The day the social gospel died

Posted: Apr 20, 2006 12:05 AM

"A long, long time ago I can still remember ..."

That's how Don McLean's No. 1 hit from 1971, "American Pie," begins. The news earlier this month was that William Sloane Coffin Jr., America's most famous liberal minister from the 1960s through the 1980s, had just died at age 81. Obituaries noted that Coffin, recipient of an elite education in New England and Paris, had thought of a career as a concert pianist, but became Yale University chaplain in 1958.

"February made me shiver, With every paper I'd deliver, Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn't take one more step."

New Haven often has miserable winter weather, and the ideological slush within the Yale Daily News building from 1968 through 1971 was often as unpleasant as the freezing rain outside. So I went occasionally to Battell Chapel to hear Coffin's fiery sermons about the Sin of the Vietnam War. But his bad news of American evil was tempered by his good news that we bright students could remake ourselves into righteous beings.

"Did you write the Book of Love, And do you have faith in God above? If the Bible tells you so."

I had no faith in God or the Bible, and probably wouldn't have paid attention if Coffin had given biblical messages. I was impressed when he rode a motorcycle around campus and called himself a "Christian revolutionary." So were others: Gary Trudeau made him a character ("Rev. Sloan") in his Doonesbury comic strip and once enthused about Coffin: "Without him, the very air would have lost its charge. With him, we were changed forever."

"As I watched him on the stage, My hands were clenched in fists of rage ... As the flames climbed high into the night, To light the sacrificial rite, I saw Satan laughing with delight."

Coffin's hip sermons reflected the wisdom of both John Lennon and Vladimir Lenin. He advocated the "social gospel," pointing out accurately that many churches had turned their backs on the poor, but minimizing our desperate need for Christ while emphasizing the overthrow of social classes and traditional institutions. Coffin certainly was not responsible for my embrace of Marxism, but he and others made me feel my rage was righteous and my anger was more than angst.

"In the streets the children screamed, The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed, But not a word was spoken, The church bells all were broken."
Coffin moved on in 1977 to become chief minister at perhaps the leading social gospel church in the country, New York's Riverside. Two years later, he journeyed to Iran to meet with American hostages and then speak of America's "sins" in Iran. In 1987, just before Ronald Reagan's tough stand pushed the Soviet Union to decompose, Coffin left Riverside to head the SANE/Freeze movement's push for the United States to disarm.

"And the three men I admire most, The Father, Son and Holy Ghost, They caught the last train for the coast, The day the music died."

Right after graduating in 1971, I rode a bicycle from Boston to the Pacific Coast. Several years later, I came to admire the Trinity: The gospel message took root in my heart not in Yale's elegant chapel via an articulate minister, but in a plain and small California church where the preacher essentially had one sermon that he repeated every week, "You must be born again" -- through Christ's grace, not our own braininess.

"They were singing, bye-bye, Miss American Pie, Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry, Them good old boys was drinkin' whiskey and rye, Singin' this'll be the day that I die."

On April 12, William Sloane Coffin Jr., retired in Vermont, was -- his daughter said -- "out in the sun. Everybody was talking, and then he was gone."

That's what has happened to the social gospel, as well. A few Coffin epigones talk on in attempt to keep that ol' time religion alive, but evangelicals explain that God changes people one by one, and those people then change society.

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