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Letter to a Biographer

(of Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr.)


Dear Dr. G:

I have read your biography of Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., A Holy Impatience, and found it both interesting and accurate with respect to memories that I have of the Yale chaplain.  I was an undergraduate student at Yale between 1958 and 1961, and then, after a two-year break, between 1963 and 1964. Coffin made a great impression on me, both positively and negatively, as he did upon other students of that era. I had the honor of having a letter printed in the Yale Alumni Magazine upon the occasion of Coffin’s death.

Let me congratulate you on picking this particular subject.  Most books of history seem to be about the Civil War, World War II, or the founding fathers.  Coffin’s religious career touches upon other important themes in American history which might be forgotten if not for your book. I have thoughts and opinions which may differ from yours, and hope that you will not mind my sharing them with you.

First, let me say that I grew up in Detroit, where my father was a manager at American Motors Corporation.  I felt alienated from the prevailing culture at Yale including that which Rev. Coffin represented.  It was a social alienation involving an East Coast WASP culture which was in the process of being infused with values of the Jewish and Christian communities in regards to Civil Rights and other matters.  

Strangely, I was drawn into activities of Christian fundamentalists whose organization, the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, had been stimulated by Billy Graham’s visit to the Yale campus before I enrolled there.  This religious experience was morally and intellectually stimulating.  Subsequently, I have fallen away from the Christian religion.  I have spent the last 43 years of my life in Minnesota, belonging to several Christian and non-Christian denominations though having a mostly secular orientation.

Let me begin with a rather cynical observation.  I believe that colleges and universities, especially Yale and the other Ivy League colleges, as well as elite prep schools, are essentially social-climbing organizations.  Successful persons from around the country send their children to such colleges both to consolidate their own social rank and to give the child entree to a higher class.  

This puts a burden on students at such colleges:  They are there because they are considered to be better than other students.  To a certain extent, they must justify that position.  I, who had sacrificed freedom as a boy to study hard and get good grades so I could be admitted to a good college, felt deprived of certain life experiences that would make me strong as a person.  It would have been a luxury to me to be equal to everyone else and, if social climbing were my aim, to work my way up the ladder in a career.  I found that the system does not work that way.

Many students, I’m sure, have felt a similar discomfort, as have the college administrators.  In response, the Ivy League colleges have presented themselves as trainers of a “meritocracy”.  They have pretended that parental connections did not matter.  The college admissions officers, starting in the 1960s, began aggressively to recruit students from disadvantaged classes, especially from racial minorities. The idea was that the bright students would come from such strata and the children of alumni were intellectual mediocrities who had been admitted to elite colleges because of family connections rather than merit.

In the long run, such a policy undercuts the rationale of college as an institution.  If ambitious individuals are pushing their children to attend elite schools for the sake of social advancement yet the colleges themselves are recruiting students from the lower classes, it might not take too long before people found out about this and abandoned the institution that betrayed their interests.  And so we have a tension between the Yale alumni and the college bureaucracy, the one having a frankly selfish motivation and the other pretending to embrace nobler aims.

Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. stood in the middle of that conflict.  He was the type of Christian minister who saw a higher calling in “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.”  The “comfortable” were, of course, Yale students.  By and large, they came from prosperous middle class families.  Their youth had been spent in well-furnished classrooms rather than in alleys or streets. And now Rev. Coffin in the name of religion was making such persons wear a moral “horsehair shirt”.  He was making them uncomfortable because of how they were raised.  He was cutting them down to size while praising downtrodden blacks who were integrating southern lunch counters.

I doubt that Jesus, who personally associated with publicans and tax collectors, would have raised that type of argument.  But it did appeal to many Yale students who felt a certain emptiness in their lives.  The ideas of “afflicting the comfortable” and personal sacrifice had long been themes of suburban churches in preparation for their annual giving.  And because personal discomfort often leads to soul searching and thoughtfulness, it fit in nicely with the challenge of the college experience.  So Coffin’s message was accepted without much argument.

One particular encounter had consequences.  As you wrote in the book, Rev. Coffin told George W. Bush:  “I knew your father and he lost (the 1964 election for U.S. Senate) to a better man.”  When I first read that quotation in the newspaper, I immediately recognized the situation.  Coffins’ remark showed disrespect for the Bushes.  He had obviously sized them up as intellectual and moral lightweights who had been admitted to Yale because of family connections.  Coffin was putting himself in a position of moral superiority.
That incident made me sympathetic to George W. Bush as a presidential candidate in 2000. I no longer feel that way since, after eight years of his administration, I can see that President Bush has done the country great harm. And, to the extent that Rev. Coffin drove the youthful Bush toward bitter conservative views that shaped his presidency, he must bear part of the blame.

Now I must get into more sensitive areas.  William Sloane Coffin made a name for himself as a Freedom Rider in May 1961.  He was a supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King and of the Civil Rights movement.  Coffin was also a supporter of causes dear to the Jewish community.  He supported increased immigration into the United States by Russian Jews.  He stressed the Jewish rather than Greek elements in Christianity.  He married the daughter of a prominent Jewish musician.  All this took place in the context of increased Jewish enrollment at Yale and other elite colleges.  At a time when “WASP” - white Anglo-Saxon Protestant - was a term of derision among Jews and other groups, Rev. Coffin, himself a WASP, was advancing the ideals of Jewish chic.

There is a certain mythology about this process which I do not accept.  The prevailing view is that Jews were a “meritorious” - i.e., intellectually talented - group which had been denied access to elite colleges because of religious discrimination.  Then, in the 1960s, enlightened administrators removed those barriers.  Jewish enrollment at Yale soared from 481 in 1962 to 906 in 1968 - and then to between one quarter and one third of the student body which you call a “natural level”.  

No doubt, there was anti-Jewish prejudice in the early part of the 20th century.  There was a WASP establishment in America that tried to perpetuate itself by college-admissions and other policies.  There was also, however, strong pressure from the Jewish community to break down those barriers.  This was done for reasons of group selfishness, not to promote disinterested ideals.  But because Coffin, with his impeccably WASP background, was leading the charge (along with Rabbi Richard Israel) to increase Jewish enrollment, the issue could be presented as a moral rather than political one.

A similar situation is found in the Civil Rights movement.  People today believe that black people themselves were responsible for the movement and its success.  Much of what was accomplished then was due to the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..  Certainly southern blacks played a leading role in the movement; but theirs was not an exclusive role.  Without white allies such as Rev. Coffin, Walter Reuther, and others, the movement might not have gone as far as it did.  Without (anti-Catholic) prejudice becoming an issue in the 1960 presidential election, the later black Civil Rights movement might not have succeeded.  The irony is that, although Rev. Coffin made a crucial contribution to the Civil Rights cause, historians (except for you) have generally turned their back on him and other white contributors to further the myth of black self-empowerment.  

The Jewish community has rightly been credited with helping black Americans to end segregation in the south.  Certainly there was much political cooperation between Jews and blacks during that time.  In hindsight, the Jewish contribution to the Civil Rights movement has been described in terms of altruism or of contemporary expression of ancient religious ideals.  While I would not want to speculate about what is in someone’s else mind, I do suspect that there was a degree of selfishness in Jewish support for blacks struggling against the segregationist system. 

In both cases, the “enemy” was the non-Jewish white or “WASP” order.  Jews were pushing to be admitted to elite colleges, country clubs, and the like, while blacks were pushing to be admitted to “white only” schools, lunch counters, rest rooms, or sections of the bus.  “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” might describe this type of relationship.  When a black athlete, Jesse Owens, frustrated Hitler’s white-racist ambitions at the 1936 Olympic games, Jews naturally cheered.

I am neither black, nor Jewish, nor a WASP, to the degree that Rev. Coffin was, but part of a less sharply defined white population.  Now, almost a half century after my college years, I can see that those political struggles, while celebrated in our nation’s historical mythology, planted the seeds of much trouble to come. 

In the late 1960s, black “protesters” set fire to sections of several large cities. We had, as you reported, violence or the threat of violence in Yale’s 1970 May Day demonstrations.  There have been broken families and continuing crime, combined with a welfare-based economy, in our urban ghettos which, if the subject is discussed, is usually attributed to “white racism” rather than to the population directly involved.  Race relations have not improved that much despite strenuous exhortations from our political, religious, and business leaders.  The “race card” continues to be played one way or another by the nation’s two main political parties.

The Jewish-black special relationship quickly turned sour when black crime affected Jews living in Brooklyn and the Jewish Defense League was established. Attitudes that might have been described as “racist” if exhibited in the American south were injected into Israeli politics when Meir Kahane moved to Israel.  The U.S. Jewish community, which had been politically liberal prior to the 1960s, developed a new conservative or “neo-con” wing that was focused on the interests of Israel.  This has resulted in annual expenditures of $2 to $3 billion in military aid to the Jewish state, and slightly lesser amounts to Egypt and other Middle Eastern allies.  Thanks in large part to the neo-cons, we invaded Iraq and found ourselves in a protracted war that will cost trillions of taxpayer dollars and thousands of American lives; and now there is pressure to bomb Iran.  What a nightmare!

Since the 1960s, free speech and free thought are not valued as they once were.  Those who agitated for Civil Rights and other causes in which Rev. Coffin believed have become today’s journalists and academics, persons less interested in expressing two sides of an issue than in maintaining a politically orthodox line in subjects able to be discussed.  The new mode of discussion is to demonize and silence one’s opponent instead of overcoming his position with superior arguments.  Objectivity is considered an anachronism.

That was not Rev. Coffin’s way, of course, but it has become the preferred approach of many who currently espouse the liberal-left point of view.  In today’s political environment, we have laws criminalizing “hate speech”.  We have hair-trigger reactions to any hint of negative black group behavior or a less than completely reverential reference to the Holocaust in which the speakers of politically unacceptable thoughts are forced to apologize. 

This is what America has lately become - a land of repressed speech.  In an age of corporatized media, individuals are unable to contribute meaningfully to political discussion as William Sloane Coffin and others did in their day. The repetitive messages and images of commercial television may mesmerize us to the point that we are incapable of reasoned discussion. 

So it may be that, whether or not one agreed with his politics, Rev. Coffin exemplified the ideals of a golden age.  At least, he carried on real discussions.  He put himself on the line without equivocation, without malice, in defense of what he believed. 

Having experienced myself his dynamic personality, I regard William Sloane Coffin as one of the great men of my era.  Thank you for writing an excellent biography of him.

William McGaughey


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