The flagship institution of politically righteous left-wing Protestants is building luxury condominiums on the Upper West Side of Manhattan! It sounds like a bad joke—or at least a perfect opening for haters to recycle their repertoire of insults.
And on top of this they are working on the construction directly outside my window. Literally, workers have been walking around on scaffolding four feet from my bed, waking me up early in the morning.
So how can I be defending them?
Let’s back up for some context. Today I’m wrapping up a month in residence at Union Theological Seminary in New York City (UTS), at a research symposium sponsored by CrossCurrents magazine. As already noted, my experience has included workers building scaffolding just outside my room–and this is also linked to other aspects of the evident need for upgrades to the UTS physical plant.
Because I wrote a book about Christianity and Crisis magazine, a religious-political journal that was something like an outreach arm of UTS from 1941 to 1993, I am well aware that financial challenges are nothing new here. Before 1970 the school had solid material support—and by extension a fine physical space—as well as cultural capital evidenced in things like its leaders routinely being quoted in the New York Times or invited to elite conclaves in Washington.
This only lasted as long as they were loyal parts of the New Deal establishment coalition 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—while also radicalizing on a range of 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.
An oversimplified but useful way to conceptualize this change is to recall Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech 50 years ago—given at the Riverside Church, next door to UTS—and how reactions to it roughly mirrored a drop in establishment support for King (dead a year later) and rising pushback against a wider black freedom movement in dominant US culture.
Remember, also, how this happened around the time that Republicans from Nixon and Reagan through two George Bushes and Trump began to dominate Washington, with their religious allies like Billy and Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. Throughout this era, liberal seminaries like UTS have struggled. Meanwhile, 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 simply to keep the institution afloat—for example, its faculty was nearly cut in half during the 1970s and Christianity and Crisis magazine eventually folded. This was a time when neoconservatives savagely attacked institutions like UTS in light of what they considered the Protestant left’s decline into irrelevance or worse. The view from UTS was naturally different—that they were trying to remain a sort of flagship, however beleaguered, for the academic Protestant left.
This leads back to the scaffolding outside my window. Although the stated mission of UTS is not an excuse for any and all forms of pragmatic compromise, its long track record clearly warrants giving its current institutional strategy 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 money used to upgrade the current physical plant. At least in theory, upgraded facilities should be the main significant effect on Union’s space (except insofar as its neighborhood further gentrifies, but this is clearly going to happen in any case.) Of course the test of this strategy will be its fruits during coming decades—but as noted UTS deserves the benefit of doubt.
I engaged in polemics about this matter with Chris Hedges on Religion Dispatches after he attacked the UTS strategy as part of his more sweeping disdain for the religious left (excluding himself of course!).
Although Hedges intended an attack from the left, he offered a de facto variation of the logic used by neocons, throwing dirt on the supposed grave of UTS after the supposed “moral suicide” represented by its high-rise strategy. I know a little something about left-wing cynicism and despair, but still I draw the line at echoing right-wing talking points this way. Here is my response in RD you want to to pursue this issue further.
Today seems like a useful time to revisit this issue—partly to say farewell to my scaffolding, but also because Religion Dispatches today is attacking William Barber with a logic all-too-similar to Hedges’ earlier attack. UTS leaders are deeply invested in supporting Barber, and they helped organize a press conference of his that I attended ten days ago. One might quibble about the strengths and weaknesses of Barber’s approach—especially if one is doing something demonstrably better, and not simply joining a circular firing squad—but meanwhile let’s give credit where credit is due.
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