Today I wrap up a month in residence at Union Theological Seminary in New York City (UTS), at a research symposium sponsored by CrossCurrents magazine. Part of my experience has been of construction workers building scaffolding directly outside my window. This is linked to an evident need for upgrades and rehabilitation of the UTS physical plant.
I am well aware that this need is not a new problem, since I wrote a book about a journal of religious and political commentary (Christianity and Crisis magazine) that was something like a media outreach arm of UTS from 1941 to 1993. Before the mid-1960s Union had solid material support—and by extension a fine physical space—as well as considerable cultural capital evidenced in things like its leaders routinely being quoted in the New York Times or invited to high-level conclaves in Washington. But this only lasted as long as they were part of in the general sociopolitical formation of New Deal Democrats from FDR through LBJ.
When this cohort of liberal social thinkers and activists broke with LBJ over the Vietnam War and aspects of black power—and also radicalized on a range of other issues too complicated for a blog post (read my book about it!)—one result was a sharp drop-off in institutional power, resources, and allies. One oversimplified but still useful way to conceptualize this change is to consider Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech 50 years ago—given at the Riverside Church, next door to UTS—and what reactions to it symbolized and precipitated not solely in relation to establishment support for King (dead a year later) but also the traction of a wider black freedom movement.
Remember, also, how this happened around the time that Republicans from Nixon and Reagan through two George Bushes and Trump began to increase power in Washington, with their emergent religious allies like Billy and Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. During this era, liberal seminaries like UTS have struggled while massive resources have flowed to Falwell’s Liberty University (barely launched in 1967), Robertson’s Regent University (not launched), or schools skewing rightward like Notre Dame and Baylor.
In the case of UTS, there was a struggle to keep the institution afloat after the mid-1960s—for example, its faculty was nearly cut in half during the 1970s and Christianity and Crisis magazine eventually folded—during a time when disgruntled neoconservatives attempted to sink it light of what they considered the Protestant left’s decline into irrelevance or worse. The view from UTS was naturally different—that they were still afloat and trying to remain a sort a flagship, however beleaguered, for the academic Protestant left.
This leads back to the scaffolding outside my window. Although the abstract mission of UTS is not an excuse for any and all forms of pragmatic compromise, in my view it warrants giving the current institutional strategy of UTS the benefit of doubt. The noise outside my window is part and parcel of a controversial plan in which UTS sold “airspace” above its quad for high-rise apartments—with the windfall mainly used to upgrade the current physical plant. At least in theory, upgraded facilities should be the main effect on Union’s space, except insofar as its neighborhood further gentrifies, which is clearly going to happen in any case. Of course the test of this strategy will be the fruits it brings during coming decades—but as already noted I am giving it the benefit of doubt.
I engaged in polemics about this with Chris Hedges a few months ago—on the blog Religion Dispatches—when Hedges attacked the UTS strategy as part of a sweeping attack on the religious left. Hedges’ variation on the logic of neocons who throw dirt on the supposed grave of UTS was a left-wing cynicism or despair about the UTS high-rise strategy as moral “suicide” (thus my title both today and earlier.)
Today seems like a useful time to revisit this issue—for one, to say farewell to my scaffolding, but also because Religion Dispatches today is attacking William Barber along lines similar to what raised my hackles in Hedges’ attack. Key UTS leaders are deeply invested in working with Barber, and in fact they helped organize a press conference of Barber’s that I attended 10 days ago. One can quibble about the strengths and weaknesses of his approach if one wishes—especially if one is doing something demonstrably better, as opposed to joining a circular firing squad—but meanwhile let’s give some credit where credit is due.