The National Catholic Review
Peter Steinfels

From autumn 1967 to autumn 1968, I lived in Paris researching a history dissertation on the quandaries of anti-war French left-wing intellectuals who confronted the rise of Nazi German power in the 1930s. I was also marching alongside French, Vietnamese and other American protesters in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. As a young editor at Commonweal magazine, I shared not only the magazine’s longstanding doubts about the political wisdom of the war but its editorial conclusion, expressed in December 1966, that the war had become flatly “unjust” and “immoral”—“a crime and a sin.”

So it comes as a shock to realize that more time now divides me from those demonstrations than divided me then from the subjects of my dissertation. The Vietnam War era is history.

Rick L. Nutt wants to put that history to use. He is a self-declared “child of the Vietnam War era,” who sought conscientious objector status. Religion and war have been a focus of his research ever since, and this comprehensive record of religious stances on the war will be indispensable for future scholars as well as challenging for religious leaders.

Carefully mining the archives of church groups as well as journals, books and dissertations, Nutt presents the views of evangelical and fundamentalist supporters of the war; of liberal ecumenical critics of the war like the National Council of Churches; of antiwar organizations like the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Clergy and Laity Concerned and the Catholic Peace Fellowship; and of a wide range of denominations. He describes how the responses of each category did or did not change over time and how they dealt with specific questions: Was it promising or futile to lobby American officials? Was it essential or counterproductive to join with radical war opponents? When was civil disobedience called for—and in what forms? What about assisting draft resistance or aiding military deserters? What were the realistic options for the United States: ceasefire, negotiations, troop withdrawal?

All the leading religious figures make appearances: Billy Graham, Cardinal Spellman, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Heschel, Robert Drinan, S.J., Richard John Neuhaus, the Berrigans. There is scarcely a march, a speech, a celebrated sermon or an ad in The New York Times that does not get mentioned.

It is easy to get lost in these details. One is left with the impression of an overwhelming number of anguish-driven efforts, on the one hand, to grapple with the war while polls showed most of the nation’s believers and worshipers, on the other hand, largely unmoved by these moral and religious arguments.

Nutt valuably documents the moderation of liberal war opponents like the National Council of Churches, who only gradually and reluctantly sharpened their criticism of U.S. policy. Nothing could be further from the popular notion of antiwar protesters as pot-smoking antiestablishment militants energized by revolutionary visions.

As Nutt shows, the war forced believers and religious bodies either to reaffirm or reappraise their assumptions about the nation’s moral stature, the balance of good or evil in its history, how deeply those were rooted in American society and institutions and what that implied for the nation’s capacity to use its power justly. For many evangelical and fundamentalist supporters of the war, the United States, no matter its flaws, had been called by God to defeat Communism. Opponents of the war rejected this notion of “chosenness” and the self-righteousness that often accompanied it. But most of them retained a faith in American ideals; they judged it still capable of a moral role in international affairs. In Nutt’s view, only a small group of religious objectors like the Berrigan brothers agreed with secular radicals that the United States was such a profoundly corrupt capitalist and imperial power that short of a fundamental upheaval in its mores and structures, it could not be expected to act for the good.

Although Nutt aims at “conveying the depth of feeling that the war evoked,” feeling gets submerged in his analyses of so many public statements. So does the play of personalities. Nutt is very good at indicating the pressures on leaders to compromise. He does less well in capturing their genuine uncertainties or their moments of anger, elation and despair. Perhaps the archives did not contain the personal testimonies to be found in letters, interviews, diaries or memoirs.

Nutt reminds us of how the civil rights movement intersected with the antiwar one in shaping religious responses. Nonetheless, American religion often seems self-enclosed here, isolated from the broader debate about the war and the larger turmoil in American society during those years (urban riots, black nationalism, university occupations, sexual revolution, countercultural exuberance and shocking assassinations).

At Commonweal we certainly shared a bond with other religious critics of U.S. policy. Yet our views were no less shaped by everything we could glean from secular experts on Vietnam like Bernard Fall and Douglas Pike, from reporters like David Halberstam and Jean Lacouture, from watchdogs like I. F. Stone and Theodore Draper, from official spokesmen like Dean Rusk and McGeorge Bundy, from geopolitical thinkers like Hans Morgenthau and Stanley Hoffman and from every tough-minded or tender-hearted pundit in sight.

This relationship of religious and secular analyses of the war is critical to one of Nutt’s major themes, the failure of Christians to apply any systematic moral analysis to the war. “The moral discernment for many people,” he writes, “seemed more visceral than reasoned.” They were appalled by the deaths of civilians and widespread destruction in Vietnam, frustrated over American casualties and divisiveness at home and fearful that there was no end in sight. Nutt found—and laments—that Christians relied very little on their traditional just war theory and Jews on their corresponding teaching. Catholics, he admits, were something of an exception.

Nutt acknowledges that perhaps these visceral judgments could qualify as a rough-and-ready application of the just-war principle of proportionality. But can a bright line ever be drawn between clearly moral reasons for opposing war and other ones? Just war theory itself requires a base of arguably secular facts about political, material and psychological realities, and the moral compass is already at work as we gather these.

Still, Nutt is right to ask whether even religious bodies that once wrestled with the morality of the war in Vietnam learned any lasting lesson: “Did they begin to take seriously the importance of teaching just war theory, or discussing in any systematic way the theology of the believer’s relationship to the state and war or seeking to educate their members in the tenets of national civil religion? I do not see any reason to think so.”

Yes, there was religious opposition to the war in Iraq, again based on revulsion at civilian suffering and widespread destruction. “However, that still does not provide ethical guidance,” Nutt worries. When he asks his students what they would do if called to fight in a war, “they are rarely prepared to consider the morality of war in any philosophical or theological way.” Shouldn’t that bother religious leaders?

Peter Steinfels, a university professor at Fordham University, is a former editor of Commonweal and religion correspondent and columnist for The New York Times. He is the author of A People Adrift: the Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (Simon & Schuster, 2004).