‘The Vietnam Years’: How the Conflict Ripped the Nation’s Religious Fabric

America is about to the relive the horror and deep divisions spawned by the U.S. war in Vietnam

“Before the war began, most Christians in America possessed a naive belief in the inherent goodness of all things American,” observed American religious historian Mark G. Toulouse. “In the years following Vietnam, and later Watergate, this trust in American institutions and government officials dissipated as one of the options truly available to thoughtful Christians.”

 

In the 1960s, the relatively new medium of television brought the war in Southeast Asia into living rooms across the United States like never before. And, this month, TV is once again at the center of the story as filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick present “The Vietnam War,” a 10-part, 18-hour series on the Public Broadcasting System.

America is about to the relive the horror and deep divisions spawned by the U.S. war in Vietnam — convulsions that also tore apart the nation’s religious fabric and still echo across the political and cultural landscape.

“So much of the disunion and cynicism we see today dates back to the Vietnam era,” Novick said in an interview with RNS. “The tension between the secular and religious is part of it, but also class tension and ethnic tension, and the whole urban/rural and red state/blue state split. This didn’t come out of nowhere. A lot of that started to bubble up during Vietnam.”

There was no unified religious or U.S. Christian response to the rapid escalation of the war in Vietnam in the mid-to-late 1960s, just like there is no single response to the current war on Islamic extremism in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Africa.

In the mid-1960s, Christian peace organizations such as the Catholic Worker movement, Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam and the American Friends Service Committee protested rising American involvement, but mainstream groups such as the U.S. Catholic bishops conference and the National Association for Evangelicals firmly backed the hawkish policies of President Lyndon Johnson.

The tide began turning against the war in the spring of 1967, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. condemned a massive U.S. bombing campaign as “blasphemy against all that America stands for.” King’s speech at Riverside Church in New York City and the quagmire of Vietnam marked the beginning of the end for Johnson, who would soon decline to seek a second term.

“In the film, we hear Dr. King’s words and understand what a watershed that was,” Novick said. “Dr. King felt loyalty to President Johnson because of the work they were doing together on civil rights. King took quite a hammering from many quarters for not being patriotic and not being on the team — from the black community and from the Democratic establishment. In 1967, it was not a popular thing to do to criticize the government about the war.”

Public opinion shifted with the rapid escalation of the conflict between March 1968 and March 1969, when the total number of U.S. soldiers who died in Vietnam jumped from roughly 19,000 to 33,000. Eventually, more than 58,000 Americans would lose their lives. By November 1971, the nation’s Catholic bishops had reversed themselves, saying the war in Vietnam no longer met the religious criteria for a “just war.”

“Before the war began, most Christians in America possessed a naive belief in the inherent goodness of all things American,” observed American religious historian Mark G. Toulouse. “In the years following Vietnam, and later Watergate, this trust in American institutions and government officials dissipated as one of the options truly available to thoughtful Christians.”

Another scholar who has written about the religious response to the war, Kenneth Heineman, said media coverage of radicalized religious leaders, such as the left-wing Catholic priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan, “hurt the overall brand of religion” in America.

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