Christianity in this country has become almost synonymous with right-wing fanaticism, conservative politics and–courtesy of Mel Gibson–a brutally sadistic version of religious experience. For Christians like me who are appalled by that distortion of our faith, the biography of William Sloane Coffin brings reassurance that not only Martin Luther King Jr. but also a white Protestant minister can become a national leader in the fight for peace, equality, healing and compassion for society’s outcasts–the issues that inspired the ministry of Jesus.
As chaplain of Yale and then pastor of New York’s Riverside Church, Reverend Coffin put himself and his faith on the line from the first Freedom Rides and protests against the Vietnam War to nuclear disarmament, sanctuary for Central American political dissenters and an egalitarian church policy for gays and lesbians.
In his comprehensive and compelling biography William Sloane Coffin Jr.: A Holy Impatience, Warren Goldstein provides abundant evidence for his claim that Coffin “became the outstanding voice of liberal Protestantism in America, one of the last unabashedly liberal voices in American public life during the ascendancy of Reagan Republicanism, the rise of right-wing fundamentalism, and the dramatic rightward shift of public policy and discourse.” Coffin parlayed his pulpits, his charismatic personality and “a hunter’s instinct for sensing opportunities” to get national media attention for his causes and become “a household word–indeed a religious celebrity.” He even made it to the comics page, as inspiration for the Doonesbury campus minister, “Reverend Scot Sloane.” Watching him speak at an anti-Vietnam War rally in Washington in 1968, Norman Mailer described Coffin as “hard, quick, deft and assured…. He had a voice which sounded close to the savvy self-educated tones of a labor union organizer, but there was the irreducible substance of Ivy League in it as well.”
Born into an old and genteel Republican family of Presbyterians–Uncle Henry was president of Union Theological Seminary in New York–Coffin not only had an intellectual, artistic side but a natural athletic ability that made him an heir of the “muscular Christianity” that flourished at Yale in the nineteenth century. A boxer, football player and popular student at Deerfield Academy and Yale, Coffin was also a gifted classical pianist who could bang out songs at parties. “The adult Coffin persona emerged during these years: aggressive charm, physical energy, verbal facility,” writes Goldstein.
Returning to Yale after nearly four years in the Army during World War II, Coffin was recruited after graduation by fellow Ivy League liberals in the CIA. Weeks before joining the agency, however, he attended a career conference for college seniors at Union Theological Seminary at the invitation of its retired president, Coffin’s uncle, Henry Sloane Coffin. It was not “Uncle Henry” who persuaded him to enroll and study for the ministry but the eloquence of the activist theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (a founder of Americans for Democratic Action) and the social ministry of young Union graduates who founded the storefront churches of the East Harlem Protestant Parish. These war veterans had revolted against the complacent “Country Club Christianity” of the 1950s and showed Coffin that ministry could be “a vigorous and exciting profession.” Their example overcame his objection that “the church is really irrelevant: soft face over the hard collar.”
When the Korean War broke out, however, Coffin took the CIA up on its offer, and in 1951 was stationed in Munich, where he recruited and trained Soviet émigrés to infiltrate Russia as spies. Years later he reasoned (or rationalized) that leaving seminary for the CIA was “not as schizophrenic as it might superficially appear, because the difference between CIA and seminary to me in those days was not great. It was pursuing the same kind of goal of righteousness as I saw it.” A CIA colleague felt he was “a Romantic” who “wanted the excitement,” an assessment borne out by Coffin’s choice of his code name, “Captain Holliday,” after Doc Holliday, the Wild West partner of Wyatt Earp.
After several years it was clear the operation had failed–the CIA-trained spies were easily caught, their safehouse exposed and most of them probably executed. Coffin resigned in 1953 and went back to seminary, this time Yale Divinity School, where he soon was “a magnetic figure on campus…whizzing about New Haven on his powerful BMW motorcycle.”
Coffin’s belief that Christianity is an endless fight against all forms of injustice stirred controversy wherever he went. As chaplain of Williams College in 1957 he preached and wrote on the school integration crisis in Little Rock and brought the issue of equality home by denouncing fraternities that discriminated against Jews and blacks. His message was so effective that three students resigned their Greek membership; in retaliation, students shattered the window of Coffin’s house with shotgun pellets and set off cherry bombs in his backyard.
Coffin carried on his mission to make religion relevant as chaplain of Yale a year later, asking that “a first rate rabbi” be hired and urging university president A. Whitney Griswold to end admissions discrimination against Jews and minorities. With pressure from Coffin and the new campus rabbi, Richard Israel, more Jews entered Yale in 1962 than at any time in its history, and the percentage rose steadily before reaching its “natural” state of a quarter to a third of the student body by 1968.
In his first year at Yale Coffin wrote for The Nation, criticizing the “pseudo-objectivity” of liberal education, and his prayer for the incoming class of ’59 foreshadowed the campus rebellions of the 1960s. He urged that students “share in the action and passion of our time” and commit themselves “to end all that is stale, irrelevant, false in our university, nation, and world.”
When in May of 1961 he saw the news photos of the first Freedom Riders being beaten by angry mobs in Alabama while police stood by, Coffin recruited two white professors from Wesleyan, another from Yale Divinity school and a black Yale Law student to stage their own freedom ride to Alabama. Joined by black leaders in Atlanta, Coffin’s bus rode through threatening, brick-lobbing mobs as far as the station in Montgomery, Alabama, where they were promptly arrested and spent the night in jail.
The story made front-page news throughout the country, and the New York Times profiled “The Bus-riding Chaplain.” Coffin was “catapulted. . .into the national spotlight” and became “the most controversial white minister in the country.” Outraged Yale alumni wrote that he was “beneath the level of a ‘Nigger'” and suggested he “may perhaps have mulatto blood in [his] veins.” Alumni complaints became commonplace as Coffin maintained his activist role–but he enjoyed the firm backing of the university president when Kingman Brewster succeeded Griswold in 1964.
Coffin continued to use his chaplaincy as a national pulpit, taking part in interfaith conferences and civil rights demonstrations throughout the country, getting arrested again in 1963 at a civil rights demonstration in St. Augustine, Florida. He appeared on television talk shows and spread his ideas through articles in national magazines–not only liberal journals like The Nation, The New Republic and The New Leader but Glamour, Mademoiselle and Parents’ Magazine. In speeches and sermons around the country he argued that “property rights should reflect human rights,” urged realtors to integrate offices and said “there is no such thing as inter-racial marriage, for all marriage is inter-personal.”
At Yale Chapel in 1965 Coffin first spoke out against the Vietnam War, and that August he organized a group known as Americans for the Reappraisal of Far Eastern Policy (ARFEP), which, with its call for reopening the debates over recognition of China and “the broader problems of Asia,” was intended, he later explained, as a “flank attack” on Vietnam. The Nation said the organization was “more mature [and] less vulnerable” than some New Left groups because it was “studded with well known names” like John Hersey, Roger Baldwin and Irving Howe. ARFEP was launched with teach-ins on thirty college campuses, with an estimated 25,000 students participating.
A month later Coffin spoke to the newly formed Clergy Concerned About Vietnam, an interfaith group that included the Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Heschel and the Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan. Coffin became acting secretary of its National Emergency Committee, which called for a negotiated end to the fighting and helped organize its 150 chapters in forty-three states. Like a circuit-riding evangelist preaching against the war, Coffin told church and campus audiences “this nation is separating itself from God,” and he paraphrased St. Augustine in declaring, “O America, thy pride-swollen faith has closed up thine eyes.” In his 1966 commencement prayer at Yale he urged his audience to “not stand comfortably aloof from the fury of our history, nor sit on little liberal fences with our fears on either side.”
In his role as chaplain Coffin began counseling students who refused to serve in the war, and in 1967 he startled the nation as well as his own university by offering its Battell Chapel as “a sanctuary from police action for any Yale student conscientiously resisting the draft.” Putting himself and his fellow clergy on the line, he announced that “if a further mockery of American justice is not to be made, we must be arrested too.”
Raising the stakes, Coffin not only encouraged young men to resist the war at a rally on Boston Common, he also accepted the draft cards they turned in afterward at a service in the Unitarian Arlington Street church, and presented them to the Justice Department in Washington. Coffin became “the country’s key religious figure on the draft and the one most trusted by young men opposed to the war.” In 1968 the United States charged Coffin, Dr. Benjamin Spock and three others with conspiracy to violate the draft law. An appeals court set aside the convictions but ordered new trials for Coffin and another fellow “conspirator,” though the government later “disposed of the case.”
Just as Griswold had defended his chaplain against the onslaught of criticism after the Freedom Ride, Kingman Brewster shielded him during the furor over his support of draft resisters. It helped, of course, that Coffin was a war veteran and former CIA agent who “remained theologically and liturgically orthodox…. He did not smoke marijuana, experiment with psychedelic drugs, or claim to be hearing the personal voice of God,” and he “continued to wear horn-rimmed (not wire-rimmed) glasses and a black robe in the pulpit.”
While Brewster sometimes deplored Coffin’s confrontational style (the chaplain admitted he “found it hard to resist a bit of rhetorical showboating”), he championed his work: “Thanks in large part to [Coffin’s] personal verve and social action, religious life within and without the church reaches more people at Yale than on any other campus I know about.”
When Coffin left the chaplaincy to become pastor of New York’s Riverside Church in 1977, he continued his campaigns for liberal causes, launching a year later the Riverside Disarmament Program. Activists from churches and synagogues across the country were trained there, as Riverside played a key role in the peace movement of the 1980s, hosting meetings that organized “the largest march and demonstration in American history on June 12, 1982 as a million rallied against the arms race in Central Park.”
Coffin has brought the same courage to what he has called “the most divisive issue since slavery split the church”–the question of homosexuality and gay rights. Since the early 1980s he has preached the need for affirmation of gays and lesbians as equal members of the church. “It is not Scripture that creates hostility to homosexuality,” he told his congregation, “but rather hostility to homosexuality that prompts certain Christians to retain a few passages from an otherwise discarded law code.” Few Christians, he pointed out, followed the injunctions “do not plant your fields with two kinds of seed” or “do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.”
“While reaffirming the traditional Christian family,” Coffin asked parishioners “to affirm all human relationships based on the Christian understanding of love and justice.” The preacher, however, like others before and since (from ministers, priests and rabbis to writers and politicians), found it difficult to apply his ideals to his own family life. As Goldstein bluntly puts it, “Coffin was a marital disaster.” His first two wives “faced life with a man who was emotionally sustained by his public roles–not his role as a husband, partner, or father.” Still, as Goldstein points out and as history has shown from Gandhi to Clinton, the “notion that truly great leaders can combine practical devotion to family with a fully engaged public life remains a myth.” With his third marriage, anyway, Coffin “found a relationship that has nurtured him happily into his old age.” Having just celebrated his 80th birthday, Coffin lives in semi-retirement in Vermont, still speaking and writing, though slowed by several strokes.
Many of Coffin’s messages on the issues of his heyday seem hauntingly–and disturbingly–relevant to the present moment. In his farewell sermon as pastor of Riverside Church in 1987, he said that Manhattan had become “a playground for the rich and a jungle for the rest…. In all my life, I have never seen Americans turn their backs on the poor the way they are doing today.” At Yale Chapel in 1965 he offered a prayer for an end to the Vietnam War that applies to our occupation of Iraq: “Save us, O God, from all Utopian illusions, from any desire to stress the good at the expense of the possible, from any notion that any course of action would now be free of any moral distress. Save us, O God, from all vain hopes of an easy peace.”
Coffin was the white Protestant voice of an ecumenical movement of courageous leaders, like Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan, who made religion a force for peace and justice in the cause of civil rights and the ending of the war in Vietnam. Their inspiring example raises a disturbing question: Where are their counterparts now?