by Frank Casper
It is important before reading this piece that the reader know that it is largely about theology, and specifically about theology at the UUA as presented at this year’s General Assembly. I am writing it because it is something I have always been interested in and believe to be important. I believe this because of the one essential lesson that I learned from my graduate education at BU School of Theology. Whatever else theology may be about, it is first and foremost always about power, who has it, the terms in which it is exercised, and why. To put it another way, every theology has a politics.
But before I get into the message of GA, I want first to praise the technical team. This was the first all virtual GA in the history of the event, and from a technological perspective, it was first rate. What with thousands in attendance with differing credentials attending multiple simultaneous sessions, all recorded, and apart from the occasional glitch, to be expected with any task as complex as this clearly was, the technical team did a magnificent job. This will no doubt now be a crucial tool for the future of such gatherings. Hat’s off to those responsible.
Consistent General Assembly Message
I will also say that the theme of the entire program and most of the workshops were consistent throughout. The GA management team could hardly have done a better job of coordinating the message with the programs they chose. Having said that, it is the message with which I have concerns.
Despite a valiant effort to convey the laudable message that UUism will strive to lift up minority and historically marginalized voices, I could not help but be somewhat taken aback by the strident sense of grievance and retribution in this year’s GA. The opening speech delivered by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz on the first full day combined with the many programs following that concerned themselves with the history of oppression, and the overwhelmingly negative Action of Immediate Witness (AIW), particularly the AIW-A (attached), “Addressing 400 Years of White Supremacist Colonialism,” painted a picture of the United States, and its political, religious, and economic institutions as an agenda of avaricious and murderous white people protecting and advancing the interests of white supremacy. While our national history is definitely scarred, especially with the twin sins of slavery and racism, this overwhelmingly negative viewpoint fails to provide a foundation upon which we can unite and move forward to address these important issues. Which brings me to the single most important business event of this GA.
This condemnatory and unforgiving view of our country was highlighted in the centerpiece of the whole program, the report from the Commission on Institutional Change. The report was presented by its author, Dr. Elias Ortega, president of Meadville Lombard, and the other commission members. It is a document that every UU should read and understand, because it is the first and official effort of the UUA to create a sweeping redefinition of the core values of Unitarian Universalism. It is nothing less than the outlines of a new theology, which is distinct but related to another effort that can be found in books like “The Turning Point,” edited by Rev. Frederic Muir, and in essays like “Congregational Polity and the Myth of Congregational Autonomy” by Sue Phillips.
Committee on Institutional Change Report
The COIC report is grounded in Critical Race Theory (1) that spawned the distinct but related ideas of intersectionality and white supremacy culture. Indeed, soon after the presentation of the report, Dr. Ortega issued a 5-page essay (attached) preemptively defending CRT from its critics, particularly from those he identifies as liberals. The report, and its litany of recommendations, is guided by a simple principle, that the more one’s voice has been marginalized, the more one’s voice will be “centered” or amplified. But that principle can also legitimately be read in the obverse, that is, in terms of the theme of the GA described in the above paragraph, that white cisgendered people are a perennial problem and stubborn obstacles to progress toward social justice. In other words, if one is white and cisgendered, we will only be heard in so far as we are willing to admit our role in the perpetuation of white supremacy, to be followed by committing ourselves to a program of perennial therapy, ever struggling against our nature in the constant search for unconscious bias. This, I think, is the new meaning of the 4rth principle for the white and cisgendered. As one UU FB post said,
“I am a white ally. I have done decades of conscious work to undo my societally engrained racism. I still have racist thoughts or reactions. You have to understand we’ve had these ideas taught to us our entire lives. But that is not an excuse. I treat it similar to overcoming addiction and breaking the cycle of unhealthy thinking. It’s not easy. It requires consistent vigilance. And I still make mistakes. I’m lucky to have a wonderful community that will lovingly point out my mistakes. Sometimes they’re egregious errors and it hurts my ego deeply. It’s uncomfortable. But change is rarely comfortable.”
The related and parallel effort from Frederic Muir and others, and echoed in a recent article by UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray, concerns itself with what is called the three sins of Unitarian Universalism, excessive individualism, exceptionalism, and what is termed “a certain allergy to authority.” We suffer, in other words, from too much intellectual freedom. We think we can believe whatever we want and are free from any requirement of responsibility toward our faith community for the views we form. And we take pride in this, too much pride, in fact. We think too much of ourselves for our intellectual freedoms. And that lends itself to what they call that “allergy to authority.” We tend toward rebellion on grounds of conscience. “These three corrupting narratives”, writes Rev. Muir, “have shaped our story.” They form what he calls the iChurch, and they are a barrier to the Beloved Community. Muir and others believe that in order save UUism, we need to abandon our tradition of individually governed congregations and subject ourselves to a centralized religious authority.
It is reasonable to suspect that the meaning of the Beloved Community is outlined in the COIC report. This can be seen in the report itself in the change being made to the meaning of the 4rth principle. I quote:
“Freedom of belief promotes diversity of thought in our communities and fuels the responsible search for truth and meaning that leads toward beloved community. This freedom encourages exploration and experimentation, lending creativity and innovation to our communities. Yet over the decades since the consolidation of Unitarians and Universalists, an overemphasis on individual exploration and experience as the primary, if not sole center of religious experience developed. This centering of the individual decenters the communal as a locus of theological exploration. One of the unintended consequences has been the atomized individualism of the search for truth and meaning without accountability to its impact in the communities….”
Limits on Intellectual Freedom
In other words, there will be, or at least, the leadership of the UUA wants there to be, some kind of authority imposing limits on intellectual freedom. I think it reasonable to surmise that this may be the motive behind the push for the 8th principle, and its requirement of “accountability” for our actions. None of our other principles includes such a requirement – they are goals, not commandments. There is little if any effort so far that I’m aware of to define what “accountability” will mean, but I think there are clues in my remarks here.
In this context I want to draw attention to one particular workshop I attended, “Building Communities to Counter White Nationalism/White Power”, presented by Rev. Chris Rothbauer and Dr. Sharon Welsh. The title alone was intriguing as I had myself done a good deal of research into the nature and intent of this movement. And while Dr. Welsh presented a decent description of this movement, Rev. Rothbauer went on to turn the presentation into something I hadn’t expected. It turns out that the way to counter what we all now tend to subsume under the word alt-right is to put limits on free speech. Indeed, according to Rev, Rothbauer, and a book he tells us he’s deeply indebted to for the development of his views, “The Case Against Free Speech”, by P.E. Moskowitz, the problem with free speech is that it protects hate speech. It is imperative that hate speech be shut down, and in order to do that, we have to put limits somehow on free speech. In one of his later slides, Rev. Rothbauer writes:
“If we must give a platform and listen to every idea, there are no limits to the ideologies we must tolerate in the name of free speech.”
The remainder of his presentation attempts to present an alternative to tolerating noxious ideas and hate speech. He turns to what he calls “relational ethics”, and his presentation of what that means tracks well with the meaning of Beloved Community that Rev. Muir finds the three sins of UUism to be an obstacle to. The first bullet item of the Relational Ethics slide reads:
“We have the right to say things, but we are responsible to the people we are in relationship with.”
He says in the next bullet that this is the meaning of our fifth principle. His last bullet states:
“We don’t just tolerate hate speech because we think we have to but we seek to prevent hate speech from harming our loved ones, refuse to provide it platform, and seek to reconcile members of white nationalists groups to the larger community as well as prevent others from being recruited.”
One wonders what kind of policy this would be in practice within our faith community until one remembers that we have a superlative example in the case of Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof. It was, in fact, hate speech that he was accused of and eventually, because he would not capitulate to that interpretation of his book and apologize for his alleged sins, he was publicly censured and then unfellowshipped. And if you are wondering how Dr. Eklof’s book, firmly grounded as it is in religious humanism and the 7 principles that emerged from it, could be regarded as the kind of hate speech we see coming from white nationalists, then read one of the resources Rev. Rothbauer refers to in the supporting materials for his presentation, Andrew J. Mackay, “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?”, (2019) It is a short essay which tells the reader to be very wary of UU’s who talk about “postmodernism”, “political correctness”, “identity politics”, or “Critical Race Theory” in a negative way, for they may be sliding toward an embrace of the alt-right. Dr. Eklof criticizes all of these ideas, ergo, he must have gone over to the dark side. He must be an alt-right minister. The UUA must be protected from such criticism. Dr. Eklof had to go.
This is not the Unitarian Universalism I’ve known and loved for nearly 4 decades. To me it seems clear that the trend is to be far less hospitable to legitimate differences of viewpoint, particularly around matters pertaining to race and racism. This is a new UUism. I don’t know what it’s becoming, but UU now suggests to me “Used to be Unitarian.”
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(1) Encyclopedia Britannica
Critical race theory (CRT), the view that the law and legal institutions are inherently racist and that race itself, instead of being biologically grounded and natural, is a socially constructed concept that is used by white people to further their economic and political interests at the expense of people of colour. According to critical race theory (CRT), racial inequality emerges from the social, economic, and legal differences that white people create between “races” to maintain elite white interests in labour markets and politics, giving rise to poverty and criminality in many minority communities. The CRT movement officially organized itself in 1989, at the first annual Workshop on Critical Race Theory, though its intellectual origins go back much further, to the 1960s and ’70s.