In an April 6 public ceremony at neighboring Riverside Church in Manhattan, Hough recommitted the seminary to its long tradition of leadership among America's progressive Protestant churches, sounding themes of piety, ecumenism and the need to battle economic poverty.
"At certain times in its history, Union was arguably the most important Protestant theological seminary in the entire world," Hough said at his formal installation. "Today, it remains a leading theological school, one whose future is important for the future of progressive Christianity and ecumenical Protestantism everywhere."
Founded in 1836 by a group of liberal Presbyterians, Union quickly established itself as an institution that ran counter to Protestant orthodoxy of the day. In the late 1890s, Union formally severed its ties with the Presbyterian Church after the school refused to fire the biblical scholar Charles Briggs under pressure from conservatives angry with Briggs' non-literal interpretation of the Bible.
In the mid-20th century, Union became synonymous with the teaching of two noted liberals, the American ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr and the German theologian Paul Tillich. Union is now known as a center for the teaching of black and feminist theologies, and among its faculty members is the prominent black theologian James Cone.
While Union cherishes its independence from any church or denomination, the school's reputation as a theological gadfly has exacted something of a price: The school has long faced financial difficulties, and it is no secret that Hough came to Union in part because of his reputation as a solid, and enthusiastic, fund-raiser.
In fact, the 65-year-old Hough, a former dean and professor of ethics at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., was making plans to retire from a career as a teacher and seminary administrator when he was courted by Union. Hough reportedly accepted the president's position because he valued Union's historic importance to American Protestantism and its churches.
Hough has actually been president of Union since the start of the current academic year. Hough's immediate predecessors as president were Holland Hendrix, a New Testament scholar, and Donald Shriver, an ethicist. Mary McNamara, a seminary executive vice president, served as interim president in the year prior to Hough's arrival.
In his inaugural address, Hough, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ (UCC), took note of the school's problems, saying Union must "deal forthrightly and creatively with the improvement of its financial condition."
But he also struck a decidedly hopeful tone, saying the school's future will depend on how well it meets the challenges facing progressive Christianity.
These challenges include the need for a new kind of spiritual formation, or what Hough called "the practice of reflective piety," connecting "the best biblical scholarship and historical study" with the practices of prayer and worship of Christian communities.
Hough also called for a "new Christian ecumenism" in which Christians deepen their own religious faith by accepting the possibility of God's revelation in other religious traditions. "The new Christian ecumenism is expressed as confidence that serious and critical consideration of other religious traditions will make us better Christians, better able to understand the incredible diversity in God's move toward the world to redeem it and make us whole."
Hough also said the "central moral problem" facing Christians of the 21st century "must be the economic, political and social injustices that perpetuate poverty."
"Here in the United States alone, the growing disparity between the rich and the poor should evoke moral outrage from those who carry the name of Christian," he said, adding that theological education "should include the kind of instruction that engages students in the study of the problem of poverty as a central element in the practice of piety and the moral problem of our age."
Hough's desire to reaffirm Union's ties with churches was evident in the colorful ceremony that included drummers, dancers and giant puppets and was held at Riverside, an interdenominational and interracial church long known for its social activism. The installation included the participation of representatives of some 70 churches, denominations and educational institutions from New York and elsewhere in the United States.
Among those attending were the Rev.William Sloane Coffin, the former Yale University chaplain and former senior pastor at Riverside Church; the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches; and the Rev. Calvin Butts III, senior pastor of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church.
In welcoming statements, Butts and Campbell noted the continued importance Union has to New York City. "We look to you, Joe, as a neighbor, and to speak out on the inequities in the city," said Campbell.
Hough earned his bachelor of divinity degree from Yale Divinity School and master's and doctoral degrees from Yale University. Prior to working at Vanderbilt, Hough served as faculty member and dean of the Claremont Graduate School in California.