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Embattled Ecumenism

The National Council of Churches, the Vietnam War, and the Trials of the Protestant Left

Jill K Gill

Publication Year: 2011

The Vietnam War and its polarizing era challenged, splintered, and changed The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (NCC), which was motivated by its ecumenical Christian vision to oppose that war and unify people. The NCC’s efforts on the war exposed its strengths and imploded its weaknesses in ways instructive for religious institutions that bring their faith into politics. Embattled Ecumenism explores the ecumenical vision, anti-Vietnam War efforts, and legacy of the NCC. Gill’s monumental study serves as a window into the mainline Protestant manner of engaging political issues at a unique time of national crisis and religious transformation. In vibrant prose, Gill illuminates an ecumenical institution, vision, and movement that has been largely misrepresented by the religious right, dismissed by the secular left, misunderstood by laity, and ignored by scholars outside of ecumenical circles. At a time when the majority of scholarly work is committed to looking at the religious right, Gill’s groundbreaking study of the Protestant Left is a welcome addition. Embattled Ecumenism will appeal to scholars of U.S. religion, politics, and culture, as well as historians of evangelicalism and general readers interested in U.S. history and religion.

Published by: Northern Illinois University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 1-6


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pp. vii-8

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pp. ix-x

My immense gratitude extends to many who helped bring this twenty-year project to fruition. Foremost thanks go to those connected with the ecumenical enterprise who granted extended and multiple interviews, oftentimes opening their offices, guest rooms, and dinner tables to this...

Abbreviations used in text

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pp. xi-xii

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Introduction—Ecumenism and the Vietnam War

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pp. 3-19

The Christian Bible speaks of tests or trials by fire.1 Ordeals test character, priorities, and perseverance. Fire can burn away surfaces, revealing the strengths and weaknesses of the core. The Vietnam War and the era that encompassed it were the most divisive since the Civil War, tearing Americans...

Part One. American Ecumenism and International Affairs, 1908–1963

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pp. 21-34

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1—The Roots of Ecumania

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pp. 23-45

As autumn leaves floated downward on Yale’s campus in 1936, Robert Bilheimer was ecumenically reborn. The sophomore had been complaining vehemently about the church. His friend Fay Campbell sought clarification. “What do you mean by the church?” asked the Student Christian...

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2—The NCC and the American Way of Life

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pp. 46-68

On November 28, 1950, the Federal Council and several other ecumenical agencies merged to form the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Twenty-five Protestant and four Orthodox denominations joined as initial members, with more added...

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3—A Brief Interlude on Vietnam, to 1963

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pp. 69-75

Most Americans knew little about Vietnam, or America’s involvement with it, prior to the deployment of U.S. combat troops.1 This left the American people especially vulnerable to believing uncritically the government’s spin of events once U.S. soldiers were engaged. The NCC had also paid...

Part Two. Mustering the Peace Forces, 1964–1965

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pp. 77-90

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4—Awakening a Loyal Opposition, 1964–July 1965

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pp. 79-105

Nothing seemed more crucial than the Civil Rights Bill being filibustered in Congress—at least not for the NCC’s staff during the first seven months of 1964. The Council channeled considerable effort and treasure into mobilizing church-based support for its passage. The Johnson...

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5—Taking a Stand [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 106-134

Over the previous six months, the NCC had received a crash course on Vietnam and the secretive hawkish nature of U.S. foreign policy driven by its civil rights partner in the Oval Office. The Council’s instructors included the U.S. government, the Christian Century and Christianity and Crisis, American...

Part Three. Debate, Action, and Division, December 1965–November 1968

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pp. 135-148

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6—Building an Ecumenical Peace Witness, 1966

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pp. 137-164

It took weeks of debate before President Johnson authorized a short bombing pause over North Vietnam, to begin Christmas Eve 1965. Antiwar liberals had lobbied hard for it, and Secretary of Defense McNamara tried to convince him to extend it indefinitely. Privately, McNamara...

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7—Sparking Debate and Action, 1967

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pp. 165-198

Launching a widespread “debate and action” campaign topped Bilheimer’s to-do list. About a hundred church leaders gathered at the Council to brainstorm ways of igniting discussion on Vietnam through all levels of the church. They hoped Christians might help shape “a ‘political will’ within the nation”...

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8—Campaigns, Confrontations, and Civil Disobedience, 1968

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pp. 199-225

As the new year commenced, so did the NCC’s election efforts. VAC’s strategy paper, “Renewal Of American Dialogue: 1968” (known as ROAD ’68), provided practical suggestions for how churches could influence the political process without crossing the delicate line separating church and...

Part Four. Revolution and Revelation, December 1968–1969

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pp. 227-240

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9—Courting Nixon, December 1968–Fall 1969

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pp. 229-256

Ecumenists approached the 1968 Christmas holiday with the desperate hope that, after a year of heightened violence and division, peace would return soon to Vietnam and America. Allan Parrent thought the war had become such a political albatross that Nixon would seek to end it.1 John...

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10—Ecumenical Erosion, Fall–December 1969 [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 257-294

Burton Marvin was desperate to improve public relations with local Christians. As communications director, he saw the flood of protest letters that inundated the NCC that fall. The bulk came from Presbyterians and Methodists at the congregational level.1 These included clergy who felt the...

Part Five. Vietnam as a Moral Issue, January 1970–January 1973

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pp. 295-308

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11—Fighting Nixon and Seeking a New Strategy, January 1970–March 1971

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pp. 297-321

The Council stepped into the new decade punch-drunk from the frontal assaults it had absorbed at the recent General Assembly. Declining budgets hurt too. These forced it to explore questions about revamping itself and its relationships with various groups. Nevertheless, it retained enough...

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12—Waging a Moral Argument, March 1971–January 1973

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pp. 322-355

By spring 1971, Bilheimer wanted to shift Council strategies again, and in a manner that would complement the work of congressional doves. Previous approaches had borne too little fruit, including the NCC’s debate and action efforts as well as its attempts to transform the presuppositions...

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Epilogue—Forty Years in the Wilderness

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pp. 356-387

In early 1973, American combat troops came home from Vietnam. However, the United States kept funding Thieu’s government and an air war over Cambodia. In an article titled “The Depth of Militarism,” Bilheimer once again attacked his country’s dependence on military means...

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Appendix—The Ecumenical Way—A Reflective Review

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pp. 389-430

In 1950 the newborn NCC inherited an ecumenical vision forged amid class strife, depression, and two world wars; it was fashioned during an era when progressivism and New Deal–type approaches to problems shaped establishment assumptions and bureaucratic structures. The ecumenical worldview...


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pp. 431-515

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 517-534


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pp. 535-551

E-ISBN-13: 9781609090272
Print-ISBN-13: 9780875804439

Page Count: 534
Illustrations: 26 halftones
Publication Year: 2011