William Sloane Coffin

A Man for All Seasons

VTR Date: July 19, 1986

Guest: Coffin, William Sloane


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: William Sloane Coffin
VTR: 7/19/86

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. A while back during Liberty Weekend, America’s traditional Fourth of July bash and the Statue of Liberty’s mammoth 100th birthday celebration, I had the honor of organizing and serving as Chairman of Liberty Conference, an effort, as my friend James MacGregor Burns put it so aptly, to add cerebration to celebration. And for me one of the most rewarding things about that cerebration was the opportunity to see and to hear, in action, a number of thoughtful, provocative citizens whose intellects and ideologies were surely in conflict, but each of whom derived thoroughly from one or another traditional mainstream of Native American thought. Now, a wise person clearly could and would pick and choose among them, taking something here, rejecting something there. But all in all, it was thoroughly a thrilling experience; sort of a giant Open Mind in the sky.

And one of its intellectual delights, agree with him or not, was once again seeing, in action, the habitually iconoclastic Senior Minister of the Riverside Church in New York City, Dr. William Sloane Coffin. Known, since his controversial tenure as Yale University’s chaplain, for his always head-right-on-the-chopping-block devotion to any number of causes, call them liberal or radical or off-the-wall, if you will, or simply humane – causes very much in tradition of so many activists, gadfly-like American clergymen, civil rights, world peace, feminism. You name it, William Sloane Coffin has espoused it. Yet, presumably all things change and we change with them. So that I’m particularly intrigued with the very beginning of the insightful research paper that Meg Hanlon, the Open Mind’s most insightful assistant producer, prepared for me today on our guest. And Dr. Coffin, let me just begin by reading this. I haven’t shared it with you, but Meg wrote, “In terms of change and metamorphosis – the angle you indicated you were thinking of taking – Coffin has not become more conservative or less active with age. In the ‘60s, Yale professors were quoted as saying about Coffin, ‘we expect him to mellow.’ He has not mellowed, happily for civil rights in this country. He has been active in virtually every American civil or international rights issue in the second half of the 20th Century. His reason is one he repeats often in his contemporary sermons, “Love never ends.’” Now, does this mean we’re never going to see a change in Coffin?

Coffin: Well, I would hope that I would not grow mellow. You know what follows mellow is rotten, I guess. But I would hope that with the passing years you might see Coffin get more compassionate, few blind sides, a little less dogmatic and intolerant, a few of those things. But if you lower your level of anger at oppression, you lower your level of love for the oppressed. So there’s no way that you can lower your level of anger without it cutting into your capacity for compassion.

Heffner: But everyone quotes Clemenceau and all the others who say that any man who wasn’t a radical when he was young was no good, and any man who was radical as he grew older was a knave or a fool. Not Coffin in this?

Coffin: well, that’s a “bon mot.” But you could argue…no, the senior years are the formative years. The senior years you have less to defend. You can become radical in the original sense of that word “radix,” which, as you know, means ‘roots.’ So you become way down rather than way up.

Heffner: Well, that’s great. But, you know, you said a moment ago there’s some things that you were more benign about now. What were those things you’ve changed on?

Coffin: Well, maybe it isn’t benign. I think I have a deeper sense of the insecurities that prompt people to do some of the things they do. I find that almost anything that’s worthy of censorship on one level is worthy of compassion at a deeper level. I mean, to say some of the mean, vicious things that people say and do; some of the violent things they do, they must be deeply unhappy to do them. There must be terrific insecurities that prompt people to do that.

Heffner: Well, when you’ve said that, so what? How does that change your…your reaction or your action?

Coffin: Well, it keeps your motivation, I think, a little better. Let me put it this way – if you love the good, you have to hate evil or you’re sentimental. But if you hate evil more than you love the good, you’re a damn good hater. And so the more compassion you have for people, the better that takes care of your own hatred. St. Augustine once said a wonderful line – he said ‘imagine the vanity of thinking that your enemy can do you more damage than your enmity.’ Now I take that very seriously. And I think one’s enmity can really blind one and cause a lot of harm. So, well, it’s important to try to purify your anger…(inaudible)targeted.

Heffner: Wait a minute. Targeted?

Coffin: Depersonalized.

Heffner: Why depersonalized? Your target almost invariably is going to be a person.

Coffin: Yeah, but you can, as much as possible…I think you can personalize your sympathies and depersonalize your antipathies. You’re more…you’re wiser and also more effective.

Heffner: All right. Specifically, what would you have done differently…if you were as wise then as you are now?

Coffin: When? In the ‘60s?

Heffner: Pick it, you choose it. ‘40s…during the war, ‘50s, ‘60s, the next war in Vietnam. What would you have done different in your work?

Coffin: Well, I don’t think my views would have been any different. Except that I would have seen earlier the depth of America’s commitment to interventionism and to the arms race and the racism. The evils that I saw back in the ‘60s, I thought could be more easily eradicated. I’m not sure what I would have done differently. I’m not sure.

Heffner: You say ‘interventionism.’ Now a moment ago I gave you carte blanche. You could go back to the ‘40s or the ‘50s. If you’d gone back to the ‘40s, what would you say about interventionism then?

Coffin: No. I was thinking of post-World War II.

Heffner: I understand. But you chose…interestingly chose the word ‘interventionism.’ We were interventionists in the ‘40s. Rightly or wrongly?

Coffin: No, I think we were right to go to war in World War II. When I said ‘interventionism’ I was thinking of unilateral interventionism, and mostly in the internal affairs of small third world countries. Things like the overthrow of the Arbenz government in ’53 in Guatemala, landing of marines in ’58 in Lebanon, the Bay of Pigs in 1960, Vietnam, and all the way up to Granada, and now arming the Contras. I mean, we passed, I think, from isolationism into interventionism without going through internationalism. And the Soviets did the same thing. And that’s a terrible, terrible error. And we’re going to…we’re paying heavily for it.

Heffner: You say the Soviets did the same thing, and yet I had made a note to myself, having read one of your sermons, as to why, why Coffin is sometimes, maybe not just sometimes, outrageous in the way he puts something…almost as if you were waving a flag before all of those bulls before you. You say, here in this sermon ‘Burnout,’ you talk about the role of a prophetic minority. And it’s a touching, I think terribly important sermon. And the bible insists that a prophetic minority always has more to say to a nation than any majority, silent, moral or any other. But then you go down and you talk about the way that makes them angry. And their ideological commitments distort their perceptions and deaden their moral sensibilities. We’ve seen this for years in the Soviet government. You make the point, but you’re quick to go on to say, we’ve seen this for years in the Soviet government. But communism is not the only ideology in the world. In fact, when it comes to sacred symbols, unexamined slogans, and presuppositions, the most powerful ideology in the world may not be Communism but anti-Communism. Couldn’t you have put them at least on a plane? What was the subjective need…necessity for saying we’re worse than they are?

Coffin: I don’t think I said we’re worse than they are, but I say…I do harp much more on the United States than I do on the Soviet Union. If you say it’s evenly balanced between them and always want to present it in an even balanced way, then people say well, it’s nice and evenly balanced.

Heffner: And let it go at that?

Coffin: Yeah. But you see…the Old Testament prophets, who mean a lot to me, they couldn’t care less about what other people are doing and thinking, compared to their concern of Israel. And I think it’s fair to say the Soviet Union has never done anything in our name or with our money. And the United States government has never done anything except in our name and with our money. So putting it that way, our basic responsibility is for ourselves. Now we have a responsibility also not to be naïve about the Soviet Union. Now I don’t think I am naïve. I was three years in the CIA – a liaison for the Russian army. I spoke Russian almost as well as I do English. And I have very little to say for the Soviet government. But my responsibility as a preacher is not to bring the Soviets to task so much as, you know, address the nation – speak truth to American power.

Heffner: But as someone who’s admired you all of those years, I’m enormously aware of the fact that again and again I’m confronted by people, when I talk about Coffin, who say that he always sees the mote in our eye as being so much large than that in anyone else’s. Not a negative?

Coffin: No. First of all I don’t think it’s true. But I h come back to what our primary responsibility is. It’s to deal with ourselves. And the primary comparison is not ourselves compared to the Soviet Union. It’s ourselves as we are compared to ourselves, as we might be if only we cared more. That’s the preacher’s task, you see, to make that kind of comparison.

Heffner: But if we don’t care and you maintain that we don’t enough, how do we come to care?

Coffin: That’s tough because, you know…way back in 1946, I guess it was, when we were the undisputed number one country in the world – there wasn’t even a number two around – our leading playwright was Eugene O’Neil. I think that’s a fair statement. And I remember reading an interview in which O’Neil said, ‘I start from the premise that the United States, instead of being the greatest success, is the greatest failure.’ And he went on to say, ‘Ours is the eternal game of trying to possess your soul by possession of something outside of it.’ He went on and said, ‘The United States is a showcase of that scriptural question, what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?’ Now I was impressed that in 1946 this man could see that his kind of materialism could swamp this country and lead to terrible intellectual and spiritual impoverishment. And it’s hard to get out of it, it’s very hard. I think that economic resources tend to fight spiritual resources. It’s not good to be as rich as rich people generally are. I’m very concerned with the poor. I’m equally concerned with the rich. I don’t think they should be left at the mercy of their riches, any more than the poor should be left at the mercy of their poverty.

Heffner: Well, at Liberty conference, when lee Iococca was leaving and you said to him, ‘Hey, just a minute, how about taking some of that surplus and giving it to the poor?’ I understood what you were saying there. But compassionate as you are, let me just ask you very directly – do you…not the hackneyed question that I’m afraid I do ask at times…are you a pessimist? Are you an optimist? Max Lerner said he was a ‘possibilist’, which is probably the best answer. But what do you see happening in terms of that formulization?

Coffin: Well, that would depend, you see…like…let me go back to the prophets if I may. The prophets, as you know, preached judgment and preached doom, but only up to the point where the people saw what they were saying and decided they would face the challenge rather than wish it wasn’t there. At that point they preached hope. Now, the moment people see how bad it is, then we can be hopeful. And when this city wakes up to the fact that it is obscene to have 60,000 homeless people in the richest city in the richest country in the world, the moment enough New Yorkers wake up to that, we’ll see a different New York. At that point we can become a little bit more optimistic. I suppose I’m kind of an optimist by centuries, but I’m a pessimist by decades.

Heffner: And this is one of the down decades, I gather?

Coffin: Well, it’s outrageous, yeah. I mean, what’s encouraging is the fact that the feminists have a movement that’s alive and well, that there are a lot of people concerned with civil rights, that the churches, according to Elliot Abrams, have done more than any other group to prevent Americans…the American government from implementing its policy in Central America.

Heffner: He didn’t say this approvingly.

Coffin: No, no, he said it disapprovingly. But those are hopeful signs. I mean, when people come alive, when people become sensitive and they conquer callousness, that’s a victory. But it would not be insightful to say that the United States, as a whole, is characterized at this moment by generosity.

Heffner: Yeah. But you say…

Coffin: …And our leaders do not address the generous self in us. President Reagan addresses our fears. He addresses our prejudices. He makes us feel good about our prejudices. That’s a cruel thing, but I think it’s a fair thing to say.

Heffner: Well, but you talk about what we are like now. You comment on Elliot Abrams’ indication that the churches have done more than any other group to put the kibosh on our Latin American policy. And you cheer that.

Coffin: Central American policy?

Heffner: Central American policy. And you cheer that. You feel that’s a good thing. All in all, do you see the same kinds of care and concern that you saw at the time of the Peace Corps, for instance, or anything like that? I mean, I know you want to say things will get better and you can’t constantly be negative and a downer, but just between us…

Coffin: Just between us? Nobody’s listening?

Heffner: Probably not. Probably not. But just between us…

Coffin: (laughter) I’ll tell you, Richard, I really think it’s mixed because in the ‘60s, in the early ‘60s, Roman Catholic bishops were almost blessing the war in Vietnam. Now they’re about to withdraw following the Methodist bishops. I think they’re about to withdraw their church’s blessing from the policy of nuclear deterrents. There’s not a one that approves of…that I know of…that approves of funding the Contras.

Heffner: should I ask how many legions the Pope has? Now even the Pope. How many legions do the bishops have?

Coffin: Not too many.

Heffner: Well, then…

Coffin: But god is never on the side of the big battalions.

Heffner: You’re certain of that?

Coffin: (laughter) …(inaudible)…minority again. N, I’m not one…and you know Elliot Abrams says the churches are the greatest obstacles. I tremble because I know how little power we have. I mean, I wish he said the labor unions. I wish he said the universities. But at least the churches are doing something. Now, the universities, morally speaking, are in very bad shape by and large, if we can make these generalizations. I suppose it’s true that every country’s education reflects that country’s ideology. So that the freedom of speech enjoyed by faculty and students in higher education is vastly exalted over any obligation to do any good to anyone. But speculative prosperity is no answer to moral bankruptcy.

Heffner: Could you…

Coffin: …and I don’t see much coming out of the universities. And this grieves me because I was chaplain at Yale, you know, for almost 18 years, and I love higher education. But it’s basically a cultural icing on an economic cake at this point.

Heffner: A cop out?

Coffin: Yeah. There are individual professors, there are students at every university who care deeply. But by and large, university professors….and I don’t call press accounts every time the president lies. You’d think a little sense of public accountability for truth would lead at least a handful of professors at every university in this country to call a press conference very time President Reagan lies.

Heffner: So you think that it’s up to the religiosos now?

Coffin: Well, yes.

Heffner: And you want to…you’re willing to mix religion and politics? You applaud the Catholic bishops?

Coffin: Yes.

Heffner: And you, yourself, have been no shrinking violet when it comes to religion and politics.

Coffin: It’s funny, you know, how when Latin American bishops were in bed with the Juntas, nobody said, you’re mixing religion and politics. When Billy Graham goes to the White House, as he did with breathtaking regularity, nobody accused him of mixing religion and politics. But when you oppose a government…

Heffner: …No, no wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Talk about others who never said that. Let me say I said it. And I’m asking you now if you have approved and do approve of religion, the mixture of religion and politics?

Coffin: Yes.

Heffner: What are we going to say…what are you going to say about Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the others?

Coffin: The first thing I think that we have…there are a couple of things that need to be said right off the bat. If religion has nothing to say about public life…

Heffner: …It’s pretty poor…

Coffin: …and only tries to inform interpersonal relationships, something like that, it’s very poor, I agree. If it can’t get beyond the garden gate, it’s a monument to irrelevance. So that’s the first thing. So I have no objection to preachers trying to bring biblical, ideological insights to bear on public issues. And the Bible is full of that. I mean, the Bible talks so much more about poverty and war than it does about sex, for instance. So that if you want to be biblical in your preaching you really do have to try to talk about public affairs and Caesar is not beyond criticism if you are a biblical preacher. Now, the other thing that needs to be said, I think, is that Jews and Christians worship a god of such divine incomprehensibility that to say that you know infallibly God’s position, is lacking in real humanity. And I think we all have to search for truth, but God help us when we think we own the truth. And when you start to think of it, seekers of truth can form communities. Owners of truth usually have an almost abysmal hatred for those who don’t own the truth or own some other truth. So, I’m very antifundamentalist – intellectually, theologically, psychologically, in every way. That I think is very important to say. So, you know, we might be wrong. And that’s a risk we all have to take. We have to try and correct each other.

Heffner: This is a theological difference, or a political difference?

Coffin: It’s a theological different. A fundamental theological difference with jerry Falwell who wants to add his own infallibility to the infallibility of Scripture. I mean, if you say you know that Scripture is infallible and then you make yourself the true interpreter of Scripture, you’ve added your own infallibility to it. And I don’t think that’s what God wants. You know, Emily Dickinson said, ‘the unknown is the mind’s greatest need and for it no one things to thank God.’ I think God thinks we should wrestle together for the truth. I don’t think God thinks it’s all handed out at all.

Heffner: Strange to hear you say, ‘I think God thinks this, I think god thinks that.’ You’ve been so political in the best sense of the word, you’ve been so much involved in public affairs that I must admit…though I introduced you as the Senior Minister and you were the chaplain at Yale and you are the Senior Minister at Riverside Church…I thought of you over the years as essentially a political activist. Is that pleasing? Displeasing?

Coffin: Well, I’d like to think if you’re a regular attender…

Heffner: Well, I’m not…

Coffin: at Riverside, which there is no reason why you should be, but if you were, you might think, ‘Well, this guy has some theological dimensions to him. He obviously reads his Bible a lot, he’s always quoting it’, that sort of thing. Now, it’s interesting…I mean, the people I’ve worked most closely with, like Rabbi Abraham Heschel, and now people like Bishop Sullivan, let’s say…of Brooklyn…let’s say, or Don Scriver, President of The Union Theological Seminary, Paul Moor. They’re all deeply religious. But it’s our religion, I think, and our concern for humanity, that forces us to take on some public issues. For instance, if you want to be a good…suppose you were a good Samaritan today…suppose you came across a poor guy lying in the gutter at 102nd Street between First and Second avenue in East Harlem. You’d be enjoined by city ordinance not to touch him because you might do him more harm than good. You should take off your jacket and put it over him so he doesn’t go into shock. Then you should quickly get a 25 cent piece and put it in a phone and call the nearest city hospital to send an ambulance. Right? Now, if it takes the ambulance 40 minutes to get there, and another forty minutes to go back, and the poor guy’s dead by the time he gets there, you’re involved in city politics. How come the guy fell among thieves in the first place? That’s the police. Again, it’s city politics. And if you’re trying to help people on a massive scale, in Ethiopia, that’s government politics, that’s going to get foreign aid there in any significant measure. Or, the housing situation in New York? It is outrageous that President Reagan and Koch, to a large degree, want the churches and synagogues to do in charity what they’re refusing to do as a matter of justice. It’s terrible to let charity take the place of justice.

Heffner: Would you say…would you say that we as people disagree with their points of view? As you described them?

Coffin: From the point of view of President Reagan?

Heffner: Yes.

Coffin: Yeah. I think the American people, to a very large degree, love President Reagan’s persona. They think he looks credible as a president, and they like his cheerfulness, he’s courageous, he’s upbeat – I think they like all that about him – I don’t’ think they’re enamored with his politics. But I don’t’ think they’re separating the persona from the policies, and doing some pretty hard thinking and some very deep feeling about what’s going on.

Heffner: Any reason to feel that way?

Coffin: Why they should do that?

Heffner: No, no. Any reason to feel as you do…to come to this conclusion other than wishful thinking?

Coffin: Well, I read the polls too. The polls don’t…the polls say right now that the majority of the American people don’t want the Contras to be funded. And the Contras are funded. You see, the American people mean well, feebly.

Heffner: What a wonderful phrase, that we ‘mean well, feebly.’

Coffin: (Laughter)

Heffner: In fact, what we’ll have to do, Dr. Coffin, is pick that up at another time, so promise me that you’ll come back to see where and how we ‘mean well, feebly.’

Coffin: I like your program very much. I’m very g you for inviting me.

Heffner: Thanks for coming. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $3.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey, the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney, the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, Mr. Lawrence A. Wein, Pfizer Inc. and The New York Times Company Foundation.