Shut Up! You’re Not Liberal Enough!

This is going to be a long post, and nothing to do with writing fiction, although it may perhaps furnish a real-life example of dysfunctional group-think for authors who want to know more about how that sort of thing works. I’m going to offer a critique of a brand new, shiny uproar, complete with sequins and sugar sprinkles, that blossomed last week at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly.

Right now I’m pretty disgusted with the ratio of heat to light — there’s way too much heat, not nearly enough light. It seems to me that a bunch of UU ministers have gone way overboard in defense of their own view of how things are and ought to be. Their efforts seem, frankly, not to be in the spirit of Unitarian Universalism at all. (See below for more on this.) I’m sure they all think they’re doing the right thing, but their thought processes seem, to me at least, rather dodgy.

That happens when emotions run high. I get that. But I hope we can all calm down, take a deep breath, and discuss the issues calmly.

I’m not a UU minister, just a member of the local UU church. There may be, in what follows, nuances I’m missing or details that I misstate. If so, I would welcome corrections. Nonetheless, as a member in good standing, I’m certainly entitled to have — and to voice — my own views.

This controversy first erupted two years ago. Peter Morales, who at the time was president of the UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association) made some remarks that were interpreted as insensitive to issues of racial inclusion and racial equality within Unitarian Universalism and the UUA organization. He attempted to defend those remarks, but the controversy grew. He then resigned.

By now I don’t remember the details. They were reported in the UU World magazine, but sadly, I haven’t kept my back issues.

The controversy, at the time, was mainly to do with hiring practices; like many organizations in the United States, the UUA has (or had) quite a lot of white men in top positions. Ironically, Morales is Latino, but that fact doesn’t seem to have weighed heavily in the ensuing debate. What followed was a great deal of scrutiny of an alleged “white supremacy culture” (WSC) within the UUA.

This term, white supremacy culture, is deeply problematical and heavily loaded with emotional baggage. In my view, as I explained to our interim minister at the time, it’s a very poor choice of terminology. It’s tossed into the discussion mainly, I think, for its shock value, and not because it’s logically defensible. The fact that it has become entrenched in the rhetoric of what we might call Reform UUism is, I think, a big problem. I reject the term as a description of anything within Unitarian Universalism, and will continue to reject it unless and until the term is clearly defined in a way that makes sense to me. That question — what exactly do people mean when they say “white supremacy culture” — is the pivot on which a whole merry-go-round spins.

For more on this topic, see my follow-up posts “White Light,” “The Perils of Advocacy,” “Harm-Ony,” “The Ineradicable Stain of Whiteness,” “Do I Hear the Fat Lady Singing?,” “The Sleep of Reason,” and “Hoping for Clarification.” You might want to start with “The Sleep of Reason”; it’s a conceptual summing up. Or just stroll around the grounds until you feel at home….

On with the Show

Fast-forward to last week. At the 2019 UU General Assembly in Spokane, Washington, the UU minister in Spokane, Todd Eklof, released and distributed a short book. In the three essays in his book, which is called The Gadfly Papers, he takes a close look at the tactics being used by some folks within the UUA and UU congregations, tactics undertaken in a concerted attempt to root out racism, heterosexism, able-ism, and so forth.

Such efforts are, I’m sure, well warranted. Having read Eklof’s book (it’s only $3 for Kindle on Amazon), it seems clear to me that he is not pretending that racism and other forms of discrimination don’t exist within Unitarian Universalism. He takes issue, however, with the rhetoric that is used in discussing the issue, and with the tactics of those who are hoping to bring about sweeping change.

I would encourage everyone to read the book. You may agree or disagree with Eklof’s conclusions or his methods; that’s fine. Perhaps he’s right; perhaps he’s wrong. We can and certainly ought to have a productive and respectful discussion of the points he raises.

But that’s not what’s going on this week. On the contrary: An ad-hoc group of UU ministers has signed an open letter denouncing Eklof’s book. We’ll get to that letter below. Apparently, the book was banned at the General Assembly. Whether this was done because he had failed to follow some sort of procedure or because some people found his views upsetting and were therefore looking for a procedural excuse to remove it from the convention, I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t there, and I’m not familiar with UUA procedures. But it’s a fair guess that if he had used exactly the same unauthorized procedures to distribute a book that everybody liked and agreed with, the procedural irregularities would have aroused no more than a mild “tsk-tsk-tsk.” No, it’s the content of the book that has people up in arms.

From what I’ve read since, some of the people who are upset by the book are urging UUs not to read it.

At least one of my UU friends tells me she doesn’t intend to read it. She seems to feel she can safely trust higher authorities (specifically, the UU ministers) on this topic. It’s only a short book, but she has a busy life, I get that. I’d be less concerned if she weren’t planning a whole series of church services to be given this summer on topics to do with racial and other forms of discrimination and/or inclusion within the church. Wouldn’t reading the book be practically a requirement for someone who is planning services on these topics? But I digress.

Telling people they shouldn’t read a book — any book — is shocking. It’s contrary to the spirit of Unitarian Universalism, or so I would have thought. Yet there’s a faction within the UU community who are of the opinion that some ideas (including, specifically, those in Eklof’s book) are so hurtful that they shouldn’t be discussed or evaluated. Ironically — except it’s not irony, it’s very much on point — this tendency toward censorship is precisely what Eklof is objecting to! That’s what the book is about.

He is asking for an open dialog, with careful definitions of terms and an examination of concrete evidence for such things as alleged racism. As a result, he’s being told to shut up.

Is this the church I belong to? Has it come to this?

The Open Letter

With that preamble, let’s have a look at the open letter from the UU ministers. (The indented paragraphs below are the entirety of the letter. Not one word has been changed or omitted.) It has been signed by more than 300 ministers. My goodness, how could so many educated, caring people possibly be wrong? Let’s find out.

An open letter from white Unitarian Universalist ministers regarding The Gadfly Papers

June 22, 2019

With sadness and anger, we, the undersigned, join our voices with the chorus of Unitarian Universalists speaking up to name the harm caused by yesterday’s release of The Gadfly Papers: Three Inconvenient Essays by One Pesky Minister, written and self-published by our colleague the Rev. Todd F. Eklof and distributed at the 2019 General Assembly in Spokane, Washington.

Right at the outset, we have a sweeping accusation: that the distribution of an essay on a topic of concern to Unitarian Universalists is causing harm. It should perhaps be noted in passing that while they say they’re going “to name the harm,” they never get around to naming it. Also, the size of this “chorus” is not explained. Are they talking about 5% of UU members, or is it 85%?

It is a bedrock principle of Unitarian Universalism, or ought to be, that concerned people on all sides of an issue should be free to share their views so that those views can be freely discussed. In fact, this is ideal is clearly implied in one of the cherished Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism. It’s Principle 4. Principle 4 is, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Perhaps the views being shared by some individual UU are wrong; but silencing the speaker rather than engaging in a dialog cannot be the right way to proceed. What seems sadly clear, however, is that to more than 300 Unitarian Universalist ministers, an open dialog is to be deplored. Their position, as articulated above, is explicitly that the book should not have been released.

They are explicitly violating the 4th Principle. And they’re ministers.

 As white ministers, we write today to make clear that this treatise does not represent us or our values, nor does it represent our vision for the ministry or for Unitarian Universalism.  We deeply regret the harm this publication has already caused, and we know that this is another (intentionally provocative) incident that comes on the heels of months, years, generations of harm toward our colleagues of color. (We also acknowledge the harm in the treatise directed toward LGBTQ+ people, religious educators, people with disabilities, and others–many of whom are also people of color at the intersections of multiple identities.)

Translation: Some non-white, non-cis, non-able-bodied people will have their feelings hurt by Eklof’s essay, and therefore it should not have been published or distributed. This is precisely the tactic that Eklof is objecting to. The correct response — the only possible response, if he’s causing harm and you wish to remain in alignment with the 4th Principle — is to engage in a dialog with him on a point-by-point basis. But as we read on, we’ll find that the ministers explicitly decline to do that.

What values or vision does the book represent, that so markedly diverge from those the ministers hold dear? The letter doesn’t tell us.

In addition, it should be noted that by using the phrase “intentionally provocative,” they’re implying that Eklof’s motives are somehow suspect. In a strictly logical sense, sure, he was being intentionally provocative. He titled his book The Gadfly Papers, and he tossed it onto the table at a General Assembly rather than circulating it privately to his colleagues. (He may have circulated it privately before publishing it; I don’t know.) Nonetheless, in using the phrase, the ministers are aiming to call Eklof’s motives into question. By implication, then, the phrase is an argument ad hominem. They’re referring to his actions rather than to the substance of what he said. Arguments ad hominem are not a valid debate tactic.

Rev. Eklof names the “sadness, fear, and anger I sometimes feel about what’s going on in my religion” (p. 126) as one of his primary motivations for writing.  We, too, have sadness, fear, and anger: sadness at the pervasiveness of harm being done to our members, religious professionals, and colleagues of color; our fear that the explosive resistance to facing white supremacy culture within our faith will cause even more harm; and our anger that the brilliance, compassion, power, and moral imagination of our people have yet again been channeled into responding to harm, rather than nurturing a truly liberatory Unitarian Universalism.

“Explosive resistance”? Really? Here again, we’re seeing an argument ad hominem. If you dare to disagree with us, the ministers are saying, you’re engaged in explosive resistance.

More to the point, as Eklof explains in detail in his book, the term “white supremacy culture” is really quite slippery. Tossing it into this open letter without troubling to define it is precisely the kind of unthinking, inflammatory rhetoric that he is trying to move past. Until you read the book, you will be poorly equipped to understand just what a problematical term “white supremacy culture” is. So read it.

Also, what that last sentence is saying, translated into plain English, is, “We shouldn’t be having to waste time debating with you, Rev. Eklof. Shut up and let us get on with our good works.” They are alleging that he is causing harm, but as I mentioned above, they haven’t named the harm. The assumption seems to be, “Oh, we all know what the harm is.”

What, we wonder, would be possible if the creative energy of our leaders were freed up from reacting to instances of resistance and harm, and instead were channeled into imagining, building, and experimenting with practices that embodied the kind of liberation and wholeness that is the core yearning of our faith?

(Boldface type, which was added for emphasis, has been removed from the previous paragraph.) It seems to me that Eklof is precisely suggesting a way to move toward this wholeness. He quite specifically advocates respect for divergent views. He suggests more than once, and with concrete examples, that such respect is in short supply in Unitarian Universalism as it is presently practiced.

But the real problem with this paragraph and the one before it is that the ministers have somehow, against all logic and reason, convinced themselves that responding to the points Eklof raises would be a distraction from the good work they’re trying to do. Let’s read this sentence again: “…our anger that the brilliance, compassion, power, and moral imagination of our people have yet again been channeled into responding to harm.” No, no, no. Responding to the points Eklof raises damn well IS the work they need to do. If Eklof is wrong, the way to move forward is to demolish his arguments point by point, so that the truth and power of your own views will shine forth for all to see.

Claiming that engaging in a dialog with him would be a distraction from your good work is just whining. What the ministers are saying boils down to, “We shouldn’t have to spend time writing an open letter to you, Rev. Eklof. You should just agree that we’re right and keep your mouth shut.”

We recognize that a zealous commitment to “logic” and “reason” over all other forms of knowing is one of the foundational stones of White Supremacy Culture.  Instead of accepting the frame of Rev. Eklof’s arguments and debunking them, we instead affirm the following:

Translation: “Do not expect us to use logic or reason. We’re not even going to try to refute him point by point.” Well, honestly now — how can you have a respectful discussion of important issues with people who explicitly deny the value of logic and reason, and who explicitly refuse to engage in a responsible dialog?

Let’s leave aside the question of how a zealous commitment to logic and reason might differ from an ordinary commitment to logic and reason. The phrase “other forms of knowing” does make sense, because direct experience is a form of knowing, and it is anterior to logic and reason. That is, direct experience occurs before we begin to apply logic and reason to what has been experienced. Nonetheless, we must do so. We must apply logic and reason to our direct experience in order to interpret that experience. This process does not elevate logic and reason over direct experience; what it does is broaden our understanding of what we have experienced.

Those who are unwilling to broaden their understanding will remain ignorant.

Turning to the phrase, “Instead of accepting the frame,” to me it’s appalling — no weaker word will do — that these people are attacking a book without articulating at any point their reasons for objecting to the book. They don’t want to talk about what’s in the book; in fact, they refuse to discuss it. They just want you to agree with them that it’s horrible.

The only specific description in their letter of the content of the book is that it uses logic and reason. It seems a fair guess that the ministers object to the use of logic and reason (the quotation marks are theirs, and are no more than a disparaging rhetorical flourish — another ad hominem attack) because Eklof has used logic in a clear and painstaking manner in order to dismantle the overheated rhetoric that is much in vogue at the UUA when racism is discussed. If this isn’t clear to you, you need to read the book.

I do understand perfectly well that logic and reason have often been used, and are still used, in support of racism. But that’s not a reason for avoiding the use of logic and reason! On the contrary: The way you combat the use of logic and reason by racists is by being better at it than they are. Your unexamined emotions are, frankly, a damned poor substitute.

And now we come to the ministers’ bullet points. The boldface type is in the original letter:

White Supremacy Culture (WSC)  is alive and well within Unitarian Universalism.  The impacts of WSC are pervasive and harmful, and while all of us are spiritually harmed within such a dehumanizing system, the primary impacts fall upon people of color and Indigenous people (POCI).  This treatise, itself, is a manifestation of WSC, and is causing harm to our siblings of color, as well as to the integrity of our ministry.

Here again, the term “white supremacy culture” (WSC) is left undefined. We’re told it’s pervasive, but we’re given no examples or evidence; we’re expected to accept the assertion blindly, on trust.

One of Eklof’s central points is that if the term is used in any of the ways in which ordinary people would naturally use it, there simply isn’t any WSC in Unitarian Universalism. If you feel convinced that it is present, then it’s incumbent on you to begin by defining exactly what you mean by the term.

If we’re going to object to “explosive” rhetoric, surely the term “white supremacy” qualifies.

Eklof is quite clear about the need for concrete evidence of racism within an organization. You don’t get to assert that it’s there, that it’s pervasive, without showing a shred of evidence. Here’s a simple example, whose logic may be clear enough even to those who are relatively new to the process of thinking logically:

It may be true that some organization is heavily dominated by heterosexual white males. But that does not make the organization racist, sexist, or heterosexist. The Beatles were an organization consisting entirely of four heterosexual white males. Should we therefore conclude that the Beatles were a white supremacist band? This is the sort of muddled thinking that Eklof takes pains to deconstruct.

We believe our siblings of color as the experts in their own life experiences.  They have done the emotional labor of testifying, again and again, to the consistent marginalization, aggression, and traumatization that they experience in UUism, and are pleading with us to face and dismantle the systems and structures that enable such harm to continue.  We are grateful for this painful truth-telling, which comes at great personal and professional risk, and affirm that we witness and believe their experiences, and commit to addressing harm. All politics are identity politics, and when the default is white supremacist patriarchy, we must trust the experience of those who are targeted.

I’d love to know more about “the consistent … aggression and traumatization that they experience in UUism.” If these words truly describe the situation, then why on Earth would they have stayed in Unitarian Universalism? Why didn’t they flee? More likely, what we have here is explosive rhetoric. But perhaps I’m wrong. Let’s see the evidence.

But let’s set aside the question of aggression and traumatization — as we must, in the absence of concrete evidence. On a more general note, there’s an important difference between acknowledging people’s feelings and uncritically accepting their explanations for why their feelings were aroused. This paragraph conflates the two.

It might be, for example, that a woman of color is passed over for a job opening in favor of a white male and feels hurt, marginalized, and traumatized because she is convinced that she was discriminated against. And yet, it might (or might not) be the case that the white male was simply better qualified for the job! The woman’s feelings need to be acknowledged and listened to — but that doesn’t mean she is necessarily a victim of racial discrimination. The facts of the case need to be examined. Failure to understand this difference is a shocking lapse of judgment, one that we should not expect ministers, of all people, to make.

And what “systems and structures” are supposed to be dismantled? I know nothing about how the UUA is organized. If the decision-making processes need to be restructured, that would be a fine topic for discussion. In fact, Eklof does touch on that question in his essay. Apparently, however, his views on the subject are anathema.

The assertion that “all politics are identity politics” is blatantly false, and anybody who has been awake during the past ten years ought to know it. The impending climate crisis is NOT about your personal or cultural identity. It’s just not. And the solutions, if we’re able to find any, will be explicitly political. The framework of environmental law will have to be changed, and that will require concerted political action. Why is it even necessary for me to point this out?

The phrase “identity politics” is troubling for other reasons as well. For more on this, you may want to read my follow-up piece, “Who Are You, Really?

When unjust power structures–and those who benefit from them–are exposed and critiqued, backlash is predictable.  We often conflate critiques of our behavior with condemnations of our personhood.  Here, however, we affirm that Unitarian Universalist ministers must act in solidarity with those harmed by the power structures, while also unequivocally declaring that although all people have inherent worth and dignity, all behaviors and ideas do not.  Ideas and language can indeed be forms of violence, and can cause real harm.  It is disingenuous at best, and malicious at worst, to argue that those who have been targeted by systemic violence have an obligation to bear witness to “ideas and words” that demean and diminish their personhood and discount their lived experience.  The predictable “freedom of speech” arguments are commonly weaponized to perpetuate oppression and inflict further harm.

It may be true that Eklof has benefited within the UU organization from being a white male. I wouldn’t know. (And we would need to see evidence of that before accusing him of benefiting, wouldn’t we?) The letter takes this unproven assertion as fact, and then tries to deduce another assertion from it, again with neither evidence nor logic: that his book was written in a spirit of backlash against a threat to his position, prerogatives, or status. This allegation is only implied; he’s not mentioned here by name; but the context makes it clear. The allegation is not only unsupported by evidence, it’s grotesque.

I find myself wondering how exactly ideas and language “can indeed be forms of violence, and can cause real harm.” I think I’d like some examples of that. It is a central thesis of Eklof’s essays that this notion — that voicing certain ideas is harmful — is a way of shutting people up. It’s a way of stifling dialog. It’s fascist.

I have certainly been guilty of calling people idiots — mostly on Facebook. Is that indeed a form of violence? Am I causing real harm? If so, I hope somebody will explain it to me.

I don’t know who has suggested that anybody has an obligation “to bear witness” to anything; that phrase has a rhetorical flair, but what does it mean? And “weaponized”? Really? The implication of this word, it seems to me, is that advocating freedom of speech is “commonly” (their word) used in a conscious way in order “to perpetuate oppression.” To paraphrase, what the ministers are saying is that you’re only advocating freedom of speech because you want to hurt us. If you didn’t want to hurt us, you would agree with us that some ideas are so harmful that they should not be expressed.

This is pathetic. It’s an exercise in victimhood. “Waaahh! Your nasty ideas hurt me! Shut up, shut up, shut up!” It’s certainly not a path to meaningful dialog.

Neither the perspectives espoused in this publication, nor the harmful process by which it was distributed, represent our understanding of competent, compassionate, courageous UU ministry. As we continue the painful but necessary process of confronting WSC in Unitarian Universalism, white ministers are being asked to take a hard look at ourselves — individually, congregationally, denominationally — and to practice new and more liberatory ways of embodying our faith.  A deep commitment to racial justice and dismantling white supremacy is a core competency of our calling as ministers, and those who cannot or will not commit to developing the musculature of resiliency, humility, and lifelong learning required may indeed find that UUism is no longer the appropriate home for their ministries.  We plead with our white colleagues who are struggling to acknowledge the realities of WSC in our faith to remain at the table and lean into this work with us, with an open heart to transformation and repair.

This paragraph begins by stating flat-out that Eklof’s ideas are not competent, compassionate, or courageous. Evidence? A point by point analysis and refutation? No, that would be too much work. We’re just going to insult our fellow UU minister and move on, secure in the armor of our righteousness.

And what’s that aside about “the harmful process by which it was distributed”? I have no clue. How could the process of distribution be harmful or lack competence? Well, if the copies were tossed around on the floor, I suppose, so that people were tripping over them and falling down. But I doubt that’s what the ministers meant. I don’t know what they meant.

It’s certainly possible that Eklof has an understanding of UU ministry that is just as competent, compassionate, and courageous as the understanding of the ministers who signed this letter. Different, surely, but not lacking in competency, compassion, or courage. But that’s not what these 300 ministers want you to think. They want you to conclude, without a shred of evidence, that Eklof lacks competence, compassion, and courage.

And then we get to “may indeed find that UUism is no longer the appropriate home for their ministries.” Translation: If you don’t agree with us, get out! We don’t want you here!

I’m also worried about those “new and more liberatory ways of embodying our faith.” What does that mean in practice? “Liberatory” means “freedom-enhancing.” If one of your colleagues writes a book on topics of mutual concern and you immediately jump down his throat and tell him he shouldn’t have released the book, how are you embodying a liberatory faith? How are you encouraging or even proposing to allow him his freedom as an equal within the UU community? Isn’t the freedom to have and express one’s own ideas supposed to be the bedrock of Unitarian Universalism? I sure thought so. Possibly I was wrong.

Sugar Sprinkles

Just to be clear about my own view of this controversy….

I’m not advocating for the views in Rev. Eklof’s book. I happen to think he makes a lot of good points — but I may be wrong, and he may be wrong. Most likely, he’s right about some things and wrong about others. The way to settle such questions is through a free and respectful dialog. Denouncing his book in inflammatory terms, however, while refusing to engage with its substance cannot possibly be right.

I’m sure there is some unconscious racism within the UUA, and within UU congregations. I’ve probably been guilty of it myself on occasion. This is not surprising; in fact, it would be remarkable if there weren’t pockets of racism here and there. Conscious, intentional racism in the UU community? I’d say it’s very doubtful. Unconscious racism? Certainly.

I agree that it’s vital that the UUA take a close look at this issue, as well as at related issues such as sexism, heterosexism, cis-genderism, and so on! That, it seems to me, is what these ministers think they’re doing.

However, it’s also clear to me that book-banning and telling people to shut up or get out is not healthy for any organization, and especially not for an organization that prides itself on being inclusive and welcoming. Nor is it healthy or respectful to belittle people for their commitment to logic and reason. If that is the direction that Unitarian Universalism is going, the whole denomination can go straight to hell, and probably will.


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31 Responses to Shut Up! You’re Not Liberal Enough!

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Ironically, I’m now about 2/3 finished reading “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which I understand was a big influence in this book. I’ve renewed it from the library several times and have found it really eye opening. As a UU myself, I have become increasingly frustrated with this behavior in the church and in the nation as a whole. The other day I spoke out saying that I was not sure that the yarn and needlepoint site Ravelry’s banning of Trump supporters was a positive step, and got the same tired answer that by not banning them and everything they have to say that it was supporting homophobia and racism. Ravelry is not banning homophobic and racist content, they’re banning ALL content by people who support Trump (CNN reported “Ravelry, a community site that allows users to share ideas about knitting and textile projects, said in a blog post Sunday that it will remove users if they express support for Trump on its forum, profile pages or any other content.”). While I loathe Trump, I don’t know how kicking off anybody who supports him will ever help us work towards better understandings of each other. Likewise, Facebook and Instagram have been applauded for deleting posts, pages and people who support ideas they deem “dangerous,” whether it’s people who question vaccine safety or are members of the far right. I was always the most liberal person I knew, but the current censoring climate in liberal religion and in liberal spaces concerns me. Dialog should not be a dirty word.

    • midiguru says:

      I think it may have been H. L. Mencken who said, “Freedom of the press is for people who own one.” Nobody is required to publish messages that they disagree with. I can certainly see how a yarn and needlepoint forum might ban ALL political posts or move them to an Off-Topic section of the forum, but if they ban some viewpoints and not others, it’s harder to make a case that they’re doing the right thing.

      Maybe it depends partly on the content of the posts. If somebody simply says, “I support the president; he’s doing the right stuff,” that’s one thing. It’s absurd, but it’s not offensive. On the other hand, if a conversation starts and descends into nastiness, then whoever is committing the nastiness should certainly be banned, no matter what side they’re on.

    • carol Reich says:

      I am intrigued by your efforts, remarks. I wonder about an organized faith/practice? that encourages not reading a book, not discussing the concerns, and offers ‘remedies’ that perpetuate the self-same issues that current govt is promoting- screaming, judging, yelling, angry writing, all highly encouraged it seems On FB/twitter/ trolls, websites, and now silencing a UU minister. The gentleman speaks well for himself in his Gadfly Papers and in his sermon, where he gently carefully and purposefully inquires WHAT THE HELL? ARE WE DOING? I see the attacks on individual ministers, small groups, UUA organization and so on CLINGING to the idea that correct words, correct ideas, correct intentions exist in a vacuum. I admire Dr. Eklof’s efforts, questions, and the ensuing work you surface here in this blog. I am not convinced that people have learned their lessons from Willie Wonka- yes I know IRONY is dead, but seriously where are the deeper thinkers who do not trip over every word, consider themselves so sensitive that ….40 years in mental health, 30 year UU, 50 year almost wife, and lover of the Earth. I love words, reading, and dialogue. May Dr. Eklof open a continuing dialogue….it seems to me that Dems are wishing to participate in ‘that’ circular firing squad and that UUs are helping put ammunition in the weaponry- to help Trump win again. Argh, so tired of the posers. I am all for open and free press, open and free discussions, and not too interested in having anyone shake their fingers middle or otherwise at …. I would comment that some who
      are NOT ‘muscular’ do not exercise eat right and have SUPER STRONG judgments, should maybe eat their vegetables, and not stand in the LANE of MY freedoms! I would love to see? Happy Watson Richard Davis and Scott Eklof teach us some new ways in UU to ACTUALLY be honest, go direct, and build community. Bless us all~ zCarol Reich.

  2. melhpine says:

    Thank you for this, Jim. Obviously, one or more of the ministers who drafted the letter did, in fact, read it, but I wonder how many of the signers did.

  3. Reverend Cynthia Cain says:

    Since the letter came out just as the book was being distributed, I think very few of the 300 ministers had read it when they signed. Some have, since, but they are refusing to buy it, urging others not to buy or read it, and leaving bad reviews for it online. Some are calling for Rev. Dr. Eklof to face “consequences”. As a UU Minister I am alarmed at the number of colleagues who signed it, trying to puzzle it out, and fairly certain that many of them have transgressed our UUMA Guidelines in which we are bound not to speak ill of a fellow minister. I and Rev. Scott Wells appear to be the only two who have defended Todd (his rights, not necessarily his ideas) and the silence is deafening.

  4. vlorbik says:

    i’ve just reposted this into this f’book thread. good post.

  5. midiguru says:

    I usually delete comments that look like spam, but your link does appear to be to a UU facebook group, so I’ll leave it here.

  6. mfidelman says:

    Agree completely. Been saying as much on various UU Facebook pages & subreddits – and predictably getting jumped up and down on by what I’m starting to think of as the UU thought police, or the politburo. I’m starting to think that those of us who actually believe in “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” and “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;” to put together our own answer to DRUUM, TRUUST, and the other ideological groups that are taking over our denomination. Might be nice if a few UU Professionals stood up.

  7. Jay Kiskel says:

    Jim, I am a bit late to the party to comment on this post, but I have been doing my due diligence and re-reading a number of posts, blogs, social commentary, etc. on the Spokane incident.

    Your work is excellent so I would like your insight on something I missed on my first consumption of the all news from Spokane

    What I missed was the relationship between the statements of harm from the ministers, others and the proposed changes to the UUMA accountability guidelines.

    See the link and context provided by Rev. Scott Wells.

    The Ministers’ Letter mentioned, “harm” nearly 20 times. Yet offered, as you noted, no delineation of the harm. Well, per the proposed UUMA guidelines, just a statement of “harm” is sufficient to place a minister in the institutional hands of the Right Relations committee. The guidelines have no mechanism to evaluate the “degree of harm.” A “claim of harm” is sufficient to involve the Right Relations process.

    What’s your take?

    • midiguru says:

      For starters, the guidelines proposal uses the term “white supremacy” in the first paragraph under “Our Charge.” That being the case, it’s guaranteed to be bullshit. Digging deeper, I searched for the word “harm,” as this is a key term. This proposed language leaped out at me: “I will not remain silent … unless the harm to me has been so traumatic that I am unable to speak of it.” This is grotesque.

      I’m not going to try to digest the whole Accountability Guidelines Team Report, because I basically don’t give a shit what they think. Not my circus, not my clowns.

  8. mfidelman says:

    “Is this the church I belong to? Has it come to this?”
    This disease has become firmly entrenched in the UUA (including our new President, who’s the first to have a 6-year term), and the UU Ministers Association; not quite as much in individual congregations, though certainly being pushed there by many ministers, and various “social justice committees” in our various congregations – all fed by some focused interest groups that have the eye, and in some cases, the purse, of UUA at their disposal.
    And it’s not quite clear how to push back – when anything that smacks of pushback is jumped on as “evidence of white supremacy culture” and “white fragility,” when ministers call for books to be banned, when ministers who speak out are summoned before a star chamber (excuse me, a “Right Relations Committee”).
    And there are few venues for even discussing the issue, or pushing back (just try reading the responses to similar comments, made by me, and others, on various UU email lists, Facebook groups, and subreddits).
    A very sad situation for our denomination.

  9. Marian Hennings says:

    Thank you for this blog, Jim. I live in Spokane and am familiar with Todd Eklof’s involvement in many social and environmental issues such as fossil fuel train shipments, the oil pipeline through Standing Rock, making same sex marriage legal, and opposition to new jail construction. He does not deserve the vicious attacks that are being made on him. I think much of the venom is due to his criticism of St. Robin Di Angelo, the leader of the new secular fundamentalist faith of militant antiracism and white self-hatred. I have read two of her books and find her attitude appalling. Racism is a problem, but her method of fighting it is making matters worse. I have been vilified for criticizing her, and I think much of the hatred directed at Todd Eklof is due to his having criticized her also.


    As a 52+year UU, I was appalled at the reactions to the Gadfly papers. Other responders have been much more articulate than me. All I can say is 1) I believe in freedom of speech 2) Todd Eklof
    articulated many concerns I have had over the last few years about ‘political correctness’ and ‘groupthink’ within the denomination and the UUA governing policies. Jim Aikin’s blog should be read by any UU who cares about the future of our denomination. Identity politics will destroy any hope we have of making changes that will benefit large numbers of people. I totally agree with Aikin’s following comments:
    ‘However, it’s also clear to me that book-banning and telling people to shut up or get out is not healthy for any organization, and especially not for an organization that prides itself on being inclusive and welcoming. Nor is it healthy or respectful to belittle people for their commitment to logic and reason.’
    I hope more UU’s will support Todd Eklof’s right to be critical of what is happening. This is not a time to be silent about an issue of such importance in our denomination and in our society.

  11. Evan Rose says:

    Reply to “Open Letter”

    Oh, wondrous Prophets of the UUA,
    Pray, bestow thy Wisdom upon us,
    For we are much perplexed to discover Truth.
    Whereas you have walked the hidden paths
    That lie beyond the Realms of Reason and Logic,
    These are Ways unbeknownst to us.
    Have but pity upon us poor supplicants,
    And bless us with that which you have Divined.
    Silence shall we keep and places in our seats, as well.
    Prithee, but speak and our purses shall we open,
    And all that lies within shall be yours.

    • Jay Kiskel says:

      Clever….very clever. Well done!

      The poem in the closing lines does beg the question of how the UUA intends to continue funding. I have found that many UUs are unaware of the incident in Spokane. But those that have tuned in are very concerned. The direction taken by the UUA may make many people less enthusiastic in responding to UUA fundraising appeals. That may already be the situation.

      • melhpine says:

        I think there has been gradually increasing awareness over the last three years or so that the UUA is going in what I consider a cultish direction. But the members of congregations are so far removed from the UUA “insiders” that the news is traveling slowly. Todd Eklof’s book and the reaction to it gave a big boost to awareness.

      • John Keohane says:

        I do[n’t] respond to the UUA fund-raising appeals. Anything that comes in the mail that looks like it might be fundraising gets put to recycling without it ever being opened. Anything by email that looks like UUA fundraising is ignored.

        The good news is that there’s intelligent thought, if one looks elsewhere.

        My wife and I were recently for two weeks in Ireland, went to church the first Sunday at the Unitarian church in Dublin, and the second Sunday at the Unitarian church in Cork.

        Closer to home, the New Yorker magazine has an article in the August 19, 2019 issue starting on page 18, titled “The Color of Injustice” by Kelefa Sanneh. If you read that article, I think you’ll see that Robin DiAngelo, a white woman much loved by the UUA publications, is saying stuff that does not make sense.

        A friend who was raised Unitarian, but married outside that faith, is a physicist. I was describing the current political marching in step promoted so much now in the UUA. Used to the terms in physics of conservation of energy, and thinking of this with us, and theological doctrine of the Lutherans, he summed it up as “conservation of doctrine”.

        I did not come to Unitarianism for conservation of doctrine.

        Maybe it’s time to split off, create a new denomination, really dedicated to the search for truth, from whatsoever source it may emerge, and valuing all, regardless of their sex, their sexual orientation, or their color.

  12. Kathryn Rohde says:

    As a retired UU minister who gave up a great deal to serve our faith for nearly four decades now, and who went through many tribulations as one of the early members of the wave of women in our ministry beginning when I was the only one serving in my district, you voice my sentiments exactly. I have written to Todd, whom I do not know personally, to express my distress at the treatment he has received at the hands of his colleagues. I would love to see a movement of UU’s to push back asking for a return to our principles of dialogue and valuing the unique worth and dignity of every human being. One point you neglect to mention because you are probably not aware of it is that currently, every signatory to the White Ministers’ letter is in violation of the Code of Ethics currently in force in the UUMA which forbids speaking publicly in derogatory and ill considered terms about a fellow minister.

  13. mfidelman says:

    Folks, there is a small (136 members right now) Facebook group that seems to be the ONLY place where there is any substantive discussion on the Gadfly Papers – and more importantly, on the issues raised by them. Both sides of the issues are represented and the group owner has been very good about NOT censoring, banning, or otherwise “thought policing” the discussion.

    • mfidelman says:

      We have 5 ministers participating who were signatories to the clergy letter, but no ministers who have been supportive of Eklof. I note the comments by Rev.s Cynthia Cain and Kathryn Rhode – and we would welcome your participation. We’d also welcome participation for all the folks who have been posting thoughtful comments here.


    I have read many responses to the Gadfly papers. What specific actions can I take to let the UUA know that I think what happened in Spokane and the publishing of the letter of condemnation signed by so many of our ‘illustrious’ clergy does not represent what our denomination is about (thoughtful, reasonable dialog). There needs to be some accountability for the actions of those representing ‘leadership’ in the UUA. Who do I contact; are others with similar concerns willing to voice their opinions to the denominational leadership?

  15. Fiske Miles says:

    Well done, Jim.

    I am leading a discussion of The Gadfly Papers at Shawnee Mission UU in Lenexa, Kansas this coming Sunday, August 18. One thing we can do as Unitarians to push back on the intolerance and suppressive behaviors exhibited by the UUA is to host discussions of The Gadfly Papers in our churches.

    My first serious exposure to the UUA was at the 2018 General Assembly held here in KC, and it was an eye-opener. One idea I have been mulling over and working through to make sense of what I saw there is that lacking a widely accepted concept of God (not saying we should have one!), Social Justice has become a proxy for God in UU congregations. It is sacred to us, after all. And should be. But dogma around Social Justice isn’t dissimilar from Christian dogma. In fact, psychologically, it works the same way. From this perspective, White Supremacy Culture is the equivalent of Original Sin. The UUA has just changed the nomenclature. Guilt is a powerful motivator, as can be seen by the spectacle of 485 ministers signing a letter condemning a book they haven’t read.

    Here is a link to a criticism of UUA social justice activism from Rev. Dr. Thandeka, a UU theologian, published 20 years ago (in 1999) : Thandeka explicitly lays out the Original Sin connection in her statement about a similar anti-racism effort underway at that time. The persistence of this behavior gets directly to human nature and how religious organizations naturally arrange themselves, I guess. I came across the link to the Thandeka document on Rev. Scott Well’s blog in the comments section, another good resource on what has happened with The Gadfly Papers.

    Incidentally, Thandeka and Rev. Marlin Lavanhar led a program at the 2018 GA titled Growing UU Churches for the 21st Century. UUA organizers were actively encouraging participants to attend another program scheduled at the same time, “Salsa, Soul, Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age.” I figured part of the motivation was that Lavanhar is a white male. Discovering the Thandeka statement on racism brought things into better focus. And, needless to say, she is darn inconvenient for the current UUA leadership. And also wonderful, wise, and a fantastic presenter. Lavanahar had previously spoken at our church, and I was not about to miss the program. It was given in a large auditorium, filled to capacity, with a terrific Jazz band and also included Rev. Carlton Pearson, the subject of the Netflix movie “Come Sunday.”

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  18. Jessy Lorion says:

    Have been struck by a sense of whiplash a number of times since first hearing about the brouhaha at GA this year, and then in seeing the fevered responses. How righteous and lockstep, and from many who are good people, even if from compromised perspective. Sadly I’m sensing something reminiscent of Salem and witch hunts, and deeply worried that we will be witnessing more violence before coming to our collective senses.

    Appreciate the reasonableness of this and other blogs and comments sections, and I am joining at least two of the Facebook groups mentioned in comments here, to be present for what promises to be a bumpy ride.

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