not appeal to the Roman government to repeal slave laws. … Some today would say Paul in his writings was too other-worldly. … God never intended that problems of race, poverty, war and pollution (as serious as they are) should supplant the church’s primary task of being a witness to the person and work of our Lord.

 ❧

September 20, 1971 Standard - Bethel University Digital Library

September 20, 1971 Standard – Bethel University Digital Library

Even as Conference writers sought to defend the military and continue their longstanding interest in the chaplaincy, what’s perhaps most striking about these six years is how quickly Vietnam-related material falls out of the Standard. While never the predominant concern of the Conference (that position goes to missions and evangelism), in earlier years Vietnam had formed a fairly well developed and regular component of the Standard’s content. In 1967 — the year in which the BGC’s most substantive war debate occurred — the Standard published thirteen articles on Vietnam (over a run of approximately twenty-one issues that year).

In contrast, during the six year period of 1970-1975, only fifteen articles relating to Vietnam appear in the pages of the Standard. And those articles reflect a steady decline in Conference interest in the war and its related issues, both in number and content. Exempli gratia:

  • April 17, 1972 Standard - Bethel University Digital Library

    April 17, 1972 Standard – Bethel University Digital Library

    In 1970, five items appear, three on chaplains and two on small interest items (one covers a soldier newly-returned from Vietnam, the other gives advice to inductees).

  • In 1971, the Standard printed five items: a directory of chaplains, two defenses of the military, a chaplain’s anecdote, and a feature on a chaplain’s wife.
  • 1972 saw one item , a second feature on a chaplain’s wife.
  • 1973 and 1974 each saw only the publication of chaplain directories — two in 1973 and one in 1974.
  • And 1975 saw only one piece: an Donald Anderson editorial.
June 1, 1974 Standard - Bethel University Digital Library

June 1, 1974 Standard – Bethel University Digital Library

That last piece is worth commenting on. Although it appeared in the June 1st Standard, the editorial was obviously occasioned by the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces in April of that year (I assume the print-lag account for Anderson’s lateness). The editor, in a reaffirmation of his long-held views, wrote that “the problems for the United States and the rest of the free world are not finished with U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam” as the “history of communist expansion” suggested the domino theory would play out shortly throughout Southeast Asia. In a somewhat chagrined tone, Anderson offered the BGC’s last word on Vietnam:

We can close the magazines and newspapers with their pictures of women and children running from the ravages of war, but their haunting images will not be wiped from our minds. …The agony of Christians in Vietnam and the privations of Christians in Russia and China and elsewhere should be felt by the body of Christ everywhere…. The Christian church and her missionary enterprise face her greatest challenges in the years ahead.

June 15, 1974 Standard - Bethel University Digital Library

June 15, 1974 Standard – Bethel University Digital Library

With that whimper, the Vietnam War passed from the pages of the Standard. Anderson’s take was typical of evangelicals across the country. As Bogaski writes, “the end of the war did not elicit moral judgments, nor produce calls to rebuild, but rather heightened evangelism (149).

And indeed it did. In 1974, the Conference unveiled its new “Double in a Decade” program. The initiative ran from 1975-85; its goal was simple: a doubling (or nearly so — the alliteration proved tempting even if it obscured the facts) of most denominational measures — churches planted, weekly attendance, etc. The program culminated the previous decade of intense and intensifying denominational expansion (see the Standard covers that illustrate this section) and seemed to signify a collective sigh of relief: life could now go back to normal.

It’s been striking to note how in the early ’70s, the Conference begins to look much more like contemporary — if inchoate — evangelism. I noted in the first post of this series that the BGC was troublesome in terms of how it fits within the American Protestant landscape — at times fundamentalist, evangelical, and even mainline. That sense of foreignness has dissipated over the eleven years this study covered, and while the BGC of 1975 is hardly identical to a modern evangelical denomination like, say, the Evangelical Free Church (another evangelical denomination with Scandinavian heritage), it’s certainly closer than it was in 1964.

Although it’s hard to summarize exactly why the Conference starts to feel more familiar, I suspect my impressions are based largely on a thin trickle of articles. Dipping back into the last years of the ’60s, the Standard starts to show concern for social issues which had previously been absent in the publication; those social issues are the same ones that would begin to coalesce in the 1970s and come roaring into broader American society during the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s (and today). Abortion appears, as does the issue of sex education in schools. The creation v. evolution was given its first hearing in the Standard in a July 15, 1968 article by Millard Erickson, a noted evangelical theologian. While Erickson’s conclusion (that because science dealt with mechanistic processes and theology with value and teleology, the dichotomy was misleading) isn’t what today’s more conservative evangelicals would accept, the appearance of the topic suggests the coming resurgence of a topic that had not been given substantial public airing since the 1925 Scopes trial.

Harold Lindsell's 1976 book made waves among evangelicals - amazon.com

Harold Lindsell’s 1976 book made waves among evangelicals – amazon.com

Another issue that begins to appear in the Standard is that of biblical inerrancy. Like evolution, inerrancy had been hotly contested during the modernist/fundamentalist battles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and like evolution, it continued to function as a boundary marker between ‘conservative orthodoxy’ and ‘liberal modernism’ through the ’60s. And as the creation/evolution issue was renewed within the conference, so was the issue of inerrancy. So when one Erwin Lutzer wrote an article entitled “Biblical Inerrancy: An Explanation and Defense,” one of his conclusion was that Conference baptists should “Defend our belief in inerrancy against those who would cast doubt on the reliability of certain parts of biblical revelation (January 1, 1973 Standard).

Lutzer was not alone. Inerrancy grew in importance to American evangelicals as the 1970s wore on. Harold Lindsell, who assumed the editorship of Christianity Today in 1968, released his bombshell book The Battle for the Bible in 1976. Two years later, that defense of inerrancy was followed by the signing of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy — a document which continues to govern most evangelical denominations’ views of the bible. Its signers included most white evangelical luminaries of the day: J.I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer, Harold Lindsell, Carl Henry, Norman Geisler, and R.C. Sproul, to name a few.

As I hinted at the end of my past post, I take the emergence of these and related issues to indicate the beginnings in the BGC of the tidal shift toward the Right that would envelope evangelicalism in the late 1970s, sweep Ronald Reagan into office in the ’80s, and sustain the culture wars through the ’90s and beyond. That turn toward the Right would see the flowering of political involvement among evangelicals — an involvement that historians such as Randall Balmer and George Marsden have characterized as unprecedented since evangelicalism split from its fundamentalist roots after World War II. But the issues I’ve raised — abortion, creation/evolution, and inerrancy — are essentially social-theological issues, not political. In what sense do these issues suggest the Conference was moving toward the right ideologically, and toward greater political involvement in general?

Phyllis Schlafly protesting the Equal Rights Amendment - UPI/Corbis-Bettmann

Phyllis Schlafly protesting the Equal Rights Amendment – UPI/Corbis-Bettmann

In short, they don’t. But those issues are so redolent of the concerns that animate today’s evangelicals that I conclude their emergence presages the Conference’s participation in broader evangelical trends. And while social concern isn’t the same as political involvement, recent historiographical work suggests a connection between the two.

For recently, the standard narrative — in which the fundamentalists who were cowed in the 1920s by the modernists retreated through the Depression years before certain of them reengaged society after the war and founded an a-political evangelicalism which, in the late 1970s experience a political revolution — has been contested by scholars like Daniel K. Williams. Williams, a historian at the University of West Georgia, sees that narrative of political rupture as inaccurate. He argues rather, that evangelicals had always been politically involved in the Right. Responding to a criticism from Randall Balmer, Williams argues that

Because I view the Christian Right as the product of a longstanding evangelical view of politics as a tool to preserve America’s Christian moral order, I think that it is unprofitable to search for the single issue that mobilized evangelicals in the late 1970s. Rather, the modern Christian Right developed when many evangelical leaders began to interpret a whole range of changes in social mores — including the feminist movement, the increased availability of pornography, the gay rights movement, and other perceived challenges to the two-parent nuclear family — as products of “secular humanism,” which they thought they could fight in the political sphere. That view, combined with evangelicals’ rising socioeconomic status and greater awareness of their numerical power, gave them the impetus they needed to attempt to reclaim their nation through an unprecedented political mobilization and partisan alliance (Journal of Southern Religion).

If Williams is correct, then the emergence in the BGC of the same social issues that would drive other evangelicals to focused political action in the 1980s suggests that political renaissance may well follow. It’s difficult to explain why those issues cropped up in the Conference in 1968 and later as opposed to 1964 unless the Standard’s writers were reacting to external developments.

Dan Williams - baldblogger

Dan Williams – baldblogger

Another reason I’m inclined to follow Williams’ thesis is that it explains a feature of Conference life better than Marsden et al. As I’ve noted before, the Conference did not isolated itself from political issues. Throughout the decade of the 1960s the BGC contested political issues and urged political participation. From strong anti-Catholic sentiment in the 1960 election to agitation against the 1963 Abington School District v. Schempp decision that banned school prayer; from the anticommunism of the mid 1960s to Conference Baptists’ (including Bethel President Carl Lundquist) attempts to maintain a strong separation between church and state (a programme which often covered anti-Catholic feeling), the BGC was hardly an a-political, heavenly minded denomination. Certainly, its involvement throughout the 1960s may have been less than in the 1980s and beyond, but that shift in intensity cannot erase the Conference’s record of earlier political action.

Having said that, it’s important to be careful not to go too far. For all of the political issues the Conference dealt with through the 1960s, it’s hard to make the case that the BGC was strenuously involved in politics. It’s more accurate to say that the Conference eschewed political isolation and yet remained deeply wary of earthly power and entanglements. The Standard’s editor Donald Anderson, certainly, was hesitant to wield his pen for political causes. But to see the Conference as entirely a-political is equally wrong.

(My thanks go out to David Swartz whose book and kind help in this section were invaluable)

Because a discussion of historiography seems a poor way to end this series (as would Donald Anderson’s June 1975 editorial quoted earlier), I want to end with an extended quotation from Stan Lemon, a missionary stationed in Vietnam by the Christian Missionary Alliance denomination. Lemon was interviewed for the January 26, 1970 issue of the Standard where he gave his opinion of the war. Asked if he were a hawk or a dove, Lemon replied (and I’ve left the article author’s interpolated comments in)

“That’s a toughie,” he replies. […] “I really believe the North Vietnamese forces have invaded South Vietnam […] and although I am terribly chagrined at the quality of the Saigon government, I really believe that if the U.S. pulls out militarily too fast, the bloodshed will be bad — and mission work as we know it will be in trouble. Nevertheless, I’m not so hard-hearted that I can’t sympathize with millions of Americans — parents who have lost sons, and children who have seen Dad come home in a casket — who have become weary with the length and cost of the war.” […] Lemon paused and looked out the window again, “That’s not a very clear answer, is it? It’s all a terrible enigma, a terrible enigma. I only wish I had an easy answer for Nixon, but I don’t.”

Toward the end of the interview, Lemon told a story about a friend of his from the missions field. I can’t think of an anecdote that more perfectly illustrates the tangled, often tortured nature of the war, and of the tensions the Baptist General Conference was forced to navigate — tensions between earthly peace and heavenly reward, between patriotism and dissent, and between deep-seated missionary zeal and the sober intrusion of suffering humanity.

“There was this pastor’s wife who was sitting on a porch in Saigon last winter when a [North Vietnamese] soldier, who looked to be no more than 19 years old, staggered up and begged for food.

“She was panic-stricken. A pastor’s wife, should she give aid to the enemy? The Bible said to give your enemy a cup of cold water, she recalled, so inviting him into her home, she cooked him a meal of rice, gave him a personal witness for Christ while he shoved the food down, and then let him out the front door.

“Moments later, horror stricken, she saw South Vietnamese bullets cut the boy down. Right there in the street outside her house, the boy thrashed about a few seconds, then lay still, a pool of blood gathering nearby.”

In the house where Joann and Stan Lemon told this story, a stillness settled across the room. Their eyes filled and for long moments they gazed silently at the floor.

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2 comments

  1. […] and a chaplain observing the physical and human costs of the war in Naples, Italy) and Fletcher finished his series on the Baptist General Conference and the Vietnam War. I can’t recommend that series highly […]

  2. […] note the disappearance of Vietnam related material in the Conference magazine, the Standard, and trace the emergence of the social issues that would come to define the evangelical right in the 1980s and […]

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