Between the early 1960s and the end of the 20th century, William Sloane Coffin Jr. was, after Martin Luther King Jr., the most influential liberal Protestant in America. The qualifiers are important. Protestants constituted a majority of American Christians during this period, but only by combining liberal and conservative denominations. The conservative Billy Graham, for instance, had almost unbroken access to the White House during this entire period and preached to many millions in revivals and on television across the United States. A host of right-wing radio and television evangelists have also had large and regular audiences.
During this time, also, Martin Luther King Jr. dominated the liberal religious landscape for a dozen years by leading the greatest movement of his era and achieving unanticipated preeminence. Never rising to King's level of influence, Coffin's effect remained more varied and diffuse, and less momentous. He preached nothing comparable to King's "I Have a Dream" speech, for example. Neither, of course, did any other minister in the twentieth century.
But the sheer force of Coffin's personality, his deceptively simple condensations of Christianity, his invariably ebullient, often witty, example, were felt intensely by--depending on the occasion--dozens, hundreds, thousands, or (on TV) even millions of Americans. Neither a theologian nor a denominational executive, Coffin ought not to be compared with his fellow liberals John Bennett and Robert McAfee Brown, or Abraham Joshua Heschel, Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, or the Presbyterian Eugene Carson Blake. His controversial public stands at Yale University and at Riverside Church, his television appearances, and his frequent national press attention from the early 1960s through the 1980s all made him a household word--indeed a religious celebrity--like none of these colleagues. The closest parallels to Coffin may be those other flamboyant religious figures of the period: Daniel and Philip Berrigan.
The Berrigans were willing to follow their God down nearly any path, dramatically attacking the war machine and creating a mystique that fed the sixties' appetite for "authentic" action. As a result, they drew so much attention to their own personal "witness" that many, even in the antiwar movement, found their example off-putting. By surrounding themselves with other Catholics, and by speaking a relatively impermeable language, the Berrigans showed little interest in the ecumenical movement in American religion that sparked so much clergy involvement in civil rights and the antiwar movement. Finally, while they had many admirers, they had relatively few followers.
Coffin's similarity to the Berrigans lay in his eagerness to stake out risky political positions grounded in a clear extrapolation of Christian faith and in his willingness to make his own actions the subject of controversy. His effort to send medical supplies to North Vietnam, for example, appeared to be a publicity-seeking kick in the teeth to the families of American soldiers then facing danger in Vietnam. But Coffin used the occasion gladly to explain to critics the fundamental, unimpeachable Christian principles on which it was based.
And if he could not lead others, Coffin had little interest in an issue. He never heard the call to martyrdom. As he saw it, the biblical prophets were called to name and seek redress for the sinfulness and affliction of their people--not wander in the wilderness: to speak the word of God, to risk censure but not martyrdom.
Moreover, while never abandoning his own Christianity, Coffin preached to Jews as well as gentiles at Yale and elsewhere. Profoundly influenced by the ecumenical spirit of American religious activism in the early 1960s, Coffin lived in an ecumenical world, relied on ecumenical audiences, and worked on political issues in an ecumenical manner. While it shocked some Riverside Church members when Coffin hired a Jew to run the Disarmament Program, he himself gave the question no thought at all. Deeply affected by Heschel (and later by the Rabbi Marshall Meyer), and drawn above all to the Old Testament prophets (and Paul in the New Testament), Coffin preached a more open theology than his Catholic counterparts. His language invited listeners into the world of his belief--it appeared not to pose tests that most mortals would fail.
Jews, by and large, did not respond emotionally to the language of Catholic radicalism, with its emphasis on witness, its monastic flavor, its rituals steeped in blood. A surprising number could respond to the morally charged language of Niebuhrian prophetic Protestant liberalism, perhaps because Niebuhr himself preferred what he called the emotional Hebraic-prophetic roots of Christianity.
Like Martin Luther King Jr., Coffin did not remain fully in the postwar Niebuhrian tragic sensibility. He either followed or paralleled King's turn toward a modern Social Gospel, combining Niebuhr's skepticism about human goodness with Gandhi's insistence on the transforming power of love. Coffin used Niebuhr as critique--of sentimentality, of self-righteousness, of pride--but thought and felt more like King and St. Paul when it came to love. In practice, for Coffin, that meant he preached the glories of a large God whose power he celebrated and praised (as he said over and over, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done"). The gap between this relatively distant God and suffering, sinful humanity could be bridged only by love. That was a version of Christianity to which Catholics and Jews could relate easily; many, Jews in particular, found Coffin's preaching and religious advocacy not only congenial, but also moving and powerful.
Precisely because Coffin could represent his Christianity in such ecumenical terms, he was gradually able to claim the role--previously held by Henry Ward Beecher in the 19th century and Walter Rauschenbusch, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 20th--not only of liberal Protestant preacher, but of liberal preacher to the nation. As such, Coffin was the liberal counterpart to Billy Graham and, from the 1970s on, the true successor to Martin Luther King Jr.