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The New Evangelists
Yale Divinity School and the revival of the Christian left

In 1980, William Sloane Coffin Jr., Yale’s former chaplain, famously debated Moral Majority founder Rev. Jerry Falwell on the premier TV talkfest of the day, the Phil Donahue Show. If any single person embodied the liberal Protestant elite at the time, it was Coffin '49, '56BDiv, the nation’s most prominent religious peace activist. While at Yale he had moved thousands to oppose the Vietnam War; since 1976 he had been senior minister at Riverside Church in New York City, the flagship pulpit of mainline Protestantism and the center of U.S. anti-nuclear activism. But the Donahue debate was not one of Coffin’s better performances. He traded biblical quotations with Falwell, but never took him seriously. The witty, fiery preacher who had packed Battell Chapel every Sunday was tepid and lackluster on television. Falwell creamed him.

I watched the show, embarrassed for Coffin, for my wife (who is a minister), and for Yale. Years later, I asked Coffin about it. It turned out that Donahue had been as appalled as I was. He took Coffin aside during a commercial break and tried to find out what was wrong. Coffin admitted to a certain boredom with the subject. Whereupon Donahue, incredulous that millions of viewers across America weren’t enough to get Coffin to pay attention, demanded furiously: "What the fuck would it take?”

“The liberal church fell into a kind of complacency."

For me, that moment crystallizes the sagging will of mainline Protestantism in the years following the antiwar and civil rights movements—years in which liberal Christian leaders lost direction and energy and somehow missed, overlooked, and underestimated the fact that they were losing the faithful, by the millions, to rival denominations or to nothing at all. Yale Divinity School professor Serene Jones '85MDiv, '91PhD, says, with understatement: “One of the things that happened is that the liberal church did fall into a kind of complacency.”

What about Yale’s role in the post-sixties era? Yale and its Divinity School helped shape mainline Protestantism, and therefore American Protestant culture, for nearly two centuries. How do they figure in American religious life today? What happened when the New Christian Right came to religious and political power? Where have the graduates of Yale Divinity School been, and where are they now, in the recent cultural and religious conflicts?

I spoke with an eclectic mix of YDS graduates and others active in Protestant scholarship or ministry. Some I’ve known for years, some I know by reputation, others I was referred to, and still others I picked almost at random. What I found surprised me. First, though YDS has only recently emerged from its own time of trial, graduates of the school continue to exert a disproportionately powerful influence over mainline Protestant denominations. And these YDS grads, politically liberal as ever, seem undaunted by the rise of the evangelical right. I found leaders and grassroots pastors all over the country who appear to be nurturing the beginnings of a revival of liberal Protestantism—long after many political observers had declared it dead. Along with that goes a new embrace of evangelical fervor on behalf of the Gospel: what Sharon Watkins '84MDiv, head of the Disciples of Christ, calls “a new way of being church.”

For generations, Yale-educated ministers and religiously educated laypeople ran the most influential institutions in American society—institutions at the heart of the American establishment, itself a Protestant construct. These were the people who put the P in WASP: leaders of the largest churches, cultural institutions, elite prep schools, colleges and universities, law firms, banks, and corporations, as well as holders of major political offices.

Fifty years ago, Yale Divinity School was still a theological powerhouse.

This state of affairs remained solidly, not to say complacently, in force through the mid-twentieth century. Fifty years ago, Yale Divinity School was still a theological powerhouse, not only educating the next generation of church leaders and academics but also providing the intellectual underpinnings of what some call the “anti-Establishment.” Coffin and theologian Harvey Cox '55BD were eminences of the antiwar and civil rights movements.

But then mainline Protestantism entered a long, slow decline. In 1965, membership peaked for most mainline denominations. (The mainline includes the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, Lutherans, Methodists, American Baptists, and Christian Church, also known as the Disciples of Christ.) Between 1965 and 1990, the Episcopalians lost more than a quarter of their members—almost a million souls. The Presbyterians lost 1.4 million members, fully a third. The United Church of Christ (UCC) lost 23 percent, the Disciples 46 percent. Even the Methodists, the largest mainline denomination then and now, lost nearly 20 percent, or more than 2 million people.

With the decline in numbers came diminished status. William McKinney, president of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, says mainline Protestant churches lost their collective standing as the “magisterium." It wasn’t obvious to them while it was happening, he adds: “If you’re the magisterium, it’s hard to see outside.”

YDS experienced its own downturn. Until the early 1990s, the school had no admissions director and no recruitment strategy—except, in the words of Harry Attridge, longtime professor and current dean, an attitude of “We're Yale, let them come.” This “smugness”—Attridge’s word—led to plummeting selectivity: large numbers came, but in some years YDS accepted more than three-quarters of applicants in order to fill classrooms. University administrators thought the school was adrift, unsure of its mission. They ordered a full-scale internal reassessment. There was, Attridge has said, “a lot of doubt about whether the Divinity School had a future.”

"Mainline Protestantism’s capacity for denial was enormous.”

And then there were the buildings. Years of deferred maintenance took their dreary toll on Sterling Divinity Quadrangle. By the mid 1990s, rotting wood, weakened roofs, and peeling paint offered a visible metaphor for the state of mainline Protestantism. According to a 1996 article in this magazine, many worried that the Marquand Chapel steeple might actually fall down.

Deferred maintenance is the strategy institutions adopt when they don’t know how to fix problems that seem too large, and put their trust in a vague future that will somehow be better. Throughout the mainline Protestant world, leaders waited for their numbers to rebound—in vain. It took them a long time to act. “Mainline Protestantism’s capacity for denial was enormous,” says McKinney. “It has been very hard for liberal Protestants to get over the fact that we don’t run things any more.” Moreover, he adds, “some of the activism of the 1960s had an establishmentarian quality to it: self-righteousness and an arrogance” that didn’t lend itself to asking if they could be doing something different.

Was YDS paying attention to the mainline decline and the conservative upheaval? Outgoing university chaplain Frederick J. “Jerry” Streets '75MDiv thinks not. The school had “not chosen to position itself to be in the debate,” he told me. Instead, Yale “sat out the culture wars and has been a victim of its own class stratification; it’s seen the evangelical movement as a poor people’s movement. Its refusal to engage [was] a function of perception of class, as well as of ignoring William James”—who celebrated “the varieties of religious experience” in his 1902 book of that name.

“When I was in divinity school,” recalls Lillian Daniel '93MDiv, senior pastor of the thousand-member First Congregational Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, “there was this whole huge publishing, Internet, parachurch movement, all going on all around us; at Yale it was as if it didn’t exist.”

Krista Tippett '94MDiv, host of Public Radio International’s program Speaking of Faith, adds “I’m sure if it was talked about, it was dismissively.” The “religious elites,” she muses, “didn’t take populist religion seriously enough.” Even Attridge thinks that “maybe we weren’t doing our job as well as we could have.”

I couldn’t find the despair I thought would be rampant among mainline clergy.

Yet I couldn’t find, in my interviews, the despair I thought would be rampant among mainline clergy presiding over the era of their own decline. What I found instead persuaded me to rethink my notions about Jim Wallis, author of God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. Wallis is the best-known liberal evangelical Christian today, but I used to consider him a lonely anomaly. Now I’m not so sure.

Jill and Rick Edens, both '78MDiv, are co-pastors of the United Church of Chapel Hill in North Carolina. When they arrived in 1979, the church had a membership of 170 and an average of 80 people in worship; today, it has a membership of 800, with 400 to 500 in worship weekly. I asked Jill Edens why I wasn’t hearing, in my interviews with YDS alumni, the grief that ought to attend the funeral of such a large and influential institution as mainline Protestantism. She took issue with me on two counts. “As a Christian,” she observed, “my answer would be, 'Look how nicely they treated Jesus.' Christian faith doesn’t tell you that because you do well, you’ll be treated nicely or win politically.”

And on the other hand, she said, “I would argue that the worm has turned.” Looking at the most recent national gatherings of the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians, Edens saw victories: for moderation in the former, which sent the hot-button issue of ordaining gay ministers back to local presbyteries; and for openness in the latter, where the church not only refused to “buckle" on its installation of Gene Robinson as an openly gay bishop in 2003, but also elected its first woman denominational head. “And in my own little neck of the woods,” the relatively conservative Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ, an association of churches in western North Carolina resoundingly rejected the conservative path. In fall 2005, a “hard-right evangelical group" came within three votes of taking over the association. The group then organized all winter and spring to unseat the conference minister, an African American, who nevertheless won re-election overwhelmingly.

The day after John Chane blessed Ronald Reagan’s casket, he performed a same-sex blessing.

In Arizona this year, Brenda Stiers '83MDiv, formerly adjunct faculty at YDS, helped organize CrossWalk America, a walk from Phoenix to Washington, D.C., on behalf of a manifesto of progressive Christianity known as the “Phoenix Affirmations.” As she sought ministers around the country who could host the walkers, hold rallies, and help broadcast their message, she found that YDS graduates “jumped on board immediately without any reservation. Wherever I was talking to people, they were in the middle of efforts to enliven progressive Christianity.”

Or consider John Thomas '75MDiv, UCC President and General Minister since 1999, whose church started the “God is still speaking” initiative, a successful identity and membership (read: modern evangelism) campaign based on the principles of radical inclusion and “extravagant welcome.” Or John Chane '72MDiv, Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., who, on the day after blessing President Ronald Reagan’s casket at the National Cathedral in 2004, performed a same-sex blessing for a local priest and his partner of 12 years.

YDS dean Attridge sees a changing climate in liberal Protestantism, “a different face of a liberal evangelical Christianity. I tend to be an optimistic type,” he admits, but he thinks there’s “something of a revival going on. Certainly there’s a lot of ferment at the grassroots levels.”

Many YDS graduates say that, if YDS failed to notice the culture wars, it nevertheless gave them many of the tools they needed for engagement. John Thomas says the school conferred “sufficient resilience to avoid simply succumbing to the prevailing winds, and to remain to some extent a faithful voice for progressive religion that needs to be present and heard.” He and others speak of the school’s call to public ministry: “Part of the culture of Yale and particularly the Divinity School is that training in theology, training in preparation for ministry, are ultimately preparation for public life.”

A call to public life is something Yale students pick up in the university culture.

In fact, three of the top ten mainline Protestant denominations are currently headed by YDS graduates. In addition to Thomas, they are Clifton Kirkpatrick '62MDiv, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and Sharon Watkins '84MDiv, President and General Minister of the Disciples. In all, the three represent more than 5 million souls, roughly 20 percent of all mainline Protestants in the country. Add to the list of leaders a half-dozen Episcopal bishops, including John Chane; senior administrators of numerous colleges and seminaries; and professors everywhere. This trend should continue, says Attridge: “We have a lot of people in the pipeline coming up in various denominations who will emerge into positions of leadership in the next decade or so.”

A call to public life is something Yale students pick up in the university culture, and it turns out that this set of expectations crosses school and age and disciplinary boundaries. Undergraduate, graduate, professional—I don’t think it matters. It’s an expectation of leadership: that the world is wide, and big, and Yalies have helped run it for a very long time, and they’re expected to keep running it. Ordained or not, therefore, the mostly liberal YDS alumni have taken up theological arms in the culture wars.

Almost without exception, the graduates I talked with said they “loved" their time at YDS—even those who attended in the years when, in Yale’s view, the school had lost its way. No one even mentioned the deteriorating buildings, the peeling paint. Graduates spoke of intellectual rigor and stimulation, of a passionately dedicated Christian community, of a place both spiritually centered and unafraid of ideas. One minister said her fantasy of winning the lottery is going back to Yale.

Again and again, they said YDS had nurtured their religious fervor. Louise Higginbotham '83MDiv, now retired, was senior minister at New Haven's UCC Church on the Green for 14 years. “YDS trained me to take back religious language,” she says. “In 1993 I preached a sermon, for this very liberal congregation, called ‘The J-word’”—that is, Jesus. “I have responded to the radical right by trying to reclaim that which I believe is ours as well.”

“Yale was unashamedly Christian,” agrees Jill Edens. Clifton Kirkpatrick, head of the Presbyterians, says YDS’s forthright and ecumenical approach transformed his life: it “opened up the broader Christian community and gave me a liberating sense of the power of the gospel, both in the personal lives of people but also to transform the world.”

"Americans like liberalism but they don’t like liberal religion.”

Nearly everyone has a theory about what caused the mainline decline; it’s the $64,000 question in the sociology of modern Protestantism. One theory emphasizes the mainline’s discomfort with emotion in worship, a focus on social issues, and consequent neglect of personal faith. McKinney, of the Pacific School of Religion, cites sociologist Robert Booth Fowler in arguing that however much Americans may like liberalism, they find it “too cerebral” and “spiritually unsatisfying.” (Anyone recognize a couple of recent Yale-educated Democratic presidential candidates?) “Americans like liberalism but they don’t like liberal religion,” he says. “They want it hot, passionate; they want to feel it.”

“For a long time among the Disciples,” says Watkins, “we’ve been afraid to be too emotional, too charismatic, too evangelistic, even too prayerful, for fear of being confused with aggressively evangelical people.” Today, “we're becoming more willing not only to witness to our experience of a living God in our lives personally, but also to invite others into that same experience, to reach out with evidence of an abundant living God.” Five years ago, the Disciples set a 20-year goal of growing the denomination by 1,000 churches. They have already added 400 new churches since then, almost half of the total target.

At YDS, Watkins found preparation for her current mission in a “very nearly unique” interweaving of academia and church. Many other graduates agreed. They said that whereas some divinity schools seem to hone the intellect at the expense of faith (Harvard and Chicago came up often), Yale was committed to both. Jill Edens recalls, “My Old Testament professor, Brevard Childs, always prayed before his lectures—standing room only—that God would be present in the teaching. This in some ways was my clearest image of what a Yale faculty member was, bringing the best scholarship through a faithful heart.”

YDS, too, is regrouping. After the “navel-gazing in the late eighties and early nineties, with a lot of focus on internal issues,” says Attridge, the school emerged with a new affirmation “to engage in major ways in the life of the churches.” As evidence, he offers the new Center for Faith and Culture, which works with Christians inside and outside academia to help people practice their faith in all spheres of life. Another new program, on pastoral excellence, is charged with helping ministers to model, teach, and preach their faith “as a life-integrating and life-transforming reality.”

The admission rate is now a far more selective 50 percent.

The building program is complete, the steeple is in sound shape, and the admission rate is now a far more selective 50 percent. As for the school's mission, the official version is recorded on its website: “To foster the knowledge and love of God through critical engagement with the traditions of the Christian churches in the context of the contemporary world.” Attridge expresses what that mission entails: “To be preaching the gospel: God sent his only son because he wanted the world to be redeemed, and we need to be instruments of that reconciliation.”

Are evangelical stirrings among mainline Protestant leaders and pastors, many of them trained at YDS, perhaps resurrecting a spirit not widely felt since the 1960s? I don’t know whether I’m describing a full-blown trend. (As a historian, I can only predict parts of the future.) What I do know is that Yale Divinity School graduates are going to be in the thick of what comes next.

Let a North Carolina pastor have the last word, interpreting the past for the present. “When I heard Coffin speak,” Jill Edens says, “my description was, this is a liberal revival preacher. And that’s what I learned to do at Yale. To preach the gospel with all my guts and intelligence, with that passionate commitment, using every intellectual tool that I could find—no holds barred. That, to me, was Yale.”  the end




A YDS sampler

YDS graduates are a potent force in American life, Christianity, and Protestantism. They include the heads of the Presbyterians, the Disciples, and UCC; the host of Public Radio International’s Speaking of Faith, heard weekly by 500,000 Americans; and a half-dozen Episcopal bishops. A sampling of other church leaders:

Cally Rogers-Witte '69MAR runs the “Wider Church Ministries” global arm of the United Church of Christ and sits on the church’s five-member Collegium.

James Lewis '72MDiv directs the Louisville Institute, one of the country’s premier institutions promoting the study and support of American Christianity, pastors, and congregations.

Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor '76MDiv, author of eleven books, holds the Harry R. Butman Chair in Religion and Philosophy at Piedmont College in Georgia. Newsweek called her one of the dozen most effective preachers in the English language.

Angelique Walker-Smith '83MDiv, one of the youngest people ever elected to serve on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, is the executive director of the Church Federation of Greater Indianapolis.

Tim Ahrens '85MDiv, senior minister of the First Congregational Church, UCC, in Columbus, Ohio, founded We Believe: Ohio, 300 Christian, Muslim, and Jewish clergy across the state committed to “uniting diverse religious voices to achieve social justice.”

Peter Laarman '93MDiv is the executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, a growing group of progressive mainline churches in Southern California.

Verity Jones '89, '95MDiv, Serene Jones’s sister, is editor and publisher of the Disciples' monthly magazine.

Otis Moss III '95MDiv has just taken up the position of pastor of the 8,000-member African American Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, the largest church in the denomination.




Program host, Public Radio International

“I had a lot of questions in me about meaning and purpose. I visited Harvard, an intellectually sound place, but what I liked about Yale is that it had kept a spiritual center, that it was possible to be a religious and spiritual person while getting a great academic education.

“I am astonished at how much I use of what I learned at YDS. The discipline of thinking theologically serves me wonderfully when I speak with Muslims and folks in nontheistic traditions—Buddhists and Hindus. It provided me a rich framework for having these kind of open-ended religious conversations.”




Pastor, United Church of Christ

“When I graduated I was confronted with hemorrhaging membership numbers. I was associate minister in a suburban church. They were saying, 'How do we grow?' And I had no idea. We never covered that in divinity school. 'How do we attract the kids? Oh, I missed that day. I can tell you about Saint Augustine. I had no idea you would want to grow the church.' It was a huge disservice.

“I liken Yale Divinity School to a liberal arts education. You don’t cover the professional and technical skills; the idea is that you will be grounded in the tradition and in learning and reading critically, and the other stuff you’ll pick up on the job. The problem with that model, where it breaks down, is that the mainline church is in crisis. There aren’t that many healthy, vibrant ministers and congregations to teach you.”




President, United Church of Christ

“The ultimate goal of Yale for me was to prepare me to be a parish theologian and to be a public theologian, and to engage the theological and biblical traditions in the midst of the moral challenges of the day. Now, that also meant recognizing that many of us would be living that out in a parish setting, but it was recognition that the parish needed to be engaged in the world, and not just managing an institution. There was always this sense of preparation for ministry, and preparation for ministry as a public and pastoral theologian. That for me carries on a long tradition of Yale: never to train managers for religious institutions, but to train leaders for public ministry.”




The rest of the story

Not all YDS alumni are evangelizing, or liberal, or even ministers. YDS has career information for 5,000 of the 7,000-plus alumni; of those, 2,200 are ministers, some 1,000 teachers and academics. The rest are distributed in dozens of categories, including 150 administrators, 80 counselors, and a few actors, lobbyists, and interior designers.

Yale has no statistics on alumni political affiliation, but most YDS alumni are believed to be politically liberal. Of course, some prefer to keep politics out of religion. Gregory A. Boyd '82MDiv, evangelical pastor of a 4,000-member church in Minnesota, was profiled in the New York Times in July for his stance against activism in the church.

And there are some conservatives. Canon Mary Maggard Hays '83MDiv—who stresses that her conservatism is theological, not social or political—is a member of the leadership team of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. As coordinator of congregational development and the training and placement of clergy throughout the diocese, she has a powerful impact on the grassroots. The diocese has been a robust force for Episcopalian conservatism: in 2003 it voted overwhelmingly to reject the consecration of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. “There’s a sense that the Episcopal Church has left the teaching of the [Anglican] Communion,” Hays said at the time. “How can I not be grief-stricken?”

“People who are theologically conservative understand scripture in a daily, formative kind of way,” she told the Yale Alumni Magazine. “I certainly think that God continues to work in new and fresh ways. But certain things stay the same.”


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