Commentary in 8 Points on Chapter ”Theology” from Widening the Circle of Concern (WTCOC)
Dr. Maskil David Cycleback
“A new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else . . . Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper should not require bravery.”– Bari Weiss, in her resignation letter from New York Times (Weiss 2018)
“What drew me to UU is the freedom of thought, the sharing of ideas, the being free to differ and debate while holding each other with respect. What drew me to UU is that it eschews dogma, or at least it used to. I fear that is no longer true. If the only way we, as UU’s, are allowed to think about and deal with racism and, by extension, anything else we are concerned with is by following the edicts of CRT, how is that not dogma?”– a UU congregant
For Leadership Assembly in late March 2021, Westsiders were asked to read the Chapter “Theology” from the UUA’s “Widening the Circle of Concern” (COIC 2020). For the meeting, the following were eight points of mine on the chapter and the document as a whole.
A quick summary:
- The goal of increasing multiculturalism and diversity in UU and Westside I support.
- I have numerous philosophical, political and theological issues with the chapter and Widening the Circle of Concern (WTCOC)
- On principle alone, I reject the very notion of the UUA handing down edicts or “theological mandates”(the document’s own self-description) and congregations rotely accepting them. I also reject the document’s expectations of ideological conformity.
- The divisive ideological methods and rhetoric described in WTCOC are exactly what has split apart UUs and congregations nationwide, and I believe this is harmful to the very cause of racial justice and multiculturalism. As one congregant was quoted in the recent Westside survey, “The passionate adherents to this framework are sowing division within UU communities and needlessly pushing away people who are natural allies in a struggle every UU supports.” (Westside 2021)
My 8 points. Some points reference quotes in the chapter
Point #1: The Good:
I support WTCOC’s desire for multicultural inclusion in UU. UU is interfaith, so naturally, it should have a diversity of views, services, classes and programs from all sorts of voices and perspectives. A previous minister had been planning on Westside having services in different traditions: Southern Baptist testimonial, Jewish, earth-based, Buddhist, etc– something I had looked forward to.
Some of my favorite experiences at Westside have been being educated on different religions and cultures: for examples, the Jesus/Christianity class (I come from a non-Christian background so it was all new to me), the classes on Islam from Muslim speakers from different countries (Bangladesh, Somalia, United States), the Sephardic dinner, the sermon on Taoism, our regular interreligious charity work with the local synagogue, mosque and Christian congregations. Westside’s Racial Justice Change Team and Common Quest appear to be offering some interesting offerings.
As a practicing Jew and Kabbalist, educated in interfaith, supporter of neurodiversity, and with an Armenian-Iranian immigrant partner, I support such inclusions of such diversity of ideas, cultures and educational offerings. To be intellectually satisfied at Westside, I require variety. This all may be something that would attract my partner to attend more often.
Point # 2: Simply put, this whole document and chapter are part of the UUA’s attempt at top-down ideological takeover of UU.
I have written extensively about the UUA’s turn to dogmatism and illiberalism, its punishing and even firing of ministers who dissent. Sadly, punishment, shaming and “cancelling” have become methods in UU.
“The current direction of the UUA is divisive, accusatory, destructive, and contrary to UU principles. Censorship is fundamentally inimical to our religious traditions and values”– Jeffrey A. Lockwood, professor and former columnist for UU World
“As part of our beloved liberal religious community of Unitarian Universalists, I’ve observed over recent years that something illiberal, intolerant, dogmatic, and even hate-filled was emerging from the corporate-sponsored ‘anti-racism’ / deterministic ‘critical race theory’ movement, in its inroads among some Unitarian Universalists and some in the UUA. I’ve puzzled over this and mourned its effects on congregations, its erosion of our 7 principles, and I’m thankful that it is being called out.”– Lee F. Greer, professor and UU
The UUA, its board and President and the WTCOC say that WTCOC is a “theological mandate” for all UUs and congregations. WTCOC uses the word ‘theological mandate’ six times. This type of “edict from the Vatican ” is not UU. I outright reject this.
UU has no creed or orthodoxy, and UUs and Westsiders are allowed, welcomed and expected to have a diversity of views. UUs and Westsiders, including leaders, are free to subscribe to or reject or ignore (or somewhere in between) WTCOC.
Ironically, the Rev. Dr. Earl Holt quoted in the beginning of the chapter recently quit the UUMA in protest of its turn to illiberalism and bullying. He signed the UU ministers’ resignation letter that includes quotes about their “alarm at the growing dogmatism and intolerance in our UUMA . . . Despite (for many of us) long years of cherished ministerial collegiality, the UUMA has become for us an inhospitable place and an embarrassment. As it has been made clear that genuine dialog on the new orthodoxy will not be tolerated in our ministerial association, we cannot in good faith continue our association with it.” (UU Ministers 2020)
Point #3: It is not merely the (any) theories or models or religious texts, but how they are considered and applied.
It is not just Widening the Circle of Concern, but how the leaders and laity at Westside consider and apply it. Philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend wrote: “I want to defend society and its inhabitants from all ideologies, science included. All ideologies must be seen in perspective. One must not take them too seriously. One must read them like fairy-tales which have lots of interesting things to say but which also contain wicked lies, or like ethical prescriptions which may be useful rules of thumb but which are deadly when followed to the letter.” (Feyerabend in Crease and Selinger 2006)
At the very least, WTCOC must be run through the above quote. Feyerabend said “all ideologies,” and WTCOC is a statement of ideology.
I am curious how those at Westside who subscribe to WTCOC will use this document. I know some broad thinking, non-dogmatic racial and social justice folks at Westside. They see UU values (diversity of thought, freedom of expression, personal paths, etc.) as going hand in hand with social and racial justice. After I told a Westside racial justice leader that I find being told “you’re a member of the white supremacy” personally offensive and, when I express a different viewpoint, “you’re exhibiting fragility” obnoxious, she said she doesn’t use such terms that would offend laity. She said the goal of social justice should be welcoming of UUs, not alienating them.
Westside has done social justice and education in welcoming, productive ways (the Equity Workshop, the upcoming RJCT and Common Quest offerings, the Equity Tool, the Islam classes. I have not attended, but know of many Westsiders who appreciated Beloved Conversations). However, things have also sometimes been done in ideologically strident ways that have caused strife, division and resentment (The UUA’s White Supremacy Teach-Ins were considered by numerous UUs and Westsiders to be insulting and condescending. Westside hasn’t done one, but Robin DiAngelo’s corporate seminars are notoriously divisive with audiences.)
Critical Race Theory can be used as an important and informing perspective. However, in UU and elsewhere and as I have witnessed and personally experienced, it is too often used as a hammer that causes far more damage than good. One Westside congregant said that, due to the divisiveness, alienation and backlash it has produced amongst UUs, the UUA’s methods have set racial justice back in UU and many congregations.
Point # 4 “Acknowledgement that anti-oppression work as a theological mandate is essential” (Page 7 in WTCOC)
Once again, UU has no theological mandates, and certainly not ones handed down by the UUA in Boston. This notion itself is un-UU. We are not Catholics and Boston isn’t the Vatican.
Duly note that when the UUA and this WTCOC use the term “anti-oppression,” they don’t mean it in a general, expansive sense. They define it by a specific ideological and theological framework based in Critical Race Theory and White Supremacy Culture theory.
“I came to realize that CRT is not grounded in the social sciences, but is a collection of ideologies, often characterized by speculation, prejudice, and sophistry, growing out of the subjectivity of post-modern philosophy. For many hard-hitting and well-researched critiques, see James Lindsay’s website newdiscourses.com. For a prescient UU critique, check out the 1999 lecture on ‘Why Anti-Racism Will Fail; by the senior African American UU minister and scholar Rev Thandeka at revthandeka.org. The irony is that the doctrines most popular among UU followers of CRT (“white fragility” and “white supremacy culture”) undermine key UU principles, especially the first (“inherent worth and dignity of every person”), fourth (“free and responsible search for truth and meaning”), and fifth (“right of conscience and the use of the democratic process”).”– Dick Burkhart PhD, former professor and inequality expert at Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economic Community (UUJEC) (Burkhart in Fifth Principal Project 2020)
“The basis for today’s social-justice movement is deep skepticism about liberal values like equality, justice and democracy. This is rooted in an academic discipline known as critical race theory, which takes elements from Hegel and Marx, along with postmodernists like Foucault and Derrida, to assemble a worldview that does not accept that equality can exist.”– Batya Ungar-Sargon, Jewish author and editor (Ungar-Sargon 2010)
For further evidence that the document is not just a general guide but a statement of narrow political ideology, WTCOC takes political positions, including on dismantling capitalism, defunding police, reparations, and divestment and investment strategies.
Statistician Allan Pallay has written how many of WTCOC’s basic premises and survey methodology are flawed, using unfounded assumptions, and unsound surveying and data collection. (Pallay 2020)
Point # 5: “Centering and Decentering of Voices”
I firmly believe that all voices should be centered at Westside. A saying of mine is “You move to equality by moving to equality.” If Westside, its leadership and groups are not practicing equality, they are not moving towards equality.
“If we desire a society of peace, then we cannot achieve such a society through violence. If we desire a society without discrimination, then we must not discriminate against anyone in the process of building this society. If we desire a society that is democratic, then democracy must become a means as well as an end.”– Bayard Rustin, human rights activist
To the UUA and UU World these days, “centering” and “decentering” often really mean “platforming,” “de-platforming” and censorship. Diversity and inclusion done correctly means adding not subtracting perspectives.
On the orders of the UUA, UU World has said it will publish only articles that support a single political ideology. This is neither multiculturalism nor diversity. Educator Irshad Manji correctly says that diversity “means including different points of view, and not just different religions, sexualities, genders and races.” This is only in part because any single gender, race, sexuality or religion contains a wide diversity of views. Manji says about herself, “Just because I’m gay, just because I’m Muslim, doesn’t mean I think any particular way.” (Walton 2019) (Manji 2019)
Erec Smith, Professor of Rhetoric at York College and co-editor of Free Black Thought, writes, “Black thought varies as widely as black individuals. There are black conservatives and liberals, socialists and free-marketeers, traditionalists and radicals, theists and atheists, everything in between, and more besides. Free Black Thought seeks to represent the rich diversity of black thought beyond the relatively narrow spectrum of views promoted by mainstream outlets as defining ’the black perspective.’” (Smith 2021)
Columbia University’s John McWhorter says that the UUA’s narrow political ideology is “not the general black view of things.” (McWhorter 2021). Glenn Loury, the first tenured Black American economics professor at Harvard, strongly objects when only a certain point of view amongst the great diversity of Black thought is represented as the “authentic Black voice.” (Loury 2021)
Former Bernie Sanders National Press Secretary and socialist podcaster Briahana Joy Gray says about her podcast debates, “I always love to talk with heterodox voices across the political spectrum, particularly those that make it clear that there is not one Black voice.” (Gray in Loury 2021)
Point # 6 “This has led many to believe that the only theological value we have is freedom to ‘believe anything we want’” (Page 12)
I know of no UUs or Westsiders who believe UUs believe or have the freedom to believe anything they want, nor that UU has only one theological value. This is an ad hominem argument, specifically a strawman argument. All Westsiders know that certain beliefs and expressions are not allowed in UU or Westside, and people with certain beliefs would never join UU.
I believe this is a ploy to restrict beliefs in UU. Similar ad hominem arguments have been made by UUA social justice leaders to punish or demonize dissent in UU. A prime example was those who falsely labeled Todd Eklof and his book every “ism” they could think of. When a longtime Gay and Lesbian justice activist minister who was fired for supporting Gay marriage is labeled “homophobic” you know it’s a dishonest smear and bullying campaign. That his smear came from UU Ministers and UUA social justice leaders is an embarrassment to UU. (Kentuckyinsider 2005) (Fortune 2005)
Another ad hominem argument used by some UUs is to associate those who argue against CRT with the “alt-right.” This smear tactic was used against a UU who was a Jewish Socialist Democrat Bernie Sanders supporter who dared dissent against UU orthodoxy. The Gadfly Papers was ludicrously said to contain “alt-right ideas.”
When a few of us were setting up the new Westside discussion groups just before the pandemic, the number one rule agreed upon for discussions was “no ad hominem arguments.”
Point #7 “If freedom and individualism are our most important values, we have little to offer in these times.” (Page 18)
In the name of ideological conformity and top-down governance, UUA leaders have put down individualism and laity’s tendency to be skeptical of authority, along with freedom of expression and freedom of conscience, and even democracy. In UU World, Rev. Fred Muir wrote that the “trinity of errors” of UUs are individualism, exceptionalism and allergy to authority (Muir 2013).
UU is a rare de-centralized religion that believes in the diversity of views, freedom of expression and conscience, personal paths, dissent. UU has been called “a religion of heretics.” Why UUs would want to be like other regions I have no idea.
Point #8 “Action: Spread promising practices around addressing disruptive people and microaggressions as a barrier to covenantal community.” (Page 18)
The UUA largely defines “disruption” as people who speak out in dissent against their orthodoxy. That’s why Todd Edloff was censored, censured and expelled. That’s why his Good Officer Rev. Rick Davis was fired for acting in defense of Eklof. That’s why Rev. Richard Trudeau was censured, and that’s why UUA President Peter Morales (the first Latino UUA President) was piled on.
Also note that the UUA and WTCOC use “disrupt” in positive ways in other instances (“Disrupt white supremacy culture”). Thus, it isn’t disruption that is bad, but the “disruption” in the form of countering views. Todd Eklof’s disruption essentially was his dissent.
Trends towards illiberalism, intolerance and censorship in UU
There have been concerns at Westside about trends towards illiberalism, censorship and expectations of ideological conformity not only within UU at large but at Westside. Numerous congregants have privately said they don’t feel safe or able to express their views at Westside, for fear of being name-called or shamed.
Realize that illiberalism and censorship don’t always come in the form of edict or rules from leadership. They can come via groupthink, peer pressure, expectations of conformity, wanting to fit in, self-censorship and zealous individuals who feel it is their duty to keep UUs in line. They can come from a culture that doesn’t foster freedom of expression and dialogue. They can come from what laity perspectives and beliefs are platformed and de-platformed in a congregation, including in sermons and services, congregational newsletters and classes.
One congregant wrote, “I never feel the ability to speak freely without people writing me off rather than talking to me about my concerns and thoughts . . . Seems like there are very few people to do that with and especially sadly at Westside. Everything seems so controlled and there are no real discussion groups.”
Another congregant said, “the big Elephant in the room at Westside is confrontation avoidance. Don’t engage in it yourself through illusions of maintaining propriety.”
One of the best things that has happened lately at Westside was the recent survey on feelings about the UUA (Westside 2021). It demonstrated to all of us, including leadership, that, being UUs, Westsiders have a diversity of views. All of these perspectives shouldn’t merely be tolerated at Westside but “platformed.”
Burkhart D (2020), “A Look at the Commission on Institutional Change Report”, https://fifthprincipleproject.org/2020/08/15/a-look-at-the-commission-on-institutional-change-report/
COIC (2020), “Widening the Circle of Concern:”, https://www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/widening_the_circle-text_with_covers.pdf
Crease R and Selinger E (2002), The Philosophy of Expertise, Columbia University Press
Fortune C (2005), “An unlikely ally, Rev. Eklof rallies for marriage equality”, http://www,pridesource.com/article/15185/
Loury G (2021). “Briahna Joy Gray — Are Disparities Caused by “Culture”?”, www.glennloury.substack.com/p/briahna-joy-gray-are-disparities
Loury G (2021), “Wrestle not against flesh and blood”, https://freeblackthought.substack.com/p/wrestle-not-against-flesh-and-blood
Kentuckyinsider (2005),”Todd Eklof Fired by Kentucky Farm Bureau for Supporting Gays”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1yLCKtmBRM
Long M (2013), “Bayard Rustin in His Own Words: “I Must Resist”, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/bayard-rustin-in-his-own_b_2881057
Manji I (2019), “Irshad Manji: Diversity Based On Labels Is Not Diversity At All | Think”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yo4OBDmlkRY
McWhorter J (2021), “John McWhorter on Real Time”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tjgXQDyqno
Muir F (2013), “The end of iChurch”, https://www.uuworld.org/articles/end-ichurch
Pallay A (2020), “ Review Of The Claim That White Supremacy In Unitarian Universalist Culture Harms Black People, Indigenous People And People Of Color That Is In The Report “widening The Circle Of Concern” https://fifthprincipleproject.org/2020/08/15/a-look-at-the-commission-on-institutional-change-report/
Smith E (2021), “Black thought varies as widely as black individuals.”, https://www.freeblackthought.com
Ungar-Sargon B (2021),”The Warped Vision of “Anti-Racism,” https://www.persuasion.community/p/the-warped-vision-of-anti-racism?fbclid=IwAR06KBSAOzp6HgzjzUtVQ7o2AOQor-CIqVCjPgS-VJfWomJSWyMZtjjWvQk
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A good reminder of why I left the UUA several years ago. Leftist political ideology has come to occupy the status of a “creed”, thus contradicting the UUA’s claim to be a “creedless religion.” Historically, liberal religion has emphasized the importance of character (I learned about the concept of “salvation by character” from reading UUA literature). Today, however, character is virtually ignored and has been replaced with “identity.” Meanwhile, nobody has ever explained to me the necessary connection or correlation between liberal religion and leftist, SJW ideology. This indicates that I was asked to accept what amounts to a political… Read more »
Thank you so much for writing such a clear, cogent article. I left my UU Church for these very reasons two years ago because my minister was one who supports the illiberal leanings you describe. It’s heart-breaking to see a once liberal, tolerant community become a mirror image of the alt-right, but here we are.
Is there a way to work to restore UU to the diverse religion that comforted us? Is it too late to make a difference? Are we simply to listen to these eloquent eulogies and mourning the loss we have experienced?
I, too, am mourning the loss as you are. I think it is too late to prevent a schism. Schisms tend to be painful and difficult in religious communities. These eloquent eulogies are expressing that pain.
To simplify the nature of that schism (probably too much) I would point to those who promote an anti-racist doctrine wherein UUism is awash in “white supremacy culture” and those who oppose that doctrine and find those ideas to be mean-spirited and counterproductive.
About 15 years ago, a breakaway group separated from the UUA, called the American Unitarian Conference, or AUC. Haven’t heard from them in quite a while, and don’t know if they are still active. They still have an online presence & a writeup in Wikipedia
Like many on this forum, I’m concerned about current UUA dogma. An adage I learned in a 12 step program is ” Take what you like & leave the rest ” I’ve used this for dealing with my local fellowship politics that I felt were unjust, holding onto the belief being involved was more of a + than -.
Great analysis of our current UU predicament. I think that Frederic Muir’s essay on iChurch was not in the spirit of UUism and should be read and rejected. The COIC needs to understand that UUism does not permit theological mandates and no UU entity has the authority to issue them.
For what purpose are people of color and Jews identified as such but those who apparently aren’t, aren’t?
Is this identification of people of color without identifying White people something that UUs of color have asked for? My experience has been that UUs of color don’t usually like when Whiteness is a tacit default option.
Well, certainly no group is a monolith, indeed. I appreciate your consideration.
Thank you for this sensitive and thorough critique. I often feel out of place on both sides of this discussion because both sides really seem to dislike anyone in the traditional hard left. Yes I’m another old white lady, but I come from a background that I learned the hard way in UU not to refer to as “working class.” I now say “lower middle class” to avoid THAT semantic debate. I got active in organized labor very young and ran into hard-core Marxists who quickly recruited me. Being affiliated with Marxist groups while trying to establish myself as a… Read more »
Thanks for exploring this topic. I’ll share the link with my friends in the local UU congregation. I agree with everything you said, and would add only one footnote: Any discussion of “interfaith” really ought to include atheism, damn it! I’m not the only atheist UU (or possibly former UU) in the local congregation, but the atheists often seem to get shuffled off to the back of the bus, if you’ll forgive the phrase.
So, have you actually read The Gadfly Papers?
To whom is your question directed?
You made conclusory statements about the response to the book and even broader statements about some larger conflicts in UU. “The UUA largely defines “disruption” as people who speak out in dissent against their orthodoxy. That’s why Todd Edloff was censored, censured and expelled. That’s why his Good Officer Rev. Rick Davis was fired for acting in defense of Eklof. That’s why Rev. Richard Trudeau was censured, and that’s why UUA President Peter Morales (the first Latino UUA President) was piled on.” Asking if you read the book is not ad hominem. It’s a question as to whether your claim… Read more »
Not what I was referring to.
Positions stated in the Chapter by Dr. Cycleback are quite convincing and reveals what, in my opinion, is a move by those running UUA and UUMA, to be in opposition to the seven Principles of UU. I have watched several programs related to multiple General Assemblies and I am appalled at the hard push by those in charge to return to the tenets I had to endure being raised in the Southern Baptist mindset. If this trend continues, I will consider resigning from UU Santa Fe, New Mexico. For me, what has happened to UUA and UUMA constitutes a hostile… Read more »
What specific voices are being suppressed by the UU World policy you mention?
How do you resolve these two statements:
“UU has no theological mandates”
“I know of no UUs or Westsiders who believe UUs believe or have the freedom to believe anything they want, nor that UU has only one theological value.“
Has anyone here heard of John McWhorter, professor of Linguistics at Columbia University? McWhorter’s new book is called “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America”. He specifically notes changes that have been happening in the UUA and UUMA on page 52.