Book note: The Gadfly Papers

THE GADFLY PAPERS: Three Inconvenient Essays by One Pesky Minister by Todd Eklof (2019)

At the 2019 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, the Rev. Todd F. Eklof set up a table outside the meeting hall to give away free copies of his new book, The Gadfly Papers.

He was immediately denounced by UUA leaders and barred from the floor of the General Assembly.

This was followed a denunciation in a group letter signed by nearly 500 white UU ministers, plus rebukes from several groups representing UUs of color.

He was officially censured by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association for allegedly causing harm to “people of color, indigenous, trans, disabled and other marginalized communities.”

Later he was removed from UUA ministerial fellowship, an action that in the past has been taken very rarely, and then mainly to ministers guilty of sexual misconduct.

I have been a Unitarian Universalist almost all my adult life.  I was taken aback when I learned about how Eklof was treated.  What originally attracted me to this movement was its emphasis on freedom of conscience and thought.

The UUA has no required religious dogma, only a commitment to Seven Principles.  Earl Morse Wilbur, a leading historian of Unitarianism, said it is defined by its commitment to “freedom, reason and tolerance.”

The joke about Unitarian Universalists is that, coming to a fork in the road, we turned away from the path that led to heaven and chose the one that led to a discussion about heaven.

So what makes Todd Eklof’s book out of bounds for discussion?  To find out, I decided to read it.  I think his book and the response to his book throw light on questions that are of interest to a wider public than just Unitarian Universalists.


Chapter One. The Coddling of the Unitarian-Universalist Mind: How the Emerging Culture of Safetyism, Identitarianism and Political Correctness Is Reshaping America’s Most Liberal Religion.

Borrowing from the framework in The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, Eklof said the same disturbing ideologies that have been seen on college campuses in recent years are now being manifested in the UUA.

These include “safetyism,” which holds that people should be safe from the expression of threatening ideas, and “identitarianism,” which holds that political mobilization must be based on race, gender, sexuality or other marginalized status.

An example of these attitudes was the reaction to a UUWorld article entitled “After L, G and B.” The author told what she had learned while relating to her daughter’s transgender girlfriend, discussed some of the difficulties faced by transgendered people in the UUA and stressed the importance of getting language right.

Eklof told how the article was greeted by denunciations on the ground that a cisgendered person had no standing to write about the experiences of transgendered people. The President of the UUA issued an apology, which was attached to the internet archive of the article, and the author apologized for her presumption.

Another example he gave was protesters shutting down a workshop on nonviolence communication, given at Liberal Religious Education Directors Association fall conference. The reason for the protest was that the facilitators were white men, and, therefore by definition, representatives of white supremacy and patriarchy.

Eklof mentioned a number of other things, including rewording of a hymn, “Standing on the Side of Love,” on the grounds that it was hurtful to people confined to wheelchairs, and being told his sermons were “too white.”

I might be tempted to think he was exaggerating, if the UUA’s over-reaction tp his book hadn’t proved the truth of what he wrote.

He contrasted these attitudes with words and deeds of great Unitarians of the past, who fought for freedom of conscience and equal rights for all, and for the common good of all.


Chapter Two. I Want a Divorce: A Case for Spitting the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Rev. Todd F. Eklof

The second chapter of Eklof’s book is the shortest, but most provocative. He argues that the 1961 merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America was a mistake, and should be reversed.

The Unitarians and Universalists both arose in the late 18th and early 19th century USA as dissident Protestant sects. The Unitarians denied the doctrine of the Trinity and believe that Jesus was a great teacher of wisdom. The Universalists taught universal salvation, and denied there was a Hell or eternal punishment.

Thomas Starr King, who was both a Unitarian and a Universalist, said that Universalists believed that God was too good to damn people for eternity, and Unitarians believed they were told good to be damned.

By the mid-20th century, both had distanced themselves from Christianity and defined themselves as universal religions of humanity.

But, as Eklof wrote, they weren’t quite the same. Unitarians tended to be religious humanists, while Universalists tended to be theists with a Christian orientation.

The attempt to combine humanism and theism has resulted in a philosophy too vague and equivocal to satisfy anyone, he wrote.  He disparaged the Universalist heritage and saw religious humanism as the future.

I agree that there would be more clarity if Unitarian humanists and Universalist theists were two distinct sects.  But the two are so intermingled that trying to separate them now would be like trying to unscramble an omelet.


Chapter Three. Let’s Be Reasonable: A Rational Frame Regarding Charges of Racism and White Supremacy Within the Unitarian Universalist Association.

The third chapter begins by discussing logical fallacies found in a 2018 report by a Commission on Institutional Change.

One common fallacy is “affirming the consequent.”  Example: (1) If an organization is white supremacist, it will not appoint people of color for leadership positions. (2) The UUA passed over a person of color for a leadership position. (3) Therefore the UUA is a white supremacist organization.”

Eklof goes on to question the use of loaded terms such as “white supremacy” by UU leaders and by Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility.

Historically “white supremacy” has been defined as a system based on the principle that white people are inherently superior to people of color and are entitled to rule over them, steal their land and resources, enslave them or commit genocide against them. Examples are the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, white nationalists, neo-Nazis and the alt-Right.

As used by DiAngelo, “white supremacy” is any prevailing attitude or trait of white people, conscious or unconscious, that is detrimental to people of color or makes them feel excluded.  She furthermore asserts that all or virtually all white people, regardless of their conscious intentions, are, under this broader definition, racist.

The problem with her generalizations about white people, Eklof said, is that they are categorical.  They apply to all white people without exception, or virtually all. And she provides no actual evidence except her credentials as a sociologist.

Eklof prefers the terminology of the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, who wrote about “color-blind racism.”  Such racism consists of making arguments that uphold structures of racial inequality without actually mentioning race.

This doesn’t strike me as night-and-day different from what DiAngelo wrote.

Bonilla-Silva conducted interviews about racial issues, and found a number of common themes justifying the status quo—abstract liberalism, biologization of culture, naturalization on racial matters and minimization of racism.

What’s striking to me is that Bonilla-Silva, in his interviews, found black people as well as whites (although many more whites) who made such arguments.

In an epilogue, Eklof said that if racial inequality is baked into the structure of society, the most direct way to tackle it is to attack the structures, not individuals. His own efforts included helping to establish a restorative justice program in Louisville, Ky., and working for marijuana legalization in Washington state, both of which helped keep young people out of the school-to-prison pipeline.


What I think

I think almost everyone wants, and ought to have, a safe space where they can be among friends who understand them.  I don’t think it’s reasonable for anyone to demand that the whole world be a safe space for themselves and their friends.

I think almost everyone has some sort of group identity that they will fight to defend.  But I also think that beneath all our diversity and despite all our differences, there is a common humanity that can unite us.

I mostly agree with Eklof.  I don’t share his dismissive attitude toward Universalism.  I don’t see anything in his book that justifies the campaign against him.

As for myself, nobody among my fellow Unitarian Universalists has attacked me for expressing my own opinions.

I don’t think the new ideology is completely bad.  To the extent that it results in white people making a greater effort to understand black people and to learn about racism and injustice in U.S. history, it is a good thing.

To the extent that the new ideology produces an over-correction, the balance can be restored through free discussion and congregational democracy.

If re-balancing does not happen to my liking, I accept the principle of majority rule, provided that I still can speak my own mind without retribution—and I assume I can, unless and until I’m shown otherwise.


The Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism.

Unitarianism and Universalism entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica.  This is for those who are curious about the theology and background of these two movements.

The Road to The Gadfly Papers and Beyond, a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Todd F. Eklof to the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Spokane, Washington, on Nov. 19, 2019.

An Open Letter From White UU Ministers.  Includes links to responses from DRUUMM (Diverse & Reolutionary UU Ministries), the UUMA People of Color and Indigenous chapter and Allies for Racial Equality.

Letter of Censure from Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association board and executive team.

We Quit: 13 ministers resign from the UU Ministers Association.

Justice in Our Denomination by the Rev. Sarah Skochko, a sermon to the UU church of Eugene, Oregon.  A denunciation of Eklof.

Free, Responsible and Imperiled by the Rev. Kate Braestrup on her blog.  A reply to Skochko.

Ministerial Fellowship Committee’s notification to Rev. Eklof that he has been removed from fellowship with the UUA.

Good Officer Response to Ministerial Fellowship Committee by the Rev. Rick Davis.

Unitarian Universalist congregation in Spokane splits over pastor’s approach by Tracy Simmons for The Spokesman-Review of Spokane.

The Gadfly Affair, a review of Eklof’s newest book (which I haven’t read)

Tags: , ,

7 Responses to “Book note: The Gadfly Papers”

  1. davidgmarkham Says:

    Thank you Phil for a good analysis of the work and position of Todd Eklof. Far left liberals can be just as judgmental and biases as far right conservatives.

    The UUA embracing far left ideologies is a mistake for the denomination if it hopes to survive and grow and be a positive force for transformation.

    The biggest issue for Unitarian Universalism has been its swerve from it mission of promoting and facilitating spiritual growth to one of rectifying social justice. This focus is coming from the Unitarian element with its emphasis on rational humanism which has a place but which has dominated the spiritual element of the theistically oriented Universalists. Can they both interact in a constructive way to produce a positive energy which moves us along our evolutionary path?

    I think they can but it takes a much more mature leadership at both the congregational and the association level.

    You have been one such leader and appreciate your work and efforts every much.


  2. Perette Barella Says:

    What strikes me is the contradictions set up by the political correct liberals: When you see mistreatment, you must not sit idly by, but instead speak up and fight against the ills. But if you speak on behalf of a population of which you are not a member, you are in the eyes of the same folks committing a social sin. They will damn you if you do, and damn you if you don’t.

    I used to speak up more. I got tired of being yelled at, so I stopped speaking up in scenarios where I know it’ll just invoke unwanted wrath. I don’t think that’s ideal, but I don’t see a good alternative.


    • davidgmarkham Says:

      Polarization has manifested in UU as in society in general between the hard right and the hard left. The centrist position also is not viable because it often is seen as ambiguous and leads to wandering rather leading in a clear direction.

      The possible path forward is what has been referred to as the third way which integrates the two polarized positions in such as way to transform the systemic understanding by reframing the issue at a next higher level of awareness.

      Rather than being caught in the damned if you do, damned if don’t double bound position of advocating for a marginalized position one is not a member of, the advocate for a change can advocate for HOW people think about the issue not WHAT they think about the topic.

      So instead of a white cis person talking about “Black Lives Matter” or “Native American Rights” or “LBGTQ” we can talk about cultural competence when it comes to navigating and interacting with diverse groups. How does one do that to enhance justice, equity, and compassion in human relations? Are we as a group doing the best we can to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person?


  3. philebersole Says:

    The UU theologian Thandeka criticizes the “anti-racism” theology, but not, like Todd Eklof, on the grounds that it doesn’t make sense, but rather that it is contrary to the practice of universal love.

    “Universal love” is a big idea, one I fear is beyond me. There are very few people that I can say I’ve loved. The best I can so is to try to treat everyone with courtesy and fairness, and to recognize their basic rights.

    I do not have strong religious or mystical feelings. I think it is dangerous to rely on feelings and emotion alone without a commitment to core principles. Someone who relies on the heart without the head is like someone who drives a car with a motor but no steering wheel.

    I have great respect for Rev. Dr. Thandeka and I’ve learned much from her writings, but on this question, I’m more aligned with the humanist Todd Eklof. I am opposed to any movement to the extent that it is dogmatic, unreasonable and intolerant.


  4. Michael Scott Says:

    What strikes me as most unfortunate about many of the battles among liberals today is a tendency to conflate impact and intention. Anti-racist groups are absolutely right when they say that intention isn’t enough, and that lack of ill intent doesn’t erase or excuse harmful impact. At the same time, lack of ill intent implies much higher odds of learning and growth than would be possible in the presence of ill intent. Shaming or “canceling” people for negative impact without regard to intent misses the opportunity to recruit allies in the fight for systemic change.

    As a concrete example, I read the UU World article referred to above when it first came out and I cringed as I read it. I had no doubt that the author’s intent was good, but even as a straight, cis, white male I could tell that it was centering the perspective of privilege and that an article by a trans writer would have been much more genuine, insightful and effective. Should the author have deferred to such an alternative voice? Most likely, yes. Should the UU World editor have sought such a voice? Absolutely! Should the author have been shamed for being an imperfect ally? I think not.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. philebersole Says:

    I think the UU ministry would have spared itself and the denomination a lot of grief if they’d just let Eklof distribute his book.


  6. davidgmarkham Says:

    There is a lot more to the concerns than just the distribution of Rev. Dr. Eklof’s book. There are major concerns expressed by UUMUAC and the Fifth Principle group about the eradication of the UU seven principles and the failure of the UUA to abide by the Fifth Principle. There also is the proposed revision in the UUA by-laws changing the UUA from a service organization to congregations to a management organization. It’s a really big deal in the history of the development of the UUA since its founding in the 60s. People who want more power and control to pursue their social justice activities without democratic input an decision making are being challenged about their desire to capture the UUA for their own agenda and the UUAs resources which are considerable.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: