The UU Titanic Hits Its Iceberg

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.

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.
    6. 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.
    7. 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.
    8. 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.

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8 Responses to The UU Titanic Hits Its Iceberg

  1. Davidson Loehr says:

    The letter I wrote to the UUMA back in August, just FYI:

    Davidson Loehr • davidsonloehr@gmail.com
    29 Morningside Dr., Weaverville, NC 28787
    512-577-2629

    21 August 2019

    To the UUMA Board of Trustees and Executive Team, all members of the UUMA and the UUA:

    Rev. Todd Eklof, a minister in the UUA, read a 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukainoff and Jonathan Haidt. He saw the relevance of the authors’ insights to nearly identical situations within the troubled UUA and UUMA, and took the time to write a long essay about it, and make it available to colleagues at the 2019 General Assembly. Some people had their feelings hurt, and called out to the UUMA Board of Trustees and Executive Team:

    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
    Melissa Carvill Ziemer, Director of Collegial Practices

    These nine people wrote an official “letter of censure” to Rev. Eklof. They did this, they said, because “our responsibility is to uphold our values and our covenant. We believe you have broken the covenant….” They even see in Rev. Eklof’s logical arguments — because they are logical — the unmistakable signs of “white supremacy culture”.

    There are really two covenants involved here. One covenant is the culture of the UUMA Board, the principles they think they should serve, the limits of critique that they believe must restrain the insights and speech of everyone under them. And yes, that covenant was broken — by professors Lukainoff and Haidt and, in the role of messenger, Rev. Eklof.

    The other covenant is the one implicit in the history of liberal religion and especially the best of Unitarianism and Universalism. That covenant has also been broken, by the Board of the UUMA. Let’s take a closer look:

    • The book The Coddling of the American Mind was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction, a New York Times Notable Book, and the Bloomberg Best Book of 2018.

    • The New York Times Book Review described this book as “A disturbing and comprehensive analysis of recent campus trends…. The consequences of a generation unable or disinclined to engage with ideas that make them uncomfortable are dire for society, and open the door — accessible from both the left and the right — to various forms of authoritarianism.”

    • Edward Luce, in Financial Times, says “The authors, both of whom are liberal academics — almost a tautology on today’s campuses — do a great job of showing how ‘safetyism’ is cramping young minds. Students are treated like candles, which can be extinguished by a puff of wind. The goal of a Socratic education should be to turn them into fires, which thrive on the wind. Instead, they are sheltered from anything that could cause offence…. Their advice is sound. Their book is excellent. Liberal parents, in particular, should read it.”

    • And Jonathan Marks, in Commentary, says the authors “tell us that safetyism undermines the freedom of inquiry and speech that are indispensable to universities.”

    Anyone familiar with Unitarian history should recognize these comments as a description of the intelligent and courageous spirit at the heart of Unitarianism, and I think of Universalism.

    It is certainly possible that the new religion of “Unitarian Universalism” is a betrayal of this healthy and courageous heritage. If so, then Eklof’s short essay that argues in favor of splitting the UUA so the Socratic and liberal spirits can be set free is pretty persuasive.

    Wendy, Rod, Richard, Elizabeth, Walter, Christana, Darrick, Janette and Melissa, I’m sure some of you know this, as I’m sure many parish ministers and congregants also know it. And human nature being what it is, I suspect that many of you who do know it are remaining silent because, as a social species, we don’t like to make waves among our own troop, and so go along to get along. As a Japanese saying puts it, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down, as your Board has just demonstrated.

    But the failure to speak against smaller allegiances on behalf of bigger and deeper ones is an example of moral cowardice, and that’s a crime against all that is truly important and holy — in all races. As leaders, whether you like it or not, moral courage is absolutely demanded of you, all of you. And in your letter to Rev. Eklof, you have established yourselves as moral cowards, who have betrayed the most essential covenants of both Unitarianism and Universalism. You should be ashamed of this.

    You have also betrayed the people who complain because their feelings are hurt. By shielding them from ideas that make them uncomfortable — “like candles, which can be extinguished by a puff of wind” — you have helped keep them weak and frightened of challenging and healthy insights. For this too, shame on you.

    Davidson Loehr

    — I understand how and why liberalism, liberal religion and the UUA lost their noble center and became infected with shallow and self-destructive ideologies, and know there are other obvious examples, but that’s another essay.

  2. midiguru says:

    Thanks, David. You and I agree about this. Have you read Anne Schneider’s book. It’s a defense of Todd Eklof, and also a sharp critique of the whole “white supremacy culture” paradigm. It’s available on Amazon.

    • Davidson says:

      White supremacy is a red herring. It’s the power of the majority, of whatever color. In Zimbabwe, black people threw about 4,000 white farmers off their land and stole the land. I haven’t heard anyone call that black supremacy. There IS a supremacy these UUs and PC folks all exhibit, which does deep harm to religion, society, truth and the rest. It’s the narcissism involved in our belief that we and only we have Ideological Supremacy.

      • midiguru says:

        I don’t know the history of Zimbabwe, so I can’t comment on that situation specifically, but over the past 500 years it has been overwhelmingly the white Europeans who have stolen from, oppressed, and not infrequently butchered non-white native populations. This, as I understand it, has been due to Europeans’ superior military and seafaring technology, and in no small part to the Christian belief that the Christian “God” is a universal deity whom everyone ought properly to worship.

        My issue with the label “white supremacy culture” is that there doesn’t seem to be a trace of it in Unitarian Universalism. The UU’s who sling this term around are engaged in what Lukianoff and Haidt call “virtue signaling.”

      • Davidson says:

        Yes. It’s very sad. I’ve identified as a Unitarian (never a UU) since sitting in the pews of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa listening to John Wolf’s theological and rhetorical magic. Such high, life-giving, ontological, commanding ideals. It seems that every Sunday I left feeling more lucky to be alive and more determined to do it well. I was 20-21 (1962-63). I later served UU churches for 23 years, and always felt commanded to paint bigger pictures: more life-giving and demanding. That’s what “religion” was, thanks to John and a great education. Now…. I’m sure there are exceptions to the awful narcissistic pandering that is seeming to define this new religion of merely “UUism” — more like “We-We-ism”. But they keep quiet to protect their career from the soul-killing inanity parading around in Robes. Sad.

  3. Tom Clowes says:

    If you’re not a UU of color, how could you know what it’s like to be a UU of color? I suppose one way would be to listen carefully to what UUs of color say about what it’s like. Which has absolutely been that there is a “white supremacy culture” among UUs that negatively affects many UUs of color. To say “My issue with the label “white supremacy culture” is that there doesn’t seem to be a trace of it in Unitarian Universalism” is like saying that a certain environment shows no signs of discriminating against hijab wearers without being a hijab wearer or asking one about their experience.
    To think anti-White actions in Africa are equivalent to anti-Black actions in Africa, a continent ravaged by White people’s colonialism, is absurd.

    • midiguru says:

      I’m not disputing the idea that there are quite likely occasional instances of racism within one UU congregation or another, either between individuals or through the actions of a local board. That wouldn’t be in the least bit surprising. But that doesn’t make it a culture of white supremacy. Nor is “white supremacy” an acceptable term. It could only qualify as a culture if the racism were pervasive — and I have never seen any indication that it’s pervasive. Nor any evidence. The COIC Report is a complete snow job. It pretends to document a pervasive culture, but the examples in it were blatantly cherry-picked in order to support a thesis that its authors had already decided on. There has been, to date, NO actual objective scientific study documenting the extent of racism within the UU community. Individual anecdotes, however arousing to our emotions, are NOT scientifically valid. And if you think the tools of scientific scrutiny must be jettisoned because they’re part of “white supremacy culture,” you can go sit on a sharp stick.

      • Tom Clowes says:

        Yikes – no sharp stick for me, please. Thank you Jim.
        If we’re coming from a place of logic and reasoning, surely we would say that, even if you feel there’s not evidence of a “white supremacy culture” among UUs, the absence of evidence doesn’t prove its absence. And, if we know nothing about UU culture but know about American culture in general, we might reasonably assume that white supremacy culture among UUs is more likely than not. White supremacy culture certainly exists in American society, undeniably, as pretty much every study of the matter shows. Black people have, what 11 cents for every dollar a White person has? That is insane. Black people use drugs at the same rates as White people but are several HUNDRED percent more likely to be imprisoned for that drug use? That is insanely unfair. Or Black names on identical resumes as those with White names get called in for interviews – what is it? – half as often?! But it all makes sense when we know the US historical record and how and why racial identities were created as a social construct. Anyways, knowing that history and that ongoing reality, and knowing that UUism is a predominantly White religious tradition is enough that a reasonable person might think there’s a good chance White supremacy culture extends to UU culture. And, I don’t know of a single UU organization of color that wouldn’t say that’s the case. That’s pretty strong evidence, actually. Perhaps there’s a disconnect because when a lot of White folks hear the term “White supremacy,” they think of more extreme forms of racism – Confederate flags, swastikas, Proud Boys. But racism shows up among Prius drivers too, not just among pickup truck drivers. Often without the knowledge of those Prius drivers. Or the pickup truck drivers. We all have our blind spots.

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