Baptist Student Union and the Vietnam War

Today’s guest post is by Nathan A. Finn, who serves as associate professor of historical theology and Baptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also directs the Center for Spiritual Formation and Evangelical Spirituality. You can follow him on Twitter​.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Vietnam War divided Americans, including American Protestants. By this time, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) had surpassed the Methodists as the largest Protestant denomination in America. As a mostly theologically and culturally conservative tradition, the SBC generally supported American military involvement in Southeast Asia. Though some Southern Baptists dissented against the war, and though allowances were made for conscientious objectors, the SBC remained mostly pro-war until American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973.

One noteworthy exception to this general trend was Baptist Student Union (BSU). Formed in 1921, BSU was the Convention’s officially sponsored collegiate ministry. By mid-century, it had become the largest campus ministry in America with a presence at schools of all kinds, whether denominational private colleges or secular state universities. As early as the mid-1950s, BSU began to promote a more progressive outlook, especially through its monthly magazine, The Baptist Student. By the late-1960s, when The Baptist Student spoke to Vietnam, it did so with a mostly antiwar voice. Some of the antiwar contributors were collegians, while others were pastors or professors at Baptist colleges and seminaries. For these progressive clergymen and scholars, The Baptist Student provided an outlet where they could criticize American involvement in Vietnam without drawing unwanted attention to themselves from more conservative Southern Baptists. (This proved true on other progressive topics as well.)

For example, in an April 1967 article, Robert Soileau of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary argued that peacemaking was preferable to warmongering; the implication was that war is not a legitimate form of peacemaking. In the same issue, Richard Myers of University Baptist Church in Charlottesville, VA criticized American involvement in Vietnam in an article urging collegians to think Christianly about matters of war and peace.

Criticism ramped up following the disastrous Tet Offensive in 1968. In an April 1968 article, Wayland University professor Alban Wheeler argued that Christians sometimes have a responsibility to dissent from unjust social and political positions—even when those positions are popular with the general public. He claimed that the right to principled dissent is rooted in the Christian tradition and is intrinsic to American democracy. In an October 1968 article, Jay Kaufman, president of the BSU at Johns Hopkins University, wrote a defense of conscientious objection. He harshly criticized those who insisted it is the patriotic or Christian position to participate in the war. In Kaufman’s thinking, objectors, draft-dodgers, and those who burned their draft cards were heroes and martyrs who ought to be honored for their principled stand.

In November 1969, The Baptist Student published an article that explained all the different ways a draft-eligible individual could avoid military service, both legal and illegal. The article explained all the various draft classifications, coached draftees on how to navigate the Selective Service System’s bureaucracy, and included extensive information about the qualifications for conscientious objectors and the expectations placed upon them for civilian service in aid of the American cause. The editors also reprinted the 1940 SBC resolution on conscientious objection. By all appearances, the editors of The Baptist Student were at least implicitly encouraging conscientious objection.

Around this same time, some Baptist collegians began taking part in more tangible dissent against the Vietnam War. Baptist Students Concerned was an organization founded by BSU students in North Carolina in 1968. Members of Baptist Students Concerned staged a demonstration at the 1968 SBC Annual Meeting in Houston in an effort to foster dialog about race relations and the Vietnam War. Their results were mixed; some “messengers” (delegates) encouraged the dissenters, while others urged them to focus on evangelism rather than social issues.

Christian Life Commission president Foy Valentine, himself a critic of the Vietnam War, organized a panel discussion with the students. Several journalists covered the event, including Baptist Press, the official denominational news outlet. During the discussion, which was attended by about 250 pastors and leaders, students Ronald Joyner and Terry Nichols argued that many Baptist collegians believed the Vietnam War was fundamentally unjust and immoral. Baptist Students Concerned also attended the 1969 and 1970 Conventions before the organization fizzled out. Some conservative messengers were convinced the students were part of a liberal, communist-inspired organization.

Some BSU chapters participated in the national moratorium against the Vietnam War on October 15, 1969. Most of these chapters were affiliated with schools on the East Coast, including University of Richmond in Virginia, Wake Forest University, Meredith and Mars Hill in North Carolina, Stetson University in Florida, and Furman University in South Carolina. The BSU at Belmont University in Tennessee also observed the moratorium; Foy Valentine visited the campus and met with the student protestors. Though not collegians, graduate students at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky and Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in California also participated in the moratorium.

Baptist Student Union played a strategic role in helping many Baptist collegians navigate the youth counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. The campus ministry and its periodical, The Baptist Student, remained resolutely conservative on traditional Baptist concerns such as eternal salvation and believer’s baptism, as well as ethical matters such as sexual ethics and drug abuse (for Baptists, including alcohol consumption). However, the periodical carved out a more leftward stance on perceived social justice issues, whether race relations, gender roles, or, in this case, the Vietnam War.

In many ways, the Vietnam era Baptist Student Union functioned as a Southern Baptist microcosm of the wider progressive evangelicalism that emerged during the same period; David Swartz and Brantley Gassaway have written about these progressive evangelicals in recent monographs. For many students, BSU cultivated a combination of conservative piety and progressive activism that allowed them to avoid the moral decadence of many of their non-Christian friends while also allowing them to be culturally “edgy” enough to make many within their mostly conservative denomination nervous.

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