In January 1996, I visited William Sloane Coffin Jr. in Appleton, Wis., where he was a visiting professor at Lawrence University. I was 21 years old and in the midst of writing a senior essay about Coffin’s sermons. The legendary Yale chaplain had agreed to be interviewed, but only in person; he thought that would be more fun than talking on the phone. And it was. After picking me up at the small airport, Coffin brought me and his dog, which had come with him in the car, to a little cemetery in town. We walked over to a tombstone etched with the name “Joseph McCarthy.” The pooch sauntered over to the memorial slab, lifted his leg, and shot a nice, warm stream of urine on the dead senator’s grave. “Our daily ritual,” Coffin joked, leading me back to the car.
Coffin died on Wednesday at the age of 81, and I keep thinking that only he would have the gallows humor to make me feel better about his passing. He wouldn’t have called it a “passing,” of course; he loathed euphemisms and favored directness. William Sloane Coffin has died. We’re all poorer for it.
Many will remember Coffin for his courageous participation in the civil rights and anti-war marches of the 1960s and ‘70s. His sermons at Yale, where he was chaplain from 1958 to 1976, often packed the house, and not just with Protestants. It’s hard to imagine a Christian chaplain today of whom Jewish students might say, “He was my rebbe,” which is how Rabbi James Ponet, Yale ‘68, described Coffin to me. “Rebbe” connotes teacher, sage, adviser—and that was Coffin to a generation of boys who couldn’t decide whether to fight in Vietnam. Coffin didn’t suborn the burning of draft cards, which he found needlessly antagonistic, but he would collect draft notices and give them back to the Pentagon. Coffin had fought in World War II and worked for the CIA. He was as disdainful of silly anti-Americanism as he was of jingoistic rallying cries, and his ability to fuse anti-war rhetoric with love of country is unequaled today.
The subtleties were lost on some, of course. In the early 1970s, angered by Coffin’s far-flung travels to Hanoi and elsewhere, an alumnus wrote to the Yale Alumni Magazine to remind Coffin that “the chaplain works for Yale University.” Some months later, another, far wiser alumnus wrote in to say that the chaplain works not for Yale, but for God. This tension is at the center of every preacher’s life: how to be both shepherd and prophet, comforting people while pushing them to greater heights of justice. For Coffin, the struggle took place in America’s most elite institutions. In his lifetime, he was a student and chaplain at both Andover and Yale; when he worked elsewhere, it was at places such as Williams College or New York’s Riverside Church. When I asked Coffin if he ever thought he should be in the streets or the ghettos, like the famous French worker priests, he said he’d struggled with such questions—of course he had—but, in the end, “I was where I belonged.”
It was one of Coffin’s signal strengths that he knew where he belonged and knew, too, that there was value in his besieged, liberal Protestant tradition. Coffin was a Presbyterian from a long line of Presbyterians; his uncle had been president of Union Theological Seminary and a leader of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the United States. (When he took over Riverside Church in 1978, Coffin joined the United Church of Christ, which includes the Congregationalists.) Coffin was a Presbyterian, a Yalie, an ex-CIA man—and he saw none of these roles as incompatible with being a leftist critic of racism and American imperialism. He wore suits and ties. He quoted from his beloved King James Bible. To him, the tradition was capacious enough to support the most radical dissent.
Coffin didn’t always get things right. He was an early opponent of gay liberation, for example, although in time he came around. But it’s worth considering why he lagged on that issue and why, too, he was not a total pacifist and could be skeptical of organized labor. Coffin’s education was classical. Augustine’s Confessions was one of his favorite books. He took the Bible very seriously, and he considered himself a Calvinist after a fashion, deeply concerned with mankind’s capacity for sin. Coffin was a devoted reader of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose “Christian realism” cautioned against the optimism that, Niebuhr believed, had allowed Hitler’s power to go unchecked. Like Niebuhr, Coffin believed that all people had hearts of darkness, that things could get worse as well as better, that sometimes military power had to fight military power.
That outlook would sound foreign to many liberal Protestants today. Coffin’s strong emphasis on preaching from the Bible, his belief in the existence of just wars, and his warm affection for tradition make him sound very unradical. Of course, to his friends in the Protestant elite, he was as radical as Robespierre. Yale President Kingman Brewster once said to him, “Bill, do you know how much time I spend defending you?” To which Coffin replied, “As much time as you spend defending me to the right, I spend defending you to the left!” That was the dilemma for progressive WASPs like Coffin and Brewster, not to mention New York’s Mayor John Lindsay and its Episcopal bishop, Paul Moore, all Yale men and close acquaintances. To be simultaneously lovers of tradition and avatars of change: It’s a cocktail difficult to mix well, but potent when achieved.
To achieve it required an extraordinary amount of personal charm, and that’s what I’ll remember Coffin for. He liked to tell the story of his friend who said, “You know, you’re the best preacher in America except for every black Baptist preacher in America.” Well, that was about as far as self-deprecation went for William Sloane Coffin. He had a high opinion of himself, and on this matter, as on so many others, he was absolutely right.