Does Unitarian Universalism Support Freedom of Conscience?

Guest Contributors

Rev. Rick Davis and Eric Schuman

UU Congregation of Salem, Oregon

February 9, 2020

In 17th century in the area we now call Rhode Island there lived a Narragansett chief known to history as Canonicus.  As he was nearing his death, he asked to be buried with a piece of cloth given to him by a Cambridge University educated preacher whom he had come to love like a son.   Who could have predicted the unique, loving friendship that had developed between Canonicus and the English colonist Roger Williams?   And yet, upon closer scrutiny, it made perfect spiritual sense.

Roger Williams was, in the estimation of his fellow English colonists in Massachesetts Bay colony, such a strange man with such dangerous ideas that (year) they banished him in the dead of winter, and he nearly died as he straggled through blizzards in the New England wilderness.   Were it not for the help of the Narragansett he surely would have perished.   Yet what put Rogers so at odds with his fellow English colonists actually put him in good stead with the Native Americans – his profound respect for every person’s freedom of conscience, or “soul liberty,” as he put it.

By the time Williams arrived in the new world he had already mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew and it was his natural inclination to study and learn about the language, customs and spirituality of the native inhabitants which he recorded in his 1643 book, “A Key Into the Language of America,” which was not only a language guide, but a very sympathetic and appreciative introduction to the customs and religious views of the native inhabitants which were, in many ways, he recognized as more enlightened than the Europeans.   He learned that they had 37 names for God and that radical hospitality was the norm among them and that “their hearts were inclined to goodness.”   In short, Williams clearly recognized the humanity of the original inhabitants of the land and greatly appreciated their hospitality and kindness.

Now according to the theological dictates of the time it was incumbent upon Rogers, a Christian clergyman, to seek to convert the native Americans.  Yet even though he was a devout Christian, he conscientiously made no effort to convert the Narragansett to his faith.  Why? Because he saw how spiritually and culturally destructive such so called evangelism was for them and how vulnerable Native Americans were to such spiritual abuse.  Even as the colonists were stripping the Native Americans of their land, coerced conversions were also stripping them of their spiritual freedom, their own culture, their very humanity.   Roger Williams was a remarkable person – especially so in the intolerant context of his age – who regarded each and every soul he met as having their own inviolable spiritual integrity.

As a consequence of his banishment from Massachusetts Rogers decided to settle in the area we now know as Rhode Island.  Unlike other colonists he sought to pay the Native Americans a fair price but the chief refused to receive money for something he did not think anyone could ever own – a piece of the earth.  He did, however, accept gifts from Rogers over the coming years, including the piece of cloth with which he was buried.  Would that other European settlers had treated Native Americans with the same respect.   What a beautiful thing it is when we extend to one another the profound respect of acknowledging our individual spiritual integrity.

Roger Williams managed to obtain a charter from the English government which enabled him to establish the colony of Rhode Island – a place of refuge for religious dissidents where freedom of conscience and expression were respected.   He lived before the founding of either the Unitarian or Universalism in America, yet he can be acknowledged as one of our spiritual ancestors for freedom of conscience and expression lie at the very foundation of both movements which became one movement – the Unitarian Universalist Association – in 1961.  Our founders were considered damnable heretics by many, yet they were brave souls who chose to listen to their own hearts and minds as they formed their spiritual convictions.   Thus it is that historically we have provided refuge from spiritual coercion.  Ours is a “free faith” tradition where we strive to create conditions for each one of us to discover and choose our own unique paths even as we use the values expressed in our principles and purposes as our touchstone.   That’s why it’s not my job to tell you what you should believe – I’m called to share my heart and mind, my perspectives, views, opinions, convictions – you are free to embrace or not embrace them.   What I most want is not for you to follow to me, but to let your own conscience be your guide.

After Roger Williams founded the colony of Rhode Island various religious dissidents fleeing persecution took refuge there.   He had serious qualms about some of their theological views yet he allowed them to settle and never persecuted or stifled them for expressing their views.   Compare that to how some of my fellow Unitarian Universalist ministers reacted to a book my friend and colleague, the Rev. Todd Eklof, wrote and distributed at our Annual General Assembly in Spokane where he serves the UU Congregation of Spokane.   His book “The Gadfly Papers…” was roundly condemned in a letter signed by 500 UU ministers and he was officially censured by the UU Minister’s Association.

To further explain this situation and my response and our congregation’s response I turn the pulpit over to our good friend Eric Schuman, who has been an invaluable ally for me as I have grappled with this challenge to our free faith – he speaks on behalf or our Committee on the Ministry….

Guest Contributor Eric Schuman

Freedom of Conscience – the right and responsibility of Unitarian Universalists to speak the truth as they see it.  Our fifth UU principle is the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.  This is what we profess.

About 20 years ago Rick and I shared this pulpit in a sermon we called “Heretic.”  It was about the 20th century Unitarian minister Stephen Fritchman, editor of the magazine which later became known as the UU World.  Fritchman was fired by the American Unitarian Association in the 1950s because he was an outspoken critic of fascist regimes in Europe and because he collaborated with Communists in a relentless quest for world peace.  He was known worldwide for his efforts;  was subpoenaed twice before the House Committee on un-American Activities and had his passport revoked by the State Department. Fritchman was persona non grata in our denomination for years.  It wasn’t until 1969 that the UUA formally apologized and bestowed upon him the Holmes Weatherly award — the highest honor for social justice in liberal religion.  Fritchman saw himself as a Unitarian heretic, which he certainly was.

Fast forward 66 years to 2019. I think Fritchman might also call himself a gadfly.  A gadfly is a person who interferes with the status quo by posing potentially upsetting questions, usually directed at authorities.

Todd Eklof accurately describes himself as a gadfly.  No minister in the 59 year history of the UUA has ever been condemned by 500 of his peers for stating his opinions – in this case on race, free speech and political correctness; nor have even been publicly censured by the UUMA. Last summer, everything changed.

The Ministers’ Association Code of Conduct says this about freedom of conscience: “The history and expectation of the Unitarian Universalist movement is that ministers are free to speak the truth as they understand it. The long standing tradition of freedom of the pulpit extends to ministers in all professional settings. This freedom applies to both spoken and written public statements.”

Todd Eklof, — gadfly, heretic — will be speaking from this pulpit later this month. The most despised person in our Unitarian Universalist movement today.  I don’t agree with everything he wrote in The Gadfly Papers. But I read his book three times, trying to figure out “What is it that they found so offensive? Why do they think he’s racist? Where in the book did he condemn transgendered people?“

Your Committee on Ministry is baffled – Joel couldn’t find anything.  Megan looked.  Dina searched.  And Ruth combed through the pages.   We reached the same conclusion:  the UUMA’s attack on Eklof was completely unfounded.   When you ask folks who condemn him why, their response is this:  People of color say they were harmed by the book.  Transgendered people were hurt.  It‘s never more specific than that.

They tell us that at this point in our racist history, we must believe marginalized people who say they have been harmed. But if we ask for explanations, it because of our white privilege, because of our own racism. I ask you this: How can we learn and grow if we can’t have respectful dialogue with one another? If you agree that we should suspend critical thinking because such thinking is regarded as inherently “white supremacist,” then you will join Todd’s accusers and find him guilty without examining what he said.

The condemnation and censure of Eklof is not the only crisis in the Unitarian Universalist Association.  Since the sudden resignation of president Peter Morales in 2017 – he was accused of racist hiring practices — the UUA’s direction has changed.  Most endeavors of our national association are aimed at anti-racist activities at the denominational and congregational level.  The UUA has prescribed a single path for us to tackle racism in congregations and communities, and any deviation from their way is discouraged. Many believe, including Rev. Rick, that the UUA approach is actually counter productive, and published scientific evidence has demonstrated that this path is ineffective.  That’s the reason we challenge this notion – it’s not because we don’t want to do the hard work of dismantling racism. We must!

Immigrant justice and homelessness have been identified as critically important by our congregation as issues demanding action in our community. The largest population affected by racism here is Hispanic, but our denomination has not taken any significant actions to address discrimination against people of color who aren’t African American.

Let’s look at how our association is governed. Congregational polity is a system in which every local church or congregation is independent and ecclesiastically sovereign.   Unitarian Universalists, members of the United Church of Christ and Reform Jews are all members of a wider faith, but each has congregational polity.   Recent pronouncements of the UUA lead me to question whether this is still the case in our Association.

Here’s an example.  Many of you attended the Day of the Dead service held here in November.  I thought that it was beautifully done and exceptionally meaningful. Photographs of our loved ones filled the altar, and we took the opportunity to honor them.  It was conducted by Willan Cervantes, a Peruvian of indengenous ancestry.   The week following the service, on its website the UUA published an admonishment to white majority congregations like ours never to conduct services commemorating Day of the Dead.  Why?  It’s disrespectful to Mexicans and it is cultural misappropriation.

An examination of the facts regarding this holiday reveal something different. Day of the Dead commemorations date back to Mayan civilization, pre-Columbian Andeans, Brazilians, Guatamalans, Peruvians, Phillipinos, New Zealanders and even Czechs.   So now the UUA is telling us how to worship.  As far as I know, this is a first in the history of Unitarian Universalism. If I wanted to be told what to believe and how to worship, I would be Roman Catholic or a Latter Day Saint.

After I saw the UUA’s post regarding Day of the Dead, I felt compelled to ask someone to explain to me what was happening in our denomination, so on November 5th I wrote a letter to our president in Boston, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray.

Letter to Rev. Fredrick-Gray

Dear Rev. Frederick-Gray,

I’m afraid you might be losing us. The “us” I’m referring to are Unitarian Universalists of many ages and generations, but especially older UUs like me. I joined my first congregation 56 years ago, at the age of 15. Unitarian Universalism resonated with my liberal social and religious values — freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, racial justice and critical thinking.

Like many UUs in the 60s and 70s, we marched for racial justice. Some of us, like me, were jailed. I was a civil rights worker in Mississippi, and sometimes I feared for my life because of my work. I faced prison because I challenged the power structure. In the late 60s I was a white ally of the UU Black caucus, and my own suburban Maryland congregation’s rejection of the work of the Caucus led me to find a new congregation which supported the empowerment of our own African American members.

It feels to me and many like me that our denomination’s leadership has abandoned us in favor of an authoritarian edict dictating exactly how all congregations must fight racism. It feels like our own paths are not respected. There is no one identified in my congregation who accepts the label of “White Supremacist Culture” for this congregation or as a descriptor of our faith. We’ve had 4 congregational discussions, and those who spoke were in agreement. We are proud that we were the first “Sanctuary Congregation” in Oregon’s capital city. None of us denies our own racism, our denomination’s history of racism or that we must be ever vigilant and active against the evil of racism in ourselves or our community. It is the white supremacist label we reject. UUs are not the KKK or the Nazis.

Those of us who have discussed it strongly reject the actions of those at 2019 General Assembly who evicted Rev. Eklof from the meeting. This seems more like the act of an authoritarian denomination than the UUA we know. We read his book and we didn’t see the racism or the trans-phobia others did. Your concern about his book was an opportunity for honest discussion — not eviction from the meeting.

The heavy handedness and illiberal intolerance of the past several months was reinforced by the recent pronouncement of the UUA, which has appointed itself uninvited counselor and advisor to clergy and congregations regarding how we worship. Last week’s edict that predominantly white congregations shouldn’t have services for “Day of the Dead” was shocking. That our Association declares these services as “misappropriating Mexican culture” is insufficient reason for us to change our worship. This is stepping over the line of what a denomination embracing congregational polity does.

I’m sincerely worried you’re going to lose us, Rev. Frederick-Gray. The faith we’ve embraced and celebrated for decades seems to be slipping away at an alarming rate. I don’t know how many congregations will accept these changes, and I’m not sure I can personally accept them. This does not bode well for the future of our faith. Please consider the views of your heretics. We are them.


She never replied.

Let us reflect this morning on our deeply felt values as religious liberals:  freedom of worship, racial justice, democratic principles, critical thinking. Let us resolve to challenge the leaders of our Association to honor our religious heritage. May it be so.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
4 years ago

Great content! Super high-quality! Keep it up! 🙂

Jay Kiskel
Jay Kiskel
4 years ago

“…profound respect for every person’s freedom of conscience.” Three years ago, all UUs knew that our faith movement held dear this principle. It’s hoped that we can reclaim this “profound respect” as a guiding principle for UUism. I have always felt that the incident at the 2019 General Assembly regarding Rev. Dr. Eklof was not about the content of his book. Rather the dust up was a window into the thinking of our denominational leadership when someone actually exercised his freedom of conscience. We all seek an open, welcoming and diverse faith community. The current national strategy has, unfortunately, become… Read more »

Frank Casper
Frank Casper
4 years ago

The question of this thread drives to the heart of why the Fifth Principle Project was started. But we must also distinguish between UUism as we’ve known it, and the current leadership of the UUA. It is clear to me that the response of leadership to Eklof’s book has put the question of this thread before all UU’s. Are we going forward as a faith committed to supporting the right of conscience as institutionalized in our fifth principle? Or are we turning toward a denomination that is perfectly willing to abandon that principle, arguably the cornerstone of the rest, and… Read more »

pitbull usd
1 year ago

Reading your article helped me a lot and I agree with you. But I still have some doubts, can you clarify for me? I’ll keep an eye out for your answers.

registrera dig för binance

Your point of view caught my eye and was very interesting. Thanks. I have a question for you.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x