When observing religion in the public sphere during the past century, several characters reappear more often than others. A survey of The New York Times from the early '60s to the late '70s would turn up a scattershot of references to a son of New England elite turned radical preacher, William Sloane Coffin Jr. His name would appear in articles on several of the century's more controversial issues: civil rights, the Vietnam War, and nuclear proliferation, to name a few.

On May 6, Protestants for the Common Good--an Illinois organization committed to political action as an act of Christian witness--hosted a tribute to honor Coffin during his 75th year. What was striking about the event, especially for those interested in public religion as covered by the press, is the way the actors had come to know one another behind the scenes. Take only those individuals that delivered tributes at the event. John Maguire, president emeritus of Claremont Graduate University and the tribute's emcee, was Coffin's schoolmate at Yale Divinity School before being arrested with him in 1961 as a freedom rider in Montgomery, Ala. Maguire began the evening by remarking, "A couple of years ago, I did a primitive matrix that added up the number of years that Bill [Coffin], Marian [Wright Edelman], and Andrew [Young] and I had known each other.... Add the respective friendships with Joe Hough, Cora Weiss, and Arthur Miller, and the number is over 700 years, a rich mosaic of friendship from which to mine this evening's tribute to Bill."

Since "Six Degrees of Separation," few are surprised at the lines of personal connection that can be drawn between people. However, it still gives one pause to name in one breath the founder of the Children's Defense Fund, a former ambassador to the United Nations, a seminary president, a recent Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and a world-renowned playwright, respectively. And these connections are more than trivial, they are consequential. Arthur Miller recalled a time when Coffin arrived at his home for a weekend and stayed for six months. After having written a book, delivered numerous piano recitals, and wandered about reciting verse and prose in four languages, Coffin finally returned to his own home. Miller remarked, "You have somebody like Coffin walking around in your place for six months and you come out of it with either an ego strengthened by defense, or none at all."

What is often forgotten in the press are the intimate connections between the variety of players on the religion scene. Many columnists do not have the time or the space to elaborate the personal relationships that one newsmaker may hold with others. And it is often left to the historians and biographers to enlighten us about these attachments long after the fact. However, as this evening demonstrated, the activist life of someone like William Sloane Coffin Jr. can bind together those in seemingly diverse vocations, forming a web with the tensile strength to carry cultural change.

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