Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, July 28, 2006

Class Act

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine (July 2006)

We can have a democracy or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few.
We cannot have both. - Justice Louis Brandeis

Among the voices of conscience speaking truth to power during the raucous decade of the 1960s, none was more impassioned or as often heard as that of William Sloane Coffin Jrn, the once-upon-a-time chaplain of Yale University who died on April 12, in Strafford, Vermont, at the age of eighty-one. The obituary notices ("CIA Agent Became Beacon of Anti-War Movement", "Preacher on Behalf of the Poor") recalled the spirit of an age that wore its politics on its many and multicolored sleeves - protests against racial discrimination and the Vietnam War, demonstrations in favor of women's rights, marches and counter-marches on the pilgrim roads to Woodstock, Selma, Chicago, and the Pentagon.

Coffin having been vividly present whenever the occasion demanded the issuance of a manifesto or the raising of a fist, the fact of his death prompted the latter-day custodians of liberal opinion in New York City to wonder why neither they nor any of their associates (politician, activist, consultant) seemed to know how to muster the moral or intellectual force to swing a wrecking ball into the crumbling facade of the Bush Administration. The concern was carried over the distance of a week's news cycle as a topic of conversation invariably leading to a rhetorical question about the flowers gone missing in the old Pete Seeger song. Every morning's paper was bringing reports of Republican incompetence and corruption; the president's poll numbers were dribbling down the White House drains; large numbers of citizens (in Kansas as well as in California) were posting caustic sarcasms on the Internet (about the war in Iraq, the price of gasoline, the government's plucking the feathers of the poor to fluff the pillows of the rich, et cetera), but the Democratic Party wasn't formulating the principle of a coherent opposition, and where was Bill Coffin now that he was so sorely missed?

Unavailable for interviews and otherwise engaged, on April 20 the guest of honor at a funeral service in Riverside Church on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The plain pine box, simply dressed with white lilies and a folded American flag, stood in the center of the transept in front of a standing-room-only crowd of maybe 900 people brought together in praise of a life that most of them, men and women over the age of fifty, had come to know and love as members of the congregation that Coffin served as the church's senior minister during the decade of the 1980s.

The ceremony began with a meditation for solo violin, and as it moved through the sequence of hymns, anthems, prayers, scripture readings, and choral responses, the words and the music brought to mind the separation of powers that over the last fifty years has resulted in the divorce of the country's moral energies from its political thought and economic theory. The choir sang "America the Beautiful" and Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus", the joint appearance on the program of the verses temporal and spiritual evoking the memory of a time and place when love of country wasn't an emotion reserved for men in uniform. Bill Moyers said of Coffin, "There burned in his heart a sacred rage", which echoed the once commonplace belief that the passions engendering the hope of secular justice and those acknowledging the proofs of divine justice were forged in the same fire. James Carroll's eulogy summed up in a set of four paradoxes Coffin's notion of democracy as a later and more expansive reading of the New Testament - "A first white man to stand with blacks in the civil rights movement. A patrician who was tribune of the nobodies. A patriot who had served his country nobly, but was suddenly in disobedient dissent. A critical thinker with a simple faith."

Under the high and vaulted roof of neo-Gothic stone the singing of the choir drifted upward into a late afternoon light glorified by its passage through three tiers of stained glass, and as I listened to the pouring out of thanks for what Carroll praised as "the sermon that was his life", I remembered the late Arthur Miller once saying of Coffin that if you know him long enough, you can almost become a Christian. Or, if not a Christian, a democrat in Coffin's sense of the word - that is, anybody who knows that "to show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make him an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving".

In the distinction was the difference in feeling between what was taking place in Riverside Church and the election-year wisdom of a Democratic Party that over the last quarter of a century has come to resemble a troupe of performance artists capable of little else except the showing of emotion. The would-be friends of the common man (scriptwriters, fund-raising agents, politicians both incumbent and insurgent) can be relied upon to weep on cue - for the homeless and the oppressed, for endangered rain forests and disappearing Africans, for any aggrieved interest group that knows where to send the check. When, however, it comes to the work of restructuring the status quo, they find reasons not to fool around with the heavy machinery - to say nothing possibly unpatriotic or uncivil, to stay the course in Baghdad, vote for the bankruptcy and drug-prescription bills, endorse the windfall tax laws comforting the corporations and the top-tier rich. Best to let the Republicans lose the November elections on their own faith-based initiative.

Which was the message that Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, brought to the party faithful meeting in New Orleans on the same day of Coffin's funeral. "The biggest issues of the election", the chairman said, "are character issues", and the Republicans were going to "lose big" on their sorry record of untrustworthiness and dishonesty. As a campaign slogan, Dean proposed "'tough and smart' because what the Republicans have done is tough and not very smart". In answer to questions about what it was the Democratic Party might stand for, Dean said that sometime in September the committee probably would distribute some sort of "values piece".

I didn't know Coffin as a friend, or even as a remote acquaintance'; we'd been near contemporaries at Yale in the 1950s (Coffin graduating from the Divinity School in the same year that I graduated from the college), but we weren't apt to run across each other at Mory's or the Harvard game. When he became a public figure in the early 1960s - boarding a freedom-ride bus in Alabama, jailed in Florida and Maryland for consorting with black persons, helping students to resist the military draft, indicted by the federal government on charges of conspiracy - I got used to seeing him at hastily summoned press conferences, a man whose quarrels with Providence seldom failed to make the six o'clock news. If I couldn't find my way to his belief in God or Jesus, at least I could take heart from his courage and his eloquence; his acts of civil disobedience I could place within the long-abiding tradition of Protestant dissent that came ashore at Plymouth Rock in 1620, founded Yale College in 1701, informed the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, gave voice to the essays of Henry David Thoreau, was still present in the pulpit of Battell Chapel when Coffin, delivering his first message as the university's newly appointed chaplain in the autumn of 1959, told the arriving members of that year's freshman class, "The Lord forbids our using our education merely to buy our way into middle-class security".

Coffin's preaching of what he called "the uncomfortable gospel" didn't win the hearts and minds of the alumni content with the blessings of Mammon and firm in the opinion that a university chaplain was somebody with the good sense to know that the higher truths were best served by their translation into institutional press releases and expedient paraphrase. The paperwork marked Coffin as a man with the proper qualifications - born in the manger of wealth and privilege, raised in New York and Paris as a favored son of the American plutocracy, educated at Andover and Yale (1949) like his father, William (Yale 1900, a president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and grandfather, Edmund (Yale 1866, co-owner of W & J Sloane and Company), tapped for membership in Skull and Bones; four years in the US Army during and shortly after World War II followed by three years of service in the CIA; fluent in four languages, married to the daughter of Arthur Rubinstein, the virtuoso concert pianist.

The alumni perhaps could have forgiven Coffin's way with words. ("Every nation makes decisions based on self-interest and then defends them in the name of morality". "Even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat".) What was damnable was the fact that the man not only practiced what he preached but also knew whereof he spoke. The chaplain's wide acquaintance with the management teams that owned and operated the American oligarchy taught him the truth of Christ's observation about the rich man and the camel, as hard for the one to enter the kingdom of Heaven as for the other to pass through the eye of a needle. The mistake was to think of the heavenly city as a travel destination, a place instead of a state of mind, the beachfront properties slightly more upscale but otherwise not much different from those available in Acapulco or Cap d'Antibes.

Coffin located the kingdom of Heaven in the freedom to love the world and all its miracles, none more wonderful than the people who inhabited it. At Yale in the 1960s, struck by the irony that "the young bent upon becoming wealthy and thinking they are fulfilling themselves are in fact limiting themselves", Coffin presented the art and practice of democratic politics as a sure means of escape from the prisons of the self. "To love effectively", he once said, "we must act collectively..." Or again, suggesting an all-purpose cure for the myriad forms of shriveling self-hatred, "Love measures our stature: the more we love the bigger we are. There is no smaller package in all the world than that of a man all wrapped up in himself." The propositions aligned Coffin's thinking not only with the teachings of Christ but also with the Baron de Montesquieu's eighteenth-century treatise "The Spirit of Laws", a text much relied upon by the framers of the American Constitution that grounds the working of a democratic government with the principle of virtue. Carried forward into the twentieth century, the idea of the res publica, being more valuable than "finances, opulence, and luxury", found expression in Franklin D Roosevelt's New Deal, in the Truman Administration's enactment of the Marshall Plan, in John F Kennedy's New Frontier ("Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country"), and in Lyndon Johnson saying of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, "Should we defeat every enemy and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation".

Coffin left Yale in 1975, his departure welcomed as a timely deliverance by the alumni who disapproved of his rendering so little ground to Caesar and deplored his all too frequent encounters with the police. After accepting appointment as senior minister of Riverside Church in 1977, he continued to speak in public, most often and most forcibly on the subject of nuclear disarmament, but it was easy to lose sight of him because the news media no longer were inclined to take notice of what he said. His voice went out of fashion in what came to be known as the Me Decade; small was beautiful, and it was thought wise to hedge the bets of idealism with prudent balances of self-interest. The investment proved sufficient to finance the bull market in utter selfishness that was the glory of Ronald Reagan's Morning in America and continues to sustain the imperial narcissism of the current Bush Administration. Audiences believing that money is the answer to all their prayers don't like to be told that instead of loving things and using people, "people are to be loved and things are to be used" or listen to Coffin say that "those who fear disorder more than injustice invariably produce more of both", that "nationalism, at the expense of another nation, is just as wicked as racism at the expense of another race", that "the police are around in large part to guarantee a peaceful digestion for the rich", that "Hell is truth seen too late".

When the benediction had been given, and as the congregation joined with the choir in the singing of the recessional, members of Coffin's family (children, grandchildren, brother, cousins) carried the body out of the church at the height of their shoulders, bearing it aloft as if offering a gift or presenting a prize. So it was, and so it is for anybody prepared to honor or receive it. The composition of the crowd in the church - like the ones seen at performances of classical music in Lincoln Center, no A-list celebrities or delegates from the major news media in attendance, a television camera recording the event for archival purposes - pose the question as to whether we live in a society that still wishes to hear voices on the order and magnitude of Bill Coffin's. He was a man of his time, exceptional but not an anomaly, one of many others in his generation who viewed the American political enterprise as the making of a joyful noise unto the Lord, a way out of their own loneliness and fear, a becoming part of the larger and more interesting self otherwise known as the public interest and the common good.

The Democratic Party's embarrassing loss of its once abundant moral energies provided the topic for an essay published in The American Prospect during the week of Coffin's funeral under the title "Party in Search of a Notion". Michael Tomasky, the journal's editor, likened the latter-day Democrats to dogs trained with electrical shocks to the condition of "learned helplessness", crouching in the corners of "resignation and fear", clutching their "grab bag of small-bore proposals" and their "hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes", afraid to come forth with a broad and generous vision of the just society that might give them the courage of their soidisant convictions.

Two years before he died, Coffin published a small book entitled Credo, summing up the lesson of his life and setting forth some of his thoughts about the meaning of democracy. Any anxious Democrat looking for a bigger issue than the one dreamed of in the philosophy of Howard Dean wouldn't need to do much more than copy out the text 500 times on the nearest blackboard.

Lewis H. Lapham is the National Correspondent for Harper's Magazine.

Bill Totten


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