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When wars come, may Lutherans pick and choose?

In the 1970s, the church considered the moral responsibility of its members to fight in war

Must young men go to war when country calls, even if the call conflicts with their conscience? In America’s explosive public debate four decades ago, that question was central. Also central to the unfolding drama were the roles played by Minnesota Lutherans.
The conscience question occupied center stage because the U.S. had compulsory military service at that time. The draft raised manpower to fight a highly unpopular war halfway around the world. The Vietnam War — which many Americans considered unnecessary, unjustified, and flat-out evil — called into uniform millions of young males. (Women were not drafted.) Of those called, many refused to serve. And some (not all) refuseniks received churchly support.
Congress never declared war on North Vietnam. But in August 1964, after reports of North Vietnam attacks on U.S. destroyers, Congress adopted the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing President Lyndon Johnson to retaliate militarily. For almost a decade, that resolution allowed Johnson and President Richard Nixon to escalate troop levels in Southeast Asia, in most years exceeding half a million.

To many Americans 40 years ago, it wasn’t just fighting in Vietnam that was seen as unethical. It was also the draft system that sent young people to fight, as the placard in this photo not-so-subtly suggests. The scene is from an anti-draft demonstration in Washington, DC, in 1971. Photo: Religion News Service

In those years, when the draft called someone who felt it was morally wrong for him to enter combat, he had two legal options:
* serve anyway, going against conscience, or
* seek conscientious objector (CO) classification and, if granted, serve either in uniform as a non-combatant or by doing civilian service “in the national interest.”
But the great majority of youth who had conscience issues with Vietnam service couldn’t gain CO status since they weren’t in principle opposed to all war. They were rather what became known as selective conscientious objectors (SCOs), opposed to a particular war. As such, under U.S. law they were ineligible for relief from military duty. When the draft came after these individuals, they could either:
* refuse conscription and be prosecuted, with the likelihood of years in federal prison, or
* leave the country, knowing they might never be able to return.
Draft resistance found various public expressions — some illegal, such as burning draft cards or stealing draft board files. A pair of draft-age youth with Lutheran backgrounds were part of the “Minnesota Eight,” raiders of draft files in Alexandria, Little Falls, Wabasha, and Winona. These men decided, rather than fighting fellow humans in Southeast Asia, they should fight the draft institution here at home. In 1970, they were found guilty of “destroying government property,” then spent nearly two years in federal prison.
One of them, Brad Beneke of Glencoe, had received CO classification as a high-schooler — though his American Lutheran Church (ALC) pastor refused to support Brad’s quest. Later, while not called to do alternative service, Brad did feel called to resist the draft system, and it earned him 22 months in prison. (Though no longer a church member, Brad says he still occasionally worships with Lutherans — now at St. John’s Lutheran Church, a congregation in Shakopee, Minnesota.)
The other Lutheran among the Minnesota draft thieves, Don Olson, was nurtured in the faith at Ebenezer Lutheran in south Minneapolis, a Lutheran Church in America (LCA) congregation that no longer exists. Don credits his pastor with “my value formation in confirmation study” that helped shape his war/conscience stance. He decided the best way for him to say “no” to the war was by destroying draft records. He participated in the 1970 draft-file thefts and was jailed for 20 months.

Lutherans begin a dicussion

Draft non-cooperation in many forms was a hugely controversial public epic for nearly decade. It didn’t go away until conscription itself disappeared in 1973, when America turned to an all-volunteer military.
The debate first came to a head at the ALC’s October 1966 convention, held at Central Lutheran, Minneapolis. The convention agenda included a statement on the expanding U.S. military presence in Vietnam. Twin Cities Lutheran university and seminary students had organized, protesting the statement’s lack of call for draft-system changes. Students specifically wanted the ALC to demand government recognition of selective conscientious objection.

In 1966, university and seminary students specifically wanted the ALC to demand government recognition of selective
conscientious objection.

The students also argued that the draft was unfair in exempting young men preparing for ordained ministry. Among the student protesters were two local seminarians who later landed in national church leadership. James Olson, a middler at Luther Seminary, became an ALC curriculum editor in the early ‘70s, then served in campus ministry. Richard Magnus, in 1966 a first-year seminarian at Northwestern Lutheran, years later joined Evangelical Lutheran Church in America staff in Chicago. An ALC pastor at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, Gordon Dahl, strongly supported the students’ 1966 convention appeal.
But few delegates supported it. Two years later, a LCA national convention did officially call for SCO legalization. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod followed suit in 1969. The ALC finally embraced SCO in 1970. (The same statement called for an end to draft deferment for ministerial students.)
All three churches noted that selective objection flows naturally from Lutherans’ traditional ethic — that some wars are just, some unjust. And, quoting Martin Luther, they said the individual believer must follow conscience in determining whether to obey governing authority when ordered to fight. (Lutheran Standard, ALC’s Minneapolis-based magazine, in September 1970, ran an article by church historian Trygve Skarsten titled “Luther Was an SCO.”)

Creating an infrastructure for options

Many U.S. churches in those years launched program agencies to address draft dilemmas. The National Council of Churches in 1969 created Emergency Ministry Concerning Draft-Age Emigrants to Canada, which worked with Canadian churches in aiding American draft evaders who’d fled northward. It was directed by a Presbyterian pastor, Richard Killmer. Assisting him was a young man from Minnesota, a student at New York’s Union Seminary, who spent a two-year internship (1970-72) with Emergency Ministry. That seminarian, Mark Hanson, is currently presiding bishop of the ELCA.
Exactly 40 years ago, in February 1971, on behalf of the three major U.S. Lutheran bodies, the Lutheran Council USA’s executive, Tom Spitz, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He formally urged Congress to revise the draft law, legalizing selective objection.

Lutheran Standard, ALC’s Minneapolis-based magazine, in September 1970, ran an article by church historian Trygve Skarsten titled “Luther Was an SCO.”

Some Senators supported the Lutheran appeal. At the time, Sen. Mark Hatfield, Republican from Oregon, said, “I question a system of conscription which forces young men to contradict their own moral commitment.” But only 12 Senators voted to legalize SCO, and the amendment was not introduced in the House.
Also in early 1971, those major Lutheran bodies launched a ministry, Lutheran Selective Service Information, which partnered with other churches’ similar agencies for three years, until conscription ended. (Directing that Lutheran office in New York City was another Minnesotan, this writer.)
Lutheran denominational programs helped nurture a nationwide draft-counseling network. Staff met with military chaplains on in-military war/conscience concerns. When actual drafting ended, they addressed returning veterans’ emotional health issues. (Many vets became “war victims” themselves via attacks from some in the anti-war movement.) Church involvement was significant in Prisoner Visitation and Support, which tended to draft-refusers in federal prisons. The churches also promoted amnesty for draft-avoiders who’d left America, which was achieved under the Carter Administration in the late ‘70s.
All this church advocacy arose in a political culture that refused, four decades ago, to honor selective objection to war participation. The concern has not left us. It still arises with persons who have volunteered for military service but have moral qualms about a specific conflict (e.g., Iraq twice, Afghanistan) or unjust conduct of one.
A new coalition of church leaders and military veterans has emerged. The Truth Commission on Conscience in War is documenting the moral and psychological harm which America’s narrow CO policy inflicts on participants in today’s wars. The Commission advocates revising regulations to allow selective CO for Americans bearing arms today.
Charles Lutz, an editor emeritus of Metro Lutheran, was a communication staffer at ALC national youth office during the 1966 convention. A member of Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer (ELCA), he lives in Minneapolis.

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