Book note: Used to Be UU

USED TO BE UU: The Systematic Attack on UU Liberalism by Frank Casper and Jay Kissel (2021)

This is the last of three books I recently read on the crisis of liberalism within the Unitarian Universalist Association, which is the abandonment by self-described liberals of historic liberal principles.

I think the UU crisis is the echo of a crisis of liberalism generally in the USA and other liberal democracies. As such, it may be of interest beyond UU membership.

Used to Be UU covers much the same ground as the Rev. Todd Eklof’s The Gadfly Papers and Anne Larason Schneider’s White Supremacy Culture, and goes more deeply into issues of UUA governance.

If you only have time to read one of the three books, Used to Be UU is the one I recommend.  If you don’t even have time to read one book, I recommend you check out the Fifth Principle Project web site.

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The first part of the book is an account of events that began in March, 2017 when Scott Tayler, the director of congregational life, filled the position of Southern Region director by appointing the Rev. Andy Burnette, a white man who lived outside the region, and passed over the Rev. Christina Rivera, a Hispanic woman who lived inside the region.

There was a great outcry by religious professionals of color, which was followed by the resignation of UUA President Peter Morales just two and a half months before the completion of his six-year term.

(Rev. Morales, for what it’s worth, is Hispanic, and his predecessor, the Rev. William Sinkford, is African-American)

The Board of Trustees met by Zoom on April 3, and determined that the UU culture harbored “structures and patterns that foster racism, oppression and and white supremacy.”

The board issued a formal call for a process to analyze structural racism and white supremacy within the UUA.

This action resulted in the creation of the Commission on Institutional Change, which delivered a report, Widening the Circle of Concern, to the 2020 virtual General Assembly.

Of course this didn’t come out of nowhere. It reflected tensions that had been building up in the denomination for some time.

But still: It was a major change in direction that was decided on at a 90-minute meeting without a vote or discussion by the UUA membership.

Furthermore it has being treated as an official doctrine from which you are not supposed to deviate.

It is to be discussed at the upcoming virtual UUA General Assembly June 23-27, but the current issue of UU World says “the UUA is already adopting its policies and practices to embody its antiracist and anti-oppressive commitments and urges congregations and other UU organizations to do the same.”

So evidently any General Assembly vote is just a formality to ratify something already decided on.

The board of trustees also created an Article II Study Commission, whose mission is to revise the portion of the UUA bylaws that have to do with the purpose of the association.

The board’s charge to the commission is that it is free to “revise, replace or restructure” all sections of Article II, including the Seven Principles.

An Eighth Principle, having to do with “accountable” diversity and multi-cuturalism, is under consideration.

The first vote on proposed changes to Article II is scheduled to be held at the 2022 General Assembly, if a majority vote is secured, the changes will be accepted or rejected at the 2023 General Assembly.

I would beware of using the word “accountable” without a precise definition of who is accountable, what they are accountable for, to whom they are accountable and how the accountability process works.

It can mean that any UU minister who says something that some other UU minister or official thinks is contrary to UU values, they can be called on to appear at some vaguely defined hearing process to justify themselves, and penalized if they don’t.

This happened to the Rev. Todd Eklof, and other examples of this are given in the book.

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The middle section of the book is devoted an analysis of the anti-liberal ideas behind the new movement.  The following two quotes, both referring to Todd Eklof’s The Gadfly Papers, illustrate the new attitude toward freedom and reason.

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.

Source: An open letter from white UU ministers.

We understand from your book that you want to encourage robust and reasoned debate about the direction of our faith.  However, we cannot ignore the fact that logic has often been employed in white supremacy culture to stifle dissent, minimize expressions of harm, and to require those who suffer to prove the harm by that culture’s standards.

Source: UUMA Board and Executive Team Public Letter of Censure.

Is it necessary to add that down through history, it has been oppressors, not the oppressed, who suppressed freedom and rejected reason?

How did these ideas come to take hold?

Casper and Kiskel wrote that it is because of the influence of postmodernism and its offshoots—applied (second-wave) postmodernism, postcolonial theory, critical race theory, intersectional theory and liberatory theology.

The original postmodernists said all over-arching theories, including Christianity, Marxism and liberalism, were based on certain taken-for-granted definitions and assumptions, and never could be proven to be true. 

If you deconstructed any set of philosophical or political ideas, you would find they are just words, ultimately based on unproved assumptions.  But this didn’t lead anywhere.

So the second wave postmodernists, the authors wrote, decided to use the tools of postmodernism to deconstruct ideas that upheld the status quo.

Postcolonial theory, according to them, rejects the ideas of modern Western civilization on the grounds that they formed the basis by which white Europeans justified subjugating non-Western civilization.

In this view, the significance of the Mayflower Compact is not that a group of ordinary people formed a religious compact that did not rely on the authority of popes, kings, bishops and aristocrats.

Its significance is that it was an agreement among white men who went on to subjugate and drive out indigenous peoples. 

So Unitarian Universalist ideas about congregational democracy. which derive from the Mayflower Compact, are an example of white supremacy culture.

Critical race theory is similar, except that it is about white people holding black people down.  Identity theory is critical race theory generalized to other groups.  “Liberatory” theology is a religious version of these ideas.

I admit I have read only a little by advocates of critical race theory and liberation theology, and less than that about post-colonial theory and identity theory, but this generally rings true for me.

The question for me is why these ideas have taken hold in Unitarian Universalism and in the USA generally.  There seems to be a latent weakness in liberalism that makes it unable to defend itself.

Within Unitarian Universalism, we have the problem of unresolved issues going back to the black empowerment controversy of 1967-1970.  But these are complex topics too deep to deal with in a short space, so I’ll move on.

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Congregational democracy historically is the foundation of both Unitarianism and Universalism.  The full name of the UUA is the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

But in its recent history, it has been an example of the Iron Law of Oligarchy.

I am like most Unitarian Universalists.  I have always been concerned with the congregation I belong to, but have taken little interest in denominational affairs.

I always thought the purpose of the national UUA organization was to help the congregations rather than direct them.  But evidently there are highly-motivated people who think differently from me. 

The UUA has two governing bodies, the General Assembly, which meets annually, and the Board of Trustees, which is in charge between meetings.

Prior to 2011, a majority of the trustees were elected as representatives of 19 UUA districts.  The districts had their own elected leaders, published newsletters, held workshops and annual meetings.

All this disappeared when districts were consolidated into five large regions.  Now all the trustees are elected at-large.  They can be nominated by petition of congregations or by a nominating committee. 

Casper and Kiskel challenged readers to name one member of the Board of Trustees.  I can’t, myself.

They advocate a board of trustees with some elected at-large and some from the regions. 

If there are not enough nominees for a contested election, the authors say there should be a “no confidence” voting option.

In recent years, trustees have been chosen without opposition and without a formal vote. 

But this year, Jay Kiskel, one of the authors of this book, has been nominated for trustee by petition.

As for the General Assembly, congregations are entitled to send one delegate for every 50 members.  There also is provision for giving ministers, religious educators and emeritus clergy delegate status.

Only about 60 percent of congregations send delegates, Casper and Kiskel said. 

The ability to attend the GA depends on the ability to pay expenses and take time off from work, and also the distance to travel, because the GA meets in a different city each year. 

Casper and Kiskel think the special delegate status for clergy should be eliminated, and a quorum requirement set up for GA meetings. 

They advocate on-line and mail voting on crucial issues, although they admit this would be difficult to do.  The Zoom General Assemblies held as a result of the pandemic could set a pattern.

The UUA top executives consist of a president and a moderator, who serve six-year terms.  The president is the administrator of the UUA organization; the moderator presides over meetings of the Board of Trustees.

Candidates for president are selected by a special presidential nominating commission elected at a General Assembly.  They can also be nominated by petition.  There has always been more than one candidate for president, and the campaigns have been have been strongly contested.

The last governing issue is the authority of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association and UUA Ministerial Fellowship Committee to censure and dis-fellowship ministers without consulting their congregations.

There does need to be a disciplinary process for ministers guilty of financial or sexual misconduct or other unprofessional behavior, the authors said.

But a national administrative body should not take action against a minister for voicing dissent, writing a book or asking questions on Facebook.

LINKS

Unitarian Universalist Association web site.

Fifth Principle Project – every voice deserves a vote.

Jay Kiskel – candidate for UUA Board of Trustees.

We Quit – UU Ministers Resign from Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association.

The UUA Crisis, Explained by the Rev. Mel Pine.

UUMA Board to Ministers: Shut Up! by the Rev. Richard Trudeau.

 

 

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One Response to “Book note: Used to Be UU”

  1. davidgmarkham Says:

    Dear Phil:

    Thanks so much for a wonderful post with all the links and critical analysis. The governance of the denomination has always been a huge impediment to Unitarian Universalism’s growth and development.

    With no compass to guide the decision making the Association wanders foolishly reacting to complaints that are immature and juvenile and don’t matter when it comes to pursing the organizational mission.

    There is no strategic plan for the organization that I know of nor a thoughtfully considered mission and vision statement. The Association has become a social service organization focused in social justice issues rather than on the spiritual development of its members and the world.

    It is a shame that the leadership of the organization have lost their way.

    David Markham

    Like

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