To be honest, Unitarian Universalism isn’t a Titanic. It’s more of a dinghy. But I couldn’t resist the metaphor.
Regular readers of this space may recall that back in June I posted the first of several articles (“Shut Up! You’re Not Liberal Enough!“) concerning an attack on Reverend Todd Eklof by several hundred of his fellow Unitarian Universalist ministers. The ministers were up in arms on account of a short book he had self-published, a book called The Gadfly Papers. In that book he reported on some incidents within UUism that he found disturbing — incidents in which people who oppose racism apparently dived overboard rather than being either civil or logical.
We could certainly have a free-wheeling debate about the merits of the ideas in the book. I happen to think Eklof made some good points. Others plainly disagree. However, the attacks on him have not been in the form of a free and responsible debate. Instead, his fellow ministers have openly attacked him and his book while explicitly refusing to discuss the ideas in the book.
In August, the board of the UUMA (Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association) issued an official letter of censure of Rev. Eklof. They accused him of “breaking covenant,” though their letter of censure was oddly vague about what covenant he had broken, or how he had broken it. At that time I contacted them and asked for specifics on their deliberative process — and they stonewalled me. They weren’t going to discuss that with a mere UU congregation member.
Fortunately, the UUMA has a process with which to work through disputes. Eklof’s “good officer,” Reverend Richard Davis, represented him before the board. Davis is also a UU minister, presumably a member of the UUMA, and therefore, one would think, entitled to specifics.
Below you’ll find Davis’s letter to the board. I’m quoting it in its entirety, in the form in which it was forwarded to me by an interested party. (I did correct one or two spelling errors and added a couple of brief phrases, in square brackets, in order to elucidate points that he had worded a bit vaguely.) As this letter makes clear, the UUMA board has descended into what we can only call McCarthyism. One would certainly expect better of a group of liberal ministers. They seem entirely to have lost both their moral compass and the rudder of their own principles.
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Reverend Davis’s letter to the UUMA board:
To the UUMA Board of Trustee members* (who signed the August 16, 2019, letter of censure of Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof):
Most regrettably, you have failed to adequately respond to our September 20th, 2019, written requests for clarity regarding your process and explicit reasons for your public censure of Rev. Dr. Todd F. Eklof. As I now have no expectation you will provide this, I am responding as his Good Officer based upon what we now know to be true.
- Harm to Rev. Eklof: You stated that your censure of Rev. Todd would not affect his UUMA membership nor his UUA fellowship, implying that it would not be harmful to him. That is obviously not true. The harm to him has been significant, is on-going, and certainly was intentional on your part.
- Breaking Covenants: The heart of your censure is an assertion, in the utter absence of evidence or specifics, that Rev. Eklof had “broken covenant.” Based on covenants as they existed at the time (and as they still exist), that is simply not true. You even admit that in your letter of censure: “We recognize that our current ethical standards leave room for ambiguity about what kinds of speech and behavior are racist and oppressive.” And this: “We are also working to revise the accountability processes.” And finally, you acknowledge that you consider Rev. Eklof’s actions “violated the spirit [rather than the letter] [sic — Davis’s bracketed phrase, not mine] of the Ethical Standards in our Code of Conduct detailed in our Guidelines for the Conduct of Ministry.” In short, while you are [still in the process of] seeking to revise existing Guidelines, you have no authority to preempt existing covenants in favor of those you seek to add.
- Freedom of the Pulpit: Contrary to common sense, you state that your censure does not constitute any restriction on freedom of the pulpit or the freedom to of Rev. Eklof to “speak freely.” That is obviously not true.
- Violating Due Process: In a dismissive gesture, you assert authority to bypass ministers’ long-standing rights of due process by inventively defining your “censure” process as something different from and not bound by, well-defined normal grievance procedures. That is false — you were given no such authority by the UUMA membership.
- Unilateral Discretion: You also assert that you enjoy a fully discretionary (and apparently unreviewable) right to categorically approve or disapprove the actions of any minister. You have no such authority, unless it is self-endowed.
- Covenantal Interpretation: You also assert the authority for unilaterally “interpreting the covenants,” when the covenants are between ministers. That is false — you have no such authority.
- Discrimination and Favoritism: While you assert authority to demand that Todd comport with some vague ministerial covenant, you are silent about the fact that these covenants equally apply to you, as UUMA minister members, and that your actions are in clear violation of them. And you are also silent about applying them equally to the “white ministers” who wrote [and signed] the June 22, 2019, “open letter” condemning Rev. Eklof.
- Respect for Reason and Logic: You declare that, because arguments [using reason and logic] have been used by racists, that it is not a legitimate approach to expressing views. It’s equivalent to saying that, because some crimes are committed with knives, knives are not legitimate instruments.
For these reasons it is clear that you have failed in your duties as UUMA Board members, a failure which jeopardizes the integrity of the UUMA organization and its ability to carry out its important roles in supporting the UU ministry.
Your actions would be bad enough if your animosity only harmed Rev. Eklof. However, that’s not the case. All UU ministers, whether or not they agree with the ideas Rev. Eklof expressed in his Gadfly Papers book, are now and in the future at risk for similar unfair treatment if your false assertion of authority is permitted to go unchallenged.
We do agree with you that “We understand from your book that you want to encourage robust and reasoned debate about the direction of our faith.” However, your actions demonstrate anything but a willingness for engaging in such a debate.
You say that you wish “to welcome everyone into this work, recognizing that our members represent a wide spectrum of perspectives, experience, readiness, and willingness to engage….” Yet your actions completely and clearly belie those words.
We call upon you to honor the claim you made in your letter of censure that “We also call ourselves, as UUMA leadership, to be accountable to our members and to our covenant and values.” To that end, because of the potentially broad implications of your actions regarding Rev. Eklof, we call upon you to distribute this letter to all of the UUMA member ministers (as you did in publishing your letter of censure, and your justification as laid out in your Censure Q&A). Our colleague ministers have a right to be aware of how your actions affect not just their colleague Todd Eklof, but potentially every one of them.
signed: Rev. Rick Davis, Good Officer
* These are:Wendy Williams, President; Rod Richards, Vice President; Richard Speck, Treasurer; Elizabeth Stevens, Member-at-Large; Walter LeFlore, Member-at-Large; Christana Wille McKnight, Member-at-Large; Darrick Jackson, Director of Education; Janette Lallier, Director of Operations; and Melissa Carvill Ziemer, Director of Collegial Practice.
So there you have it. Not having been a fly on the wall, I can’t report on what communications the UUMA board made or failed to make to Rev. Davis in response to his representing Rev. Eklof in the role of good officer. Judging, however, by the absurd nature of their letter of censure, it seems clear that his view of their actions is entirely in character with what we already knew.
Can a small religious denomination long survive when the ministerial leadership has steered straight into an iceberg? I have my doubts. Speaking strictly for myself, I’m a member of the local UU church strictly because I like the people. I have no use for religion in any form — and I think this controversy illustrates why. Even well-meaning people (meaning, in this case, the UUMA board members) can turn into abusers when they feel called to do so by their “faith.” And without even understanding that they have become abusers.
That, it seems to me, is the essence of religion. Sooner or later, blind faith always leads to abuse. The rest of it is just the dance band playing hot jazz on the aft deck.