Journalism in Action: Beverly Deepe Keever and Her Career

Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Religion in Vietnam

By Ross Schroeder

Buddhism (Đạo Phật)

Buddhism (Viet: Đạo Phật) in Vietnam has a long and storied history in the nation. Introduced by trade with India and the Han Dynasty of China sometime around the first century AD, Buddhism quickly became an integral part of Vietnam. However, for much of Vietnam’s history, Buddhism was primarily a religion of the common man, and not promoted by the government. Ever since Vietnam gained its independence from China in 938 AD, the nation was controlled, at least in part, by a Chinese-style bureaucracy of Mandarins who practiced and preferred Confucianism and Taoism, which emphasized the social order, unlike Buddhism. Regardless, they did not actively persecute or restrict Buddhists like they did with, say, Christianity, and the moldable nature of the “Tam Giáo” (Viet: Three Teachings), the concept that these three religions were a part of the same whole, as practiced in China, meant that relations remained cordial.

However, the French colonial administration outwardly and overtly favored Catholicism, their raison d’être for subjugating Vietnam, over all other religions, including Buddhism. This led to a spurt of conversions from Buddhism to Catholicism during the French Colonial Period. Many Buddhists began to grow concerned about this, and a “revivalist” movement began in the 1920s, seeking to bolster the religion and “modernize” the faith for the twentieth century. This movement continued to grow both during the Colonial Period and after the proclamation of the Republic of Vietnam by Ngô Đình Diệm in 1955.

Ngô Đình Diệm was a proud Catholic, who while not explicitly promoting the religion, did place it at the forefront of politics. He had disputes with various “cult armies”, such as the Cao Đài Armed Forces or the Hòa Hảo militia that were operating in South Vietnam at the time, and as such began to crack down on these perceived sources of dissent. This culminated in the Buddhist Crisis, which would go on to define South Vietnamese politics for the next five years.

Even after the overthrow of Ngô Đình Diệm in 1963, the Buddhists remained opposed to the succeeding military governments, seeing them as continuations of the Diệm regime. It was this dynamic that Beverly Keever covered extensively during her time in Vietnam, where the Buddhist clergy and organizations frequently protested the government in Saigon. The animosity got to the point where the monks were routinely described as “reds in robes”, as some saw them as a front for Communist-aligned malcontents. This was because they were agitators against both the government and the war.

This state of unrest persisted throughout the military regimes until the duopoly of Nguyễn Cao Kỳ and Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, when this issue came to a head with the Buddhist Uprising in 1966, wherein Buddhist Monks, alongside sympathetic army units, attempted to overthrow the government. While the conflict lasted for two months of semi-pitched fighting, the eventual victory of Kỳ and Thiệu over the rebel forces ended the political power of the Buddhist protest movement.

Catholic Church in Vietnam (Giáo hội Công giáo Việt Nam)

Catholicism entered Vietnam in 1637, when Jesuit missionaries entered the country. By 1639, 100,000 Catholics lived in the kingdom of Đàng Ngoài (Tonkin region/Northern Vietnam) alone. However, the religion soon came under persecution by the nobility, who saw Catholicism as a threat to their power and the Confucian Mandarin bureaucracy. These persecutions would reach their zenith under Vietnamese Emperor Tự Đức in 1849, who engaged in a large-scale suppression of Catholics and the Catholic Church until his defeat by the French in 1862. Over one hundred and thirty-thousand Catholics were killed. Pope John Paul II beatified the entirety of the victims (some had been recognized as saints prior to this) as the Vietnamese Martyrs on June 18th, 1988. Their day of Memorial is November 24th.

The French used the persecution of Catholics in Vietnam to further their Imperialist ambitions in the region and claimed Vietnam as a colony nominally to protect the Catholic population under the Treaty of Saigon in 1864. Under the French, while Catholicism did continue to grow, the Vietnamese public increasingly saw Catholicism as a method of French control and the Catholics were seen as collaborators to the colonial regime. Despite these views, Catholics were active in the anti-French agitation that occurred during the colonial era, and wholeheartedly supported Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of independence in 1945.

However, when Vietnam was partitioned as a result of the Geneva Conference in 1954, Catholic Vietnamese fled North Vietnam en masse, believing that they would be persecuted by the communist government in Hanoi. This fear was somewhat justified, as the Việt Minh had atheistic leanings, but overall Hồ Chí Minh saw the Catholics more as potential allies than enemies. While the North Vietnamese government did suppress “superstitious beliefs” and in general tried to remove religion from every day and public life, Catholicism was not subjected to particular persecution towards the laity. However, the structure of the Catholic Church caused it to raise special scrutiny under the eyes of Hanoi, as the nature of the church made it, and by extension, its followers, more susceptible to “foreign influences,” something Ho Chi Minh had declared war on as a continuation of his anti-colonial conflict. Priests were more likely to be adversely affected by agrarian reform as church-held land was redistributed, and were under heightened suspicion of being “subversive agents” from the government.

After the ousting of Emperor Bảo Đại in 1955, control of South Vietnam fell to President Ngô Đình Diệm, a devout Catholic. While the Diệm administration was officially secular, Diệm’s brother was the Archbishop of Huế, Catholics were often preferred for administrative positions, and the Catholic faith was given more leeway to conduct its affairs than other religions. This was a primary factor of the Buddhist Crisis, which would paralyze South Vietnamese politics for half a decade.

After the overthrow of Diệm in 1962, Catholicism remained an important religion in South Vietnam, but never reclaimed the place of primacy it briefly held under the Diệm regime. Most Catholics continued to support anti-communism throughout the war. However, their support was not enough, and in 1979, North Vietnam took Saigon and united the nation under a Communist dictatorship.

The Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in Vietnam and is currently (according to the Vietnamese Government) the largest organized religious sect with 6.1% of the population, or 5,868,748 adherents (General Statistics Office of Vietnam, 2019). While there are now a small but sizable number of Protestants in Vietnam especially among the highland Montagnard ethnic groups (1%, or about 962,089 people), this is primarily a result of missionary activities conducted during the Vietnam War, and they were not a significant factor during Keever’s time in South Vietnam.

Vietnamese Folk Religion (Tín Ngưỡng Dân gian Việt Nam)

The oldest religious system in Vietnam is the collection of beliefs referred to as “Vietnamese Folk Religion” (Viet: Tín Ngưỡng Dân gian Việt Nam). Vietnamese Folk Religion, like many traditional practices, is extremely difficult to precisely define. This is because it is highly syncretic and often merges with ideas and customs from the various religions that have been introduced to Vietnam over the centuries such as Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and even Christianity. According to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam, over 86% of Vietnam, or 81,700,000 people, practice some form of Vietnamese Folk Religion in 2019 (to add yet more obscurity and confusion, this is grouped alongside “no religion” by the communist state, much like as in China).

Vietnamese Folk Religion worships various “Thần”, which can be roughly translated as “deities”. The category includes not just the heavenly spirits we would normally associate with the term “deity”, but also nature spirits, tutelary deities, and various highly vaunted ancestors. These Thần interact with the world through “Linh”, the balance between “âm” (similar to the Chinese concept of Yin) and “dương” (similar to the Chinese concept of Yang), and through “Lên đồng”, or the process of spirit mediums. Through Lên đồng adherents of Vietnamese Folk Religion believe that they are able to channel and embody the Thần and tie the mortal realm and the spirit realm together.


Caodaism (Đạo Cao Đài)

Founded in 1926, Caodaism (Viet: Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ, or “The Great Faith [for the] Third Universal Redemption”, or Đạo Cao Đài “Caodaism” for short) is a syncretic religion unique to Vietnam. Beginning with a séance on Phú Quốc island in 1919, Ngô Văn Chiêu began to believe that he was receiving a special message from Cao Đài, or God. Eventually in 1926, a hedonistic businessman named Lê Văn Trung became enlightened by Ngô Văn Chiêu’s rituals, and together they officially founded Caodaism on October 7th, 1926, with Trung becoming the first Caodaist “Pope.” The next year, the city of Tây Ninh was chosen to hold the Holy Seat and chief cathedral, which was completed in 1937. Lê Văn Trung died in 1934, and was succeeded by Phạm Công Tắc, who had far more political ambitions.

Caodaists began to increasingly oppose the French colonial government after Trung’s death. After the Second World War began, Pope Tắc’s opposition to French rule and growing warmth towards the Japanese (as he apparently hoped that they would return the exiled Prince Cường Để to Vietnam to rule in Emperor Bảo Đại’s place) became intolerable, and Pope Tắc, alongside several of his closest subordinates, were forcibly deported to Madagascar by the French authorities in 1941.

However, this served only to move the followers of Cao Đài closer to Tokyo. Trần Quang Vinh, with the assistance of the Kempetai (Japanese Secret Police) created the Cao Đài Armed Forces to help fight the French. However, in the end, the Japanese were defeated in 1945, and the French quickly negotiated for Pope Tắc’s support against the communist dominated Việt Minh. The Cao Đài Armed Forces was one of the most highly trained anti-communist forces in Vietnam, and controlled what were a series of semi-independent territories in the Mekong Delta until 1955, when Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm’s forces surrounded Tây Ninh, forced the Cao Đài Armed Forces to stand down, and caused Pope Tắc to flee for Cambodia, where he died in 1959.

While the Cao Đài Armed Forces were officially disbanded in 1955, various militias continued to be active, though not nearly at the level of organization or the number of men as were active before. In addition, Diệm allowed the Caodaists to continue to worship, and the congregation continued to hold influence through number of adherents alone. As a consequence of the actions of 1955, Caodaists were broadly anti-Diệm and participated in several anti-government alliances during his regime, albeit with very limited success.

Caodaism began to return to a position of immense influence in South Vietnam with Diệm’s overthrow and assassination in 1963. After the end of the Diệm regime, the Cao Đài Armed Forces were allowed to reform, and became a key military unit in support of the new government. When General Nguyễn Khánh came to power in 1964, the Caodaists became pillar of his regime. Khánh became the first South Vietnamese premier to visit the Caodaist religious center of Tây Ninh, had multiple Caodaists in his cabinet, and released many of those imprisoned under the Diệm government. In addition, he appointed Lê Văn Tất, Brigader General of the Cao Đài Armed Forces, governor of the Tây Ninh province, and affirmed the Cao Đài Church’s ownership of its lands. It is because of this political ascendency that Keever began to cover the religion.

Caodaism is most properly described as a syncretic faith, meaning that it combines aspects of different, older religions; in this case, Christianity, Buddhism and native Vietnamese beliefs. Caodaism combines the reincarnation and karmic cycle of Buddhism with the monotheism and clerical structure of Christianity and the focus on séances of native Vietnamese religion. The religion also professes to be the truth behind all religions, continuing its pluralist tendency.

The only requirement for being a lay Caodaist is to pray four times a day: once at 6:00 AM, once at noon, once again at 6:00 PM, and once at midnight. All other functions of the religion are handled by the clergy. The leader of the clergy is the Caodaist Pope. Below him are three Censor-Cardinals, three Cardinals, thirty-six Archbishops, seventy-two Bishops, and then the regular priests. This pseudo-catholic hierarchy, however, is only the Cửu Trùng Đài, or “executive branch” of the religion. The Hiệp Thiên Đài, or “legislative branch” is led by the Hộ Pháp, the “protector of laws and justice”. While it is the job of the Cửu Trùng Đài to administer the Caodaist church, it falls to the Hiệp Thiên Đài to preserve and interpret “spiritual laws”, which it often does via séances, in which Caodaist priests aspire to commune with otherworldly or divine beings.







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