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The Menlo Roundtable

Opportunist Rhetoric and Principled Rhetoric: How Two Religious Leaders Responded to Vietnam from 1964 to 1975

From 1964 to 1975, the American response to Vietnam threw the U.S. into social turmoil and moral ambiguity as the public protested military escalation. Thrust into a cultural morass, religious public figures, who were America’s spiritual guides, had to respond to Vietnam in a way that maintained their credibility.

Two leaders stand out as particularly effective: televangelist Billy Graham from the pro-war religious right and Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr. from the pacifist religious left. This paper considers which had the greater rhetorical impact. Historians have vouched for the rhetorical effectiveness of both leaders. Commenting on Graham, historian Grant Wacker argues that although he was masterfully persuasive in framing the Vietcong as a godless force attacking America’s Christian-influenced way of life, Graham’s credibility was damaged as his increasingly conflicted perspective and his close ties with Presidents Johnson and Nixon were uncovered. Commenting on Coffin, historians argue that Coffin framed the ideas of theologian Niebuhr to characterize antiwar activism as a religious imperative, boosting the antiwar movement’s popularity. I believe that while both Graham and Coffin were masters, these rhetors wove religion differently into their words because they had different rhetorical goals.

Photo: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons