The rancid radicalism of William Sloane Coffin

[Posted 10:48 AM by Roger Kimball]

News that the Rev. William Sloane Coffin died on April 12 at the age of 81 was met, as befits that icon of left-liberal sentimentality and self-righteousness, by an outpouring of liberal piety. Coffin’s heyday was in the 1970s, when from his perch as chaplain at Yale, he helped transform the university into an ideological battleground. Although you won’t hear it from the arbiters of bien pensant opinion, Coffin was almost entirely a malevolent influence, fond of telling his flock such things as "We must recognize that justice is a higher social goal than law and order." Like other gurus of the period such as Herbert Marcuse, he pretended that American society was an oppressive battleground which could only be combatted by "civil disobedience" (the phrase supplied the title for one of Coffin’s books) or even "revolutionary" activity. But as the legal scholar Alexander Bickel noted in 1970 (he was writing about Coffin and his colleagues), "to be a revolutionary in a society like ours, is to be a totalitarian, or not to know what one is doing."

Coffin’s career illustrated one of the most profound effects of the long march of America’s cultural revolution: to institutionalize the assumption of institutional illegitimacy. It was less a matter of cynicism than a rejection of established authority: as if the very fact of being established undermined the legitimacy of an idea or institution.

There are many facets to this phenomenon. One of the most curious concerns the role of certain religious figures who, in the mid-Sixties and early Seventies, brandished the phrase "civil disobedience" as a patent of moral rectitude and a license for lawlessness.

It was sanctioned by the civil rights movement, when various religious leaders participated in marches and demonstrations to end racial segregation. The nobility of that cause imbued the idea of civil disobedience with an aura of supreme moral urgency. Whether, even then, civil disobedience--i.e., illegal though (generally) nonviolent agitation--was justified was a question that could hardly be raised. The rightness of the cause made this question seem impertinent at best. Besides, there was the warm glow of self-satisfaction that attended participation in such activities. Increasingly, "civil disobedience" came to imply, at least to its advocates, obedience to a higher authority--the authority of one’s conscience, first of all, but construed in such a way as to suggest the gratifying thought that the dictates of one’s conscience were indistinguishable from the dictates of justice itself.

Those addicted to the pleasurable feeling of moral superiority found it an irresistible brew. By the time that Vietnam became an issue, civil disobedience had established itself as a prescription for moral intoxication, not to say anesthesia. Sanctioning illegality as an expression of higher virtue, the ethic of civil disobedience promised to transport its partisans to the ranks of a moral elect even as it undermined the authority of the law and its supporting institutions and beliefs. Never mind the contradictions that this situation bred: opportunities for moral megalomania were too precious to squander. Among the many individuals responsible for proselytizing the ethic of civil disobedience as a form of higher virtuousness William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (along with the unspeakable Berrigan brothers) became synonymous with the antinomian uproar of Sixties radicalism.

Wrapping himself in the mantle of a religious authority that, in one way or another, he repudiated by his actions, Coffin made an enormous effort to legitimize the politics of delegitimation. Although they all seem like museum pieces today, in the late Sixties and early Seventies they epitomized one prominent side of America’s cultural revolution. Members of the establishment, they nevertheless embraced a political program dedicated to the destruction of the establishment.

Born in 1924 to a prominent New York WASP family, William Sloane Coffin, Jr., grew up in a privileged world of servants, penthouse apartments, summer houses, and expensive schools. He served in the army in World War II and matriculated at Yale after the war, "shamelessly bypass[ing] the Yale admissions office," he explains in his memoir, Once to Every Man (1977), "accepting the offer of Henri Peyre, the chairman of Yale’s French department, that he accompany me on a visit to Dean De Vane." In the late 1940s, his fluency in Russian caught the notice of the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency. He had agreed to a two-year stint in the CIA when a lecture by Reinhold Niebuhr intervened and he decided instead to enroll in Union Theological Seminary, where he committed himself to "as much of God as I believed in." When the Korean War broke out in the summer of 1950, he left the seminary and joined the CIA, working as an operative in Germany until 1953. Looking back from the late 1970s, Coffin was clearly a bit embarrassed by his earlier, patriotic self. "National security," he comments, "is not a very important consideration in the Bible--not as compared to national righteousness and world security." Perhaps fortunately, he doesn’t attempt to give chapter and verse for that conviction.

In the following years, Coffin completed his education at Yale Divinity School, worked as a chaplain at Andover and Williams College, and, in 1958, returned to Yale as chaplain. By the early 1960s, he was very active in the civil rights movement and was (as he puts it in a chapter title from his memoir) "Moving Toward Civil Disobedience"--toward a species of political activism he later described as "a form of moral jiu-jitsu." Gradually, he emerged as a national figure, lending the appearance of ecclesiastical gravitas to the Movement. And as he gained in prominence, he more and more cast himself in the self-dramatizing role of the man of conscience battling the world’s injustices. "If we are to serve our country with our consciences," he wrote in a lecture delivered in 1972, "we must recognize that what is most important is not what the law requires but what justice demands."

As it turned out, Coffin was seldom in doubt about what justice demanded. When the Vietnam War got going, it demanded that he aid and abet young men in burning their draft cards, that he participate in marches on the Pentagon, and that he travel to Hanoi courtesy of the North Vietnamese government (where he promptly discovered "a very special feeling for the North Vietnamese, a feeling I attributed to the fact that we were friends because we had deliberately refused to become enemies").

In 1970, when Bobby Seale and eight other Black Panthers were on trial for murder in New Haven and it looked for a moment as if New Haven would erupt in a riot, justice demanded that William Sloane Coffin publicly declare in a sermon that the Panthers should go free because their trial was "legally right but morally wrong." Concluding that the situation was "prerevolutionary," he urged the Yale community to engage in nonviolent protests and acts of civil disobedience. "To those who say `what if this were a Klansman on trial and his fellow Klansmen were threatening destruction?’" Coffin wrote, "I can only answer that, while releasing a Klansman would be increasing the power of the oppressor, the releasing of the defendants in this case would mean the sharing of power with the oppressed."

The New York Times, which was a very different sort of paper in 1970 from what it has since become, editorialized that, by delivering this sermon, Coffin had done

his best to guarantee moral confusion among his student followers. Mr. Coffin said that even if Mr. Seale were to be found guilty as charged, the entire nation stands accused of bringing him to the state of mind in which the alleged crime might have been committed. This is a legally and morally wrong and dangerous concept, even when supposedly elevated to the level of theological doctrine.
The truth is that by the early 1970s, Coffin was dazzled by his sense of himself as a representative of what he described in one lecture as "the universal conscience of mankind." Acts of civil disobedience that dramatized the conflict between Coffin’s own morality and the requirements of the law were his preferred means of exhibiting the workings of that conscience.

For Coffin and those who emulated him, it was the work of a moment to distinguish between what was "legally right but morally wrong." But as Morris I. Liebman noted in a debate with Coffin about civil disobedience, "in democratic societies any violation of the law is an uncivil act. This is true notwithstanding the motives of the violator." Indeed, there is a sense, Liebman remarked, in which "civil disobedience" is a misnomer, since its activities, by breaking the law, are by definition uncivil. Like most advocates of civil disobedience, Coffin was quick to cite the example of Henry David Thoreau. But Liebman is right to point out that Thoreau, who was essentially an anarchist, not a democrat, provides an unedifying precedent. Everyone remembers Thoreau’s remark: "That government is best which governs least." It is less often recalled that he went on to say that "`that government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government they will have." As Liebman observed dryly, "the day that men are so prepared will be the day that men are angels."

Similarly, Coffin’s appeal to the "rule of conscience" turns out to be a rule whose content is determined by William Sloane Coffin and his like-minded friends. "The advocates of civil disobedience," Liebman points out, "insist upon license which they would not permit to their opponents. The police, it seems, are to arrest members of the Ku Klux Klan, but not members of the Weathermen. Laws may be violated if, and only if, one is a member of the elite."

Coffin was hardly alone in seeing himself as part of a moral vanguard whose prerogatives included breaking the law when "the rule of conscience" said it was OK. Indeed, this form of self-infatuation was a defining characteristic of the new generation of radicals that populated America’s cultural revolution. For example, the left-wing historian Howard Zinn once blithely informed his readers that civil disobedience should be allowed for programs of "liberal" but not "reactionary" reform. And who was to decide what counted as suitably "liberal"? Why, Mr. Zinn, of course. (The Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse put this extraordinary idea in perhaps its baldest form: "Liberating tolerance," Marcuse wrote, "would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left.")

William Sloane Coffin, acting from his position as a civil rights leader, chaplain of Yale University, and member in good standing of the American WASP aristocracy, did a great deal to legitimize this form of illegitimacy and illegality. His example helped to convince a generation that the law was dispensable when it conflicted with duly ratified liberal sentiments. That these sentiments should seem to be invested with the authority of religion made them all the more appealing to anyone seeking to enhance his sense of moral election. Like many Sixties radicals, Coffin regarded civil disobedience as a form of no-fault political theater. One broke the law in as noisy a way as possible, and then one was hauled off to jail, generally for a token sentence. The willingness to endure jail (which radical activists rarely did for more than a few hours before their lawyers arrived to bail them out) was supposed to legitimize the illegality. But as George Kennan’s noted in "Rebels Without a Program" (1968). "The violation of law is not . . . a privilege that lies offered for sale with a given price tag, like an object in a supermarket, available to anyone who has the price and is willing to pay for it."

Kennan is an especially noteworthy critic in this context because he, too, was deeply opposed to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. But he understood, as the Coffin did not, that in a democracy illegality is not a justifiable brand of political opposition. And he also understood that, even when one disagrees with specific policies, one’s country continues to exercise a legitimate claim on one’s allegiance, a claim that cannot be disposed of in a fit of self-righteous bravado. "It seems to me," Kennan writes,

that the citizen who lives under a system that assures him not only voting rights but extensive guarantees for the inviolability of his person and property, and who accepts the protection of the state in the enjoyment of these rights, owes to the state at least a high measure of respect and forbearance in those instances where he may not find himself in agreement with its policies.
The alternative, as William Sloane Coffin illustrated so graphically, is not a higher morality but the delegitimation of the institutions and attitudes that guarantee freedom. Edmund Burke once observed that
men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. . . . Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free.
Figures like Coffin illustrate one way in which civil liberty can be compromised by exorbitance.

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