Until the wake-up shock of Bush II’s re-election, I was one of the great slumber party of mainline American Protestant “liberals” (as we were then still known) whose response to the outrages of those who stole our identity as Christians was the cheap and comfortable scorn and smugger-than-thou ridicule of the disengaged. My own religious-political alarm had begun to ring during the summer before the 2004 election, when I reviewed for The Nation Warren Goldstein’s biography William Sloane Coffin Jr.: A Holy Impatience. The book brought back to me in stirring detail the work of leaders like Reverend Coffin, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Father Daniel Berrigan and their Jewish allies like Rabbi Abraham Heschel in battling racism, unjust war, nuclear proliferation, poverty and threats to civil liberties. I wrote that “their inspiring example raises a disturbing question: Where are their counterparts now?”
In the past year I put that question to religious leaders and lay people as I traveled around the country trying to understand what has brought us to the political-religious crisis of our time and what, if anything, is being done about it. When asked who is the contemporary equivalent of Coffin, the white Protestant firebrand of civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movement, several mainline Christians sighed and said, “Well, I guess–Coffin.”
Long retired from active ministry and in his 80s, Coffin writes and speaks out against the war in Iraq and the religious right more than most mainline leaders today, though he has suffered a stroke and is largely confined to a Barcalounger by the living-room window of his home in New Hampshire.
Lacking an active Reverend Coffin, several people suggest his potential successor might be his actual successor at New York’s Riverside Church, the popular African-American preacher James Forbes. Both of the people who named Forbes live in New York, though; he has done little to make himself known in the nation at large.
One afternoon over tea in the lounge of the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston, I ask a bright young pastor of a mainline Protestant church in an affluent suburb who he thinks is the contemporary Christian counterpart to William Sloane Coffin in the 1960s. After some minutes of silent musing, he shakes his head, then smiles and says, “Rabbi Lerner.” This minister is not the only Christian who named Michael Lerner, founder and editor of Tikkun, a Jewish and interfaith magazine, as the person who is doing the most significant work in opposing the religious right’s theft of the meaning and the message of Christianity for the political power of the neocon Republican con men.
The most consistent answer to my question is the Rev. Jim Wallis, whose barnstorming book tour for his bestselling God’s Politics took him to fifty-six cities in twenty weeks and brought him into question-and-answer sessions with crowds of 1,000 to 2,000 people at a time. Michael Lerner’s new book, The Left Hand of God–which turns out to be almost a companion volume to God’s Politics–is on target to elicit a similar grassroots response.
The unlikely duo of Lerner and Wallis, a rabbi and an evangelical Christian, are the names most often cited in my homemade, unofficial poll of Christians looking for leadership in opposing the religious right not only with words but also with deeds. But they are not forming any kind of partnership except in the sense of being friendly allies who have similar goals. Both men are known as loners, and they don’t even agree on the way to go about reaching their common goal of opposing the power of the religious right. While Lerner wants to form a “spiritual left,” Wallis doesn’t want to use the term “left,” or even “progressive,” and least of all “liberal” in his own work.