Former Yale chaplain and New York Riverside Church pastor William Sloane Coffin, who died in April, was one of the founders of the Religious Left. Awakened by the tumult of the 1960s, Coffin led a whole generation of religious activists into anti-Vietnam War activism, which ultimately morphed into activism on wider left-wing and anti-American causes.
Coffin’s harsh critique of U.S. foreign policy stretched the full length of the Cold War through the war in Iraq.
Posthumously, Coffin blurbed the new 9-11 conspiracy book, Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11, by David Ray Griffin just released by the Presbyterian Church (USA) publishing house. Griffin alleges that the Bush Administration staged 9/11 and covertly blew up the Twin Towers with dynamite to justify its military adventures. “All Americans who love their country enough to dig into the facts of these critical times will be well rewarded by examining his books,” Coffin wrote about Griffin, whose “well-deserved reputation for the thoroughness of his research” he hailed. “9/11 truth is a very important issue — one with the power to bring lasting change to our country.”
Since his death, mainline church officials have effusively hailed Coffin’s legacy of political radicalism. “To my generation, he was a hero,” eulogized National Council of Churches chief Bob Edgar of Coffin, whom he called a “moral compass.”
Coffin, a Presbyterian and self-proclaimed “Christian revolutionary,” was a formidable preacher and organizer. Surprisingly, he also worked for the CIA as a young man. But his original anti-Soviet idealism faded into a deep cynicism about his own country and about democracy.
After that transition, the compass that directed his political activism always steered him to the far left. He advocated appeasement of the Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1970s, demanded U.S. nuclear disarmament in the 1980s, opposed the Persian Gulf War in the 1990s, and naturally condemned recent U.S. led military actions under President Bush.
“Bill never lost an opportunity to witness for peace,” Edgar explained, pointing to Sloane’s having become president of the far-left SANE/FREEZE (now Peace Action) after Sloane retired from the pastorate.
The head of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, Samuel Kobia, was equally effusive about Coffin, hailing him as “one of the 20th century’s great Christian pastors and activists for peace and justice.” Kobia recalled that Coffin had regarded himself as “very anti-Soviet, but very pro-Russian” and as having conducted a “lover’s quarrel” with his own country’s foreign and nuclear policies.
Kobia also noted that Coffin was a student of the architect of “Christian realism,” Reinhold Niebuhr. But the great theologian, who abandoned pacifism in favor of just war principles when confronted by Nazi aggression, likely would not have recognized his brand of “Christian realism” in Coffin’s ultimately stale brand of reflexive animosity towards the United States and the West.
“His voice was one that we heard clearly, and heeded,” Kobia concluded. Kobia is correct that much of U.S. mainline Christianity did heed and follow Coffin, to its own detriment, and to the detriment of the nation. The mainline denominations, of which Coffin was the archetype “prophetic” leader, have never recovered demographically or politically from their decision to embrace the radical left.
SENSING THE LIMITED RELEVANCE of the old Social Gospel Left and its causes, Coffin groused towards the end of his life about the state of America.
“Now we have an administration which sponsors fear — of immigrants, homosexuals, crime, terrorists particularly,” he told PBS in 2004. “And this fear-mongering, I’m afraid, is quite deliberate because the more you can make people fear, the more a government can control you. I’ve seen that in many countries, and now I see it in the United States, where the administration is engaging in fear-mongering. Everybody is fearful. The Congress is made up of practicing cowards, and people don’t feel a sense of accountability for what the nation should stand for — and money doesn’t help.”
Sloane lamented that America’s churches are “now are pretty much down to therapy and management” with little remaining appetite for the old “prophetic fire.” Today’s clergy, in contrast to the past glory years of Religious Left activism, are “mediocre,” he pronounced. He excoriated modern religious conservatives, who have eclipsed old-line Protestantism, and he lamented the religious convictions of President Bush, whose God is “too small.”
“How…can the president call Iran, Iraq, and North Korea the axis of evil when all of humanity suffers immeasurably more from environmental degradation, pandemic poverty, and a world awash with weapons?” Coffin asked querulously. “What really puzzles me about the Christian Right is how they can applaud the messianic militarism of the president, a kind of divinely ordained cleansing fire of violence, all in the name of Jesus Christ, the mirror opposite of the Jesus we find in the four Gospels.”
Like other scions of the Religious Left, who minimized the transcendent truths of Christianity in favor of materialistic forms of “justice,” Coffin was dismissive of the power of radical Islam. Instead, he faulted terrorism on poverty. “If you want to do something good for national security, and every American should, take billions of dollars and wage war against world poverty,” Coffin told his PBS interviewer. “If we were serious, with other nations, to engage the war on poverty around the world, that would stem the flow of recruits to the ranks of terrorists.”
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