Eminentoes

The Coffin Legacy

A half year after his death, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin remains the trendy anti-war inspiration he became in the Vietnam era. Not bad for someone who once worked for the CIA.

By 9.22.06

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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."

COFFIN, THE PRODUCT OF A WEALTHY New York family, served as Yale's chaplain for 18 years starting in 1958. He admirably threw himself into the struggle for civil rights in the early 1960s and then inevitably joined the anti-war movement. He offered Yale's chapel as a refuge to Vietnam draft dodgers. In 1967, he joined Dr. Benjamin Spock in a Boston "Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority," at which 1,000 men presented their draft cards. Coffin and Spock were convicted for abetting disobedience to the draft. Over the coming decades, Coffin would become a frequent visitor at police booking stations, as he made civil disobedience a regular feature of his political ministry.

In the 1970s, Coffin took over New York's fashionable Riverside Church, which the Rockefellers had helped found as a model pulpit for liberal Christianity. Some at even liberal Riverside criticized Coffin's constant activism. But Coffin explained: "Every minister is given two roles: the priestly and the prophetic," he said. "The prophetic role is the disturber of the peace, to bring the minister himself, the congregation and entire social order under some judgment. If one plays a prophetic role, it's going to mitigate against his priestly role. There are going to be those who will hate him."

During World II the young Coffin was a liaison officer to the French and Soviet armies. At war's end he participated in the forced return of Soviets who had fled the Soviet Union. Many attempted suicide rather than return to Stalin's Russia. Much troubled by what he witnessed, Coffin joined the Central Intelligence Agency so as to oppose Stalinism.

"I was absolutely right about the Soviet Union being evil," Coffin would recall years later. "I was a little bit too optimistic about my own country." He suggested that "when you look at the number of invasions that the United States carried on, let's say, from the end of World War II and compare it with the Soviets, we outdid them in imperialism." Coffin remembered bitterly: "Even as I was getting out of the CIA, the CIA was overthrowing Mossadegh in '53 in Iran; the next year the Arbenz government, duly elected in Guatemala, et cetera, et cetera."

In the 1950s Coffin took an interest in religion, in part because of the powerful lectures of Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where Coffin's uncle was president. Coffin was inspired to go into the ministry, with an understanding that "social justice is at the heart of the Gospel." Opposing what he perceived as U.S. interventionism around the world, and supporting those who resisted it, became a primary focus of his pastorate.

"I was getting worried that the United States was arrogating to itself a right it would never accord any other nation; namely, the right to decide who lives, who dies, and who rules in Third World countries thousands of miles away," Coffin told a documentary film maker in 1995. "The other thing I would say to the American military, look, we can't be top cop, okay? And we can't ask other people to give their troops to some international UN police force and then say but we can't do that, we're superior, we're not going to put our troops ever under the command of somebody at the UN, that's for other people."

Coffin chided the idea that "America is an exceptional country." His great faith, as with so many other post-war mainline church officials, was in the United Nations as the last, best hope of mankind.

TRAGICALLY, COFFIN'S IDEALISM, LIKE THAT of his Religious Left cohorts, degenerated from laudable civil rights causes, to opposition to a U.S. war to Vietnam, to outright support and sympathy for the North Vietnamese communists, for Fidel Castro, the Sandinistas, the Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador, the Ayatollah's Iran, and for Soviet policy goals, if not directly for the Soviet Union itself. He, and they, lost their ability to distinguish between the sins of the United States and the monstrosities of his enemies. Coffin wrote in 1985:

"Were we to repent of our own self-righteousness, the existence of Soviet missiles would remind us of nothing so much as our own; Soviet threats to rebellious Poles would call to mind American threats to the Sandinistas; Afghanistan would suggest Vietnam. Soviet repression of civil liberties at home would remind us of our own complicity in the repression of these same civil rights abroad...Jesus would never be 'soft on communism' any more than he would be soft on capitalism."

Like so many clerics of his generation, Coffin lost sight of the Old Time religion and became captive to the secular fads and ideologies of his own now passing era. His original instincts were often noble. But the results of his skewed analysis ultimately became destructive.

The NCC's Bob Edgar eulogized that Coffin was a "legendary liberal." No doubt true. But like the Religious Left Coffin helped to found, his mode of liberalism ultimately became frigid and illiberal. May he rest in peace, and may his errors be forgiven.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.