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.”