Regarding the many public comments deriding the authors of Used to be UU and other books, we at the Fifth Principle Project have pursued a policy of responding with the full thunder of our silence. We have discovered that such commentators are speaking to their own tribe and have no genuine intention of engaging in thoughtful debate.
However, with Rev. Dennis McCarty’s recent publication of the Gadfly Report, Examining Unitarian Universalism’s Reactionary Fringe, we noticed a shift from the shouting of polemics on the “wrong headedness” of authors to a clearly intentional campaign to denigrate the personal character of fellow UUs.
Unitarian Universalism is built upon a tradition of tolerance of differing ideas. We don’t have to think alike to love alike. The First Principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person, is a social contract that calls on UUs to seek their better angels. The UUA Board’s 2020 charge to the Article II Study Commission offered that “one core theological value, shared widely among UUs is love.”
There were many denominational guardrails and norms available to Rev. McCarty before he typed out the first sentence of his book.
All UUs should be concerned with this shift in tactics. Rev. McCarty is a UU minister. As a minister, he has the power to influence as well as the responsibility to exhibit the highest level of fidelity to shared UU values of fairness and love to all.
Prior to publishing his book, Rev. McCarty contacted several authors and asked if we had any concerns about his forthcoming book. We did. We collectively responded, expressing our concern that the book’s title diminished the integrity of fellow UUs (i.e., the authors) and was considered harmful. We implored him to reconsider the title of his book. Our request was not honored.
In a Nutshell
Upon reading the final text, disparaging fellow UUs was actually the book’s intent. It is replete with a seemingly unrelenting stream of ad hominem attacks. Evidently, all who disagree with Rev. McCarty are wrong. Such people are then branded as right-wing racist MAGA types, Nazis, or transphobic who seek to maintain and advance white supremacy culture. Merely offering a reasoned appeal to preserve the legacy of liberal religion as expressed in our Principles and Sources is sufficient evidence to be declared as harboring white supremacist thinking.
In a nutshell, this is his book.
The Gadfly Report is an unfortunate and disturbingly anger-driven mischaracterization of anyone who disagrees with Rev. McCarty. When not engaged in ad hominem attacks, McCarty relies on conventions such as guilt by association, self-affirming assertions, sin by omission, charges of gaslighting, pseudo-intellectualism, and reliance on out-of-context quotation fragments.
One Amazon book review starts with, “For someone who flaunts his rarified erudition, McCarty spends 450 pages thumbing his nose at reality. Having read all the books and blogs he thinks he is skewering; I can say he fails miserably.” The comment concludes, “Stick to fiction, Denny, because facts seem to confuse you.”
Ad Hominem Attacks
It is difficult to fully communicate the onslaught of ad hominem attacks in the Gadfly Report. As the co-authors of Used to be UU, we know the enormous personal energy required to write a book. You are constantly writing chapters in your head, editing, reviewing, deleting, and sorting through the whole effort to produce a readable and fair rendering of your thoughts. We simply cannot imagine the amount of anger that roiled about in McCarty’s head to produce the Gadfly Report.
Another Amazon reviewer captured this malevolent spirit.
McCarty did not help the UU religion by publishing this book. In fact, he wrote a book about a radical right-wing within the faith he calls gadflies that aren’t right wing.” The review continued, “Todd seems like a person to be pitied. He (McCarty) says Eklof can’t think clearly, is disorganized, dishonest, and can’t understand and synthesize facts.”
Indeed, hardly a page is turned that does not angrily return to Rev. Eklof. For McCarty, Rev. Eklof is merely a member of an identity group. A cis-white male lying to himself and to the world about his true views. McCarty writes.
Given Eklof’s constant deceptions and omissions, it should be no surprise that he deceives himself, as well, on his own participation in white supremacy culture. So do his followers. (p75)
McCarty’s barrage of ad-hominem assertions directed at Rev. Eklof is also extended to his supporters. They are all the same, with one goal, to protect their privileges in a racialized society and to oppress minorities.
Guilt by Association
Nazis and Segregationists
A recurring convention of the book is guilt by association. That is, Rev. McCarty attempts to establish a connection between his targeted authors and people or groups that he regards as racist enemies of UUism. This linkage is typically made by “discovering” shared words or phraseology between right-wing conservatives and “his gadflies.”
Below is one example of McCarty’s linkages based on a single word. The target is again Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof, though no author is spared from this guilt by association charge.
In this example, McCarty links Eklof to Nazis and segregationists based on one word, “mongrelization,” a term typically used in a derogatory way to mean the intermixing of race or ethnicity.
He cites an Eklof sermon, “Misappropriation or Mongrelization? Why I Choose the Latter, delivered March 12, 2023. McCarty writes.
The sermon’s title … is also an example of Eklof’s penchant for careless, even inflammatory language. The slur, “mongrelization,” is most clearly associated with Nazi Germany and the mid-twentieth-century American segregationists. But for Eklof, such language is fairly standard. (p28)
Generally, McCarty’s attempts at guilt by association are tenuous at best. In this case, it is so wildly concocted that it raises reasonable conjecture that McCarty did not read beyond the sermon’s title.
The sermon expresses a hopeful message about the value and obtainability of diversity.
Segregation, as we know, leads to cruel and unjust societies that too often undergo periods of violence and unrest. The solution to such cruelty, injustice, and unrest is its opposite, integration—mixing, stirring the melting pot. Growing up in one of America’s first integrated communities, in which its black and white children, along with Hispanic, Chicano, Filipino, Samoan, Asian, and many others lived in the same neighborhoods and went to the same schools, I learned firsthand how well integration works.
To emphasize his point on integration, Rev. Eklof employed the term “mongrelization” precisely the way Salman Rushdie did in The Satanic Verses in a positive, liberating, and welcoming fashion.
Those who oppose the novel most vociferously today are of the opinion that intermingling with a different culture will inevitably weaken and ruin their own. I am of the opposite that comes with new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure.
McCarty’s unpacking of Anne Schneider’s A Self-Confessed White Supremacy Culture: The Emergence of an Illiberal Left in Unitarian Universalism makes a similar word association. McCarty points out that Schneider criticizes call-out culture, as do the right-wing pundit Tucker Carlson and the white nationalist Richard Spencer. (p201) Ergo, they must be of the same feather and flock. McCarty writes.
A careful and unbiased reader (as McCarty declares himself), however, will quickly perceive that “democracy” and “liberalism” are not the real thrust of either the Fifth Principle Project or A Self-Confessed White Supremacy Culture. (p150)
Per McCarty, when “his gadflies” promote democracy and liberalism, they are really promoting fear. He writes (bold added).
“Illiberal” and “White Supremacy Culture” are scare terms used by right wing politicians who try to provoke panic … If one follows closely enough, in fact, one picks up much right-wing rhetoric in Gadfly discourse, both on social media and their publications. A good deal of it could have been lifted right out of Fox News, or a speech by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. (p150)
His analysis is stretched. However, he continued (bold added).
One truly strange aberration of Gadfly rhetoric is their use of conservative talking points … In numerous encounters with Gadflies, they unanimously ignore the fact that such terms as “woke,” “WSC,” and “CRT,” which they constantly bandy about, are go-to MAGA, and also White Nationalist, talking points. (p151)
We have another unexplained disconnect in McCarty’s unpacking. While McCarty claims that “his gadflies” ignore the implication of terms such as woke, WSC, etc., Schneider’s book is a graduate-level examination of white supremacy culture. Again, there is the question did McCarty read the book?
Jedi Mind Tricks
When Rev. McCarty’s word-search scholarship fails to link an author to historic evildoers, he simply resorts to making stuff up. If an author did not say or write anything to base an associative linkage, then McCarty contends they were thinking it.
So I think what I see, in Eklof, is a straight, Euro-American male, who lacks self-awareness and has far more patriarchal and white supremacist notions in his subconscious than he realizes or will ever admit. (p96)
Speculating on someone’s subconscious is a weak substitute for actual research but opens a whole new vista for conveniently fabricating content.
McCarty concedes that the authors of Used to be UU do not believe in violence, have no intention of oppressing anyone, and are supportive of equality for marginalized people. They simply support a “different strategy” for achieving that equality.
This concession does not permeate the rest of the Gadfly Report. For his narrative to stand, McCarty advances extreme points of view of “his gadflies” through his self-affirming assertions.
Virtually without exception, as many times noted, Gadfly authors have, in fact, made excuses to reject all accounts of systemic racism, homo-and-transphobia, sexism, and ableism, no matter how many such accounts may accrue. This is a striking pattern. (p221). (McCarty italic)
Absolutism is also employed in McCarty’s assertions to affirm the pervasiveness of “his gadflies” societal indifference. We changed McCarty’s italics to bold for emphasis.
Without exception, Gadflies have, for years, refused to even acknowledge hundreds of personal accounts, by marginalized members, and how they have been treated within our Association.
Ignoring the experiences of the marginalized, is unethical and dishonest on its face—let alone condemning those who do listen. (p129)
He concludes, characteristically, with his own heroic self-affirming assertion.
The repeatedly stated Gadfly position is that I—and other ministers—should never have listened to marginalized voices at all. (p129) (McCarty italic)
McCarty omits that the authors never made or endorsed such statements.
Moving from Enemies to Friend
McCarty’s unpacking of Thandeka took an abrupt and disturbing pivot when he turned his attention to his one-time friend and mentor. His typical tirade against white gadflies is abandoned. Thandeka is a black female prominent theologian with a well-developed and respected body of thought. This unpacking is very personal.
The attack on Thandeka is rationalized since her paper, “Why Anti-Racism Will Fail,” is frequently cited by McCarty’s band of gadflies.
Why Anti-Racism Will Fail
Rev. Dr. Thandeka is a Unitarian Universalist theologian, journalist, and congregational consultant who leads the “We Love Beyond Belief” project. She was given the Xhosa name Thandeka, which means “beloved,” by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1984.
In her paper, “Why Anti-Racism Will Fail,” she critiqued the anti-racism approach of Unitarian Universalism, stating it demonizes all white people as racists. Instead, she suggested that love and healing offer a more sustainable basis for anti-racism. Her paper referred to the anti-racism program, the Journey Toward Wholeness Path to Anti-Racism.
Thandeka’s learnings from the Journey Toward Wholeness Path to Anti-Racism was that it taught:
- All whites in America are racists.
- No blacks in America are racist. They’re prejudiced just like everybody else, but they lack the power of institutional resources to force other racial groups to submit to their will. Thus, they can’t be racist because racism in this conceptual scheme is defined as prejudice + power.
- Whites must be shown that they are racists and confess their racism.
The problems she cited with this training were that:
- It violates the first principle of our UU covenant together to actively affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
- It made an erroneous assumption about the nature and structure of power in America.
- It misinterprets actions resulting from feelings of shame and powerlessness as evidence of white racism.
The Unpacking of Thandeka
Commenting on his unpacking of Thandeka, McCarty wrote, “She will probably consider this chapter a personal attack.” The chapter reads more like betrayal.
There is something very unsettling in this chapter. Unlike the other authors covered in the Gadfly Report, McCarty and Thandeka have a shared history. McCarty was a student of Thandeka at Meadville-Lombard Theological School in 1999. Although Rev. McCarty expresses genuine appreciation for Thandeka’s tutelage, he states, “My relationship with Thandeka has long been a fraught one.” (p181).
McCarty offers an analysis that Thandeka lives with intense emotional pain from deep-seated, unresolved, and unacknowledged conflicts over violence and shame. His unpacking is then prosecuted less on the merits of her arguments and more on his interpretation of her mental fitness. “Genius can have stygian [dark] shadows,” he writes.
Below is a summarization of some of Rev. McCarty’s unpacking of his one-time mentor.
- She holds “increasingly obsolete positions (on anti-racism) even as the scientific study of group dynamics and racial interaction continue to evolve.” (p180)
- Thandeka has been “simplistic in her perception of the term ‘racism,’ interpreting it only as a pejorative, not as a social dynamic that needs to be studied.” (p180-181)
- Thandeka once considered McCarty “a great guy,” “exemplary.” McCarty noted that his mentor shared that “she considers me less-than-stable, sometimes frightening, even dangerous.” (p183)
- “I believe there is a projection going on: a childhood full of shame, not just from her parents, but also from her environment, resulting in an adulthood where she sees so much shame. And there is avoidance going on. For the few harrowing details she does provide, the violence and aggressiveness of her language certainly suggest that there are more harrowing details that she has not shared. (p196)
- “What I believe we see is a brilliant mind responding, not to the evolving social science on racism, but to what that mind cannot bear to acknowledge in her own experience.” (p192) (McCarty Italic)
- “I see anxiety manifesting itself, not just in her remarkable and wonderful work on her theology of affect, but also in what she cannot bring herself to comprehensively acknowledge: a lifetime of being Black—and ashamed—in a structurally racist, dominantly white—and shaming toward Black people—society.” (p196)
McCarty’s overall evaluation is that Thandeka is psychologically and emotionally unfit to make sound judgments regarding anti-racism. Hence, she is to be dismissed, and any references to her “Why Anti-Racism Will Fail” should equally be dismissed.
The Thank-you Note
Related to his questioning of Thandeka’s mental status, Rev. McCarty includes a personal story about how his writing a thank-you note to Thandeka got him into serious trouble at Meadville-Lombard. He admits that the note he wrote contained some of the violent imagery he claims Thandeka often used in her lectures.
I had undiagnosed Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder while I was in those pressure-cooker classes. One recurring feature of class was the violent imagery Thandeka herself repeatedly used. I was, I now realize, repeatedly “triggered.”
When some of that imagery came back to her in a communication—an attempted thank-you note, of all things—that I wrote her early one morning, I was called onto the carpet in the Dean’s office and threatened with serious discipline. She (the Dean) told me that a psychologist needed to evaluate me ‘to be sure I wasn’t going to do the same thing to a congregation.’ (p183)
We at the Fifth Principle Project are sympathetic to those who suffer from PTSD, complex or not. Naming one’s trauma is the first step toward healing.
Healing, however, still appears elusive. Nearly 25 years later, his unpacking lays the blame for his own behavior on Thandeka.
For me, it was an education that one should never write one’s professor a thank-you note at 5:00 in the morning, with only an hour’s sleep, having stayed up almost the entire night re-writing a paper. But at the same time every violent image, which she had found so unacceptable, had come out of her classes—voiced by herself. Thandeka refused to acknowledge any role, which her graphic imagery in class might have played, in combination with the intensity of her class itself. (p183 – 184)
Granted, I was exhausted and triggered when I had sent her that note. Had I taken a day to think it over, I would not have done it. But she did “do this to a congregation” with violent imagery. And she regularly did “this” to her class, as well.” And apparently still does. Without acknowledging, or perhaps even herself realizing, the effect it can have. (p 185)
McCarty also offered.
Where I am going with this is that, for all her intellectual brilliance in some ways, Thandeka’s vision is cloudy when it comes to her own suppressed feelings, or the expressed feelings of others. For all the psychological slant of her writing, and “Love Beyond Belief” program of workshops, I observed that she lived with real emotional pain—and also dislocation. (p 185)
I cannot evaluate her writing outside of that context. So while I found much to admire in her teaching, and even in her 1999 lecture on anti-racism, there were also elements where her subconscious psychic violence and willful myopia toward suffering also came out in important ways. (p 185)
Where Was McCarty’s Editor?
Any book editor would have advised McCarty that his treatment of Thandeka was speculative, inappropriate, and maybe leaning into slander. Put aside an editor’s advice, simple decency would dictate that this unpacking should have been left on the editing room floor.
The Gadfly Report demonstrates that no norms are left regarding personal attacks on fellow UUs within the denomination. Instead, we see the denomination’s identity politics honed to a new level. Anyone who stands for the defense of liberal religion is lumped together and denigrated as a class of gadflies. Sadly, McCarty’s new norm of denigration has metastasized into the body of UUism.
An Amazon review reads.
As a Unitarian Universalist minister trying to deal with a ‘Gadfly infestation’ in the congregation I serve, I have wished fervently for this book, and now here it is!
UUism was once a denomination of tolerance. Now it is a denomination seeking the eradication of its “infestation.”
All authors have the right to engage in debate, highlighting inconsistencies in arguments, pointing out the use of erroneous facts, or critiquing poorly formulated conclusions. None of that appears in the Gadfly Report. Instead, it is a collection of opinionated observations that weaken with repeated use.
We close by sending one of Rev. McCarty’s thoughts back to him.
Repeated accusations do not constitute reality, though. They merely constitute repetition. (p202).
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