William Sloane Coffin is the ghost of Christian Liberalism Past. Chaplain of Yale University during the Vietnam years, then senior minister of Riverside Church in New York City, he stands for engagement in the world. Like liberal Protestant leaders since the early 19th century, he brings the Christian voice to the public table in a genial, reformist, and nonproselytizing way. In this slight collection of college talks, Coffin comes out foursquare for love, multiculturalism, and helping the poor, and against national selfrighteousness, homophobia, and war. There’s not much help here for those looking to sort out the moral conundrums of our time. The discussion of war raises hope that he will wrestle with the challenge of dealing with Iraqis, Serbs, and other contemporary aggressors, but Coffin, president emeritus of the nuclear freeze campaign, smoothly veers off onto the comfortable terrain of anti-nuclearism.
No less self-assured is the ghost of Christian Liberalism Present—John Shelby Spong, the just-retired évêque terrible of the Episcopal Church, Diocese of Newark. Spong has made himself notorious by using academic biblical criticism to assail traditional Christian orthodoxy. Along the way, he has championed a liberal ecclesiastical agenda, beginning with issues of race, poverty, and anti-Semitism, and on through women’s ordination and the ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians. He long ago acquired the habit of writing books; this is his 17th.
Unlike Coffin, Spong has devoted himself to fighting the good fight within his church. Here I Stand gives an inside account of various political struggles in Spong’s early parishes, his diocese, and the Episcopal House of Bishops; he does not hesitate to blast his reactionary opponents and scold his pusillanimous allies by name. There is material here for a latter-day Trollope, but Spong possesses neither the literary gift nor the sense of humor to pull it off. St. Peter may read him a lesson on humility before letting him through the Pearly Gates.
Spong’s war for the soul of Episcopalianism may strike some as too churchly by half, but he has a sharp footnote for ecclesiastics who would devote themselves to issuing pious public pronouncements on issues such as Third World debt: "Church leaders possess little political or economic power to bear on this subject. So talk is cheap, costing the leaders nothing."
Which brings us to Jim Wallis, the ghost of Christian Liberalism Future—maybe. Wallis is Exhibit A in the small display cabinet of contemporary liberal evangelicals. Preacher, activist, editor of Sojourners magazine, he lives and works in a poor neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and for years has labored to spread the word of religiously motivated social action for the poor.
His time may be now, and he knows it. Thanks to the "charitable choice" provision of the 1996 welfare reform act—which encourages government funding of religious organizations providing services to welfare recipients— politicians and policy mavens have become enamored of "faith-based" approaches to the nation’s social problems. And with this timely though preachy book, Wallis is johnny-on-thespot.
He makes clear that he opposed the welfare reform act and worries that taking Caesar’s coin will rob faith-based social service providers of their prophetic voices. He does not claim to have all the answers. But you can feel his excitement at the prospect of assembling a coalition of hands-on social activists that bridges the divide between the liberal and evangelical churches.
Whether this signals a new Protestant Left is very much an open question. The answer will depend on the willingness of liberal church leaders to rethink their views on the separation of church and state, of conservative church leaders to rethink their views on the evils of government, and of people in the pews to rethink their commitment to the gospel of wealth.