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.
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