Embattled Ecumenism: The National Council of Churches, the Vietnam War, and the Trials of the Protestant Left [Review]

reviewed by Kent Randell

Embattled Ecumenism: The National Council of Churches, the Vietnam War, and the Trials of the Protestant Left
Jill K. Gill
DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011
978-0-87580-443-9, hardcover
551 pages, $40.00
Dr. Jill K. Gill is an interdisciplinary 20th century Americanist and Associate Professor of History at Boise State University.  Embattled Ecumenism: The National Council of Churches, the Vietnam War, and the Trials of the Protestant Left is her first book.  The ecumenical movement seeks to universally unite Christian churches and as of 2010, 45 million parishioners of 36 different denominations are members of this coalition.

Embattled Ecumenism is a massive and ambitious work, chronicling the history of the National Council of Churches (NCC) and its related bodies during the era of the Vietnam War.  Although the book is ostensibly about the NCC, it also reads as a fascinating and engaging history of the entire Vietnam era told through the eyes of the ecumenical movement.  Embattled Ecumenism is very readable and one does not have to have a Ph.D. in History to understand or enjoy it, although scholars will certainly appreciate the meticulous citations and footnotes.

The main text follows a chronological format, delivering a narrative of current events and the NCC’s response (or lack of response) to them.  Quotes from contemporaneous publications, newspapers, and magazines are interwoven into the text. The account begins with the NCC at the height of its influence– the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which saw the NCC, President Johnson, and mainstream Christians uniting in a common cause– and ends with the NCC having no influence in the Nixon White House and holding little sway over a mainstream laity where many saw the NCC as out of touch or over-radicalized.

One of the compelling parts of this history involves the struggle within the NCC to adequately respond to the escalation in Vietnam without losing its prestigious place within the Johnson White House and alienating its allies in the Civil Rights Movement.  For example, it wasn’t until July 27, 1965, almost one year after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, that the NCC had a summit meeting entirely devoted to Vietnam.  Perhaps tellingly, it was on this very day that Johnson quietly ordered a massive troop buildup. The fact that this escalation of American involvement happened so softly, and in many ways right under the noses of both an uninformed and unprepared American public and the NCC’s leadership, reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s famous warning: “This is the way the world ends / not with a bang, but with a whimper.”  At this crossroads moment, the NCC was unsure of how to best proceed regarding president Johnson’s surreptitious actions.  From this point forward, the story of America’s growing problems in Vietnam mirrored the fate of the NCC’s declining ability to shape or inform public policy.

Embattled Ecumenism does not hide from the fact that it is a book written in 2011, a time when movements such as the Evangelical Christian Right have tremendous influence in American politics and culture.  Dr. Gill expertly balances leaving current events (as well as her own political or religious beliefs) out of the central text of her book. However, in a well-summarized, though dense, 40-page Appendix titled “A Reflective Review,” Profess Gill discusses the parallels that the Vietnam-era liberal (ecumenical and universal) versus conservative (patriotic) debates might have in our present time.

It is hard to imagine a more exhaustive review of ecumenism and the United States’ Protestant Left during the time from the passage of the Civil Rights in 1964 through President Nixon’s resignation in 1974. This book is a recommended read for those interested not only in religious history, but also the Vietnam era of American history as well as the Johnson and Nixon presidencies.

Kent Randell is a Librarian/Archivist at Boise State University’s Albertsons Library.


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