By the Reverend Cynthia Landrum
Recently UU layperson and Nominee-by-petition for the UUA Board Jay Kiskel published this article, “When Democracy Dies” on his Fifth Principle Project webpage. All quotes in italics below come from that article. The basic premise is that democracy in the UUA is dying, and the two main arguments for this are that we have a Nominating Committee and that endorsements have been made.
“If you ever wondered what it looks like when democracy dies, you now have a front-row seat. We are witnessing such a demise in our own denomination. Hyperbole? No.”
Despite the claim that this is not hyperbole, this article is a textbook definition of it:
- “Should our voices be silenced?”
- “If not, let’s just rescind the Fifth Principle.”
- “UUism is being betrayed by our own leadership in favor of a far more ecclesiastical organization where decisions at the top will no longer be subject to debate.”
It’s full of exaggerated claims that paint the Unitarian Universalist Association as a totalitarian regime, in keeping with his statement in the last election forum that when his followers hear discussion of “Beloved Community” they hear “Obedient Community.” (Editor’s note: please find information on both contested Board Nominees here. Worth noting: this page includes a covenant agreed to by both Nominees to “work together to create a fair, honest, and truth-centered campaign.” With misleading blog posts and comments such as those cited, Mr. Kiskel is in violation of that covenant.]
ENDORSEMENTS ARE A NORMAL PART OF DEMOCRACY
Kiskel has a long list of minutia he considers to be evidence of the death of democracy within the UUA, but his most recent evidence is the fact that other people have endorsed his opponent.
“Just brought to my attention was a May 14, 2021, UU World article demonstrating the UUA Board’s willingness to use its administrative powers to tip the scales in this year’s trustee election.”
“The UUA Board of Trustees endorses the UUA Nominating Committee’s three candidates [sic.] for the Board, the Rev. Elizabeth Mount, JeKaren Oloya, and the Rev. Sam Trumbore.”
The fact that the Board has someone to endorse and reason to do so is proof that democracy is alive and well, actually. Elected officials endorse other people running for office all the time, and the UUA bylaws don’t prohibit endorsement. It is evidence of the commitment of the Board members that they were thoughtful about whether, and how, to endorse the slate vetted by the Nominating Committee. So the endorsement is actually a sign democracy is alive and well, and we’re heading for a VOTE in the UUA.
“In our book, ‘Used to Be UU,’ we postulated that the Nominating Committee has become nothing more than ‘a gatekeeper to preserve the ideological mindset of the board.’ We now know that our observation is true.”
Kiskel not only sees the death of democracy, but somehow perceives the Board’s actively engaging the democratic process by endorsing the Nominating Committee’s slate as nefarious, seeing conspiracy where none exists. The Nominating Committee works closely with the Board, as it should, in order to understand the Board’s work and what experience and background will make a candidate most suited for this work. The fact that the Board endorsed the Nominating Committee slate means that they believe the Nominating Committee did their work, and did it well, and found appropriate and strong Nominees for the roles they needed to nominate for.
YOU CAN STILL HAVE AN ELECTION WITH ONE NOMINEE
Kiskel turns next to his next “proof” that democracy is dying — the proposed amendment to the bylaws that is up for a VOTE at General Assembly.
“This effort to stifle democracy is not limited to the election of UUA Board of Trustee members. The board has also offered a bylaw amendment at this year’s General Assembly to eliminate the only election that UUs are currently guaranteed. The proposed amendment to Section 9.5 reduces the number of candidates the Presidential Search Committee must put forward, lowering the requirement of “no fewer than two” to “one or more.” One candidate means no election.”
[Editor’s note: Unfortunately, both the UUA and Kiskel are sloppy with their language around the difference between “candidate” and “nominee.” This is, however, an important distinction. There can be unlimited “candidates” for an elective office. (There were twenty candidates for the Democratic Presidential Nomination in 2020, for example, but only one Democratic Nominee: Joe Biden. To be nominated in the UUA–thus a “Nominee”–a candidate must either receive adequate support via petition, or be vetted and nominated by the Nominating Committee. This failure to distinguish between the two is inaccurate and unfortunate on the part both of Kiskel and the UUA, and makes it easier for Kiskel to make his inaccurate accusations. Please find a technical explanation of the difference here.]
One Nominee does not mean no election, as most in UU congregations can personally attest at each annual meeting. Most UU congregations have a nominating committee that nominates only one person for each position. When needing a minister, we create search committees that choose one “candidate” (see the differing definitions between “chosen candidate” and “nominee” in a contested election above) in front of the congregation for a vote. The role of a Nominating Committee, or the Presidential Search Committee, is to make sure that we’re not without a qualified applicant, and don’t have a vacant position. It’s not their role to guarantee that there are multiple Nominees.
It wasn’t that long ago that we had no Presidential Search Committee, and all the UUA presidential Nominees were nominated by petition. Running by petition is a proven and time-honored option. While currently the Presidential Search Committee has to find two Nominees, in the last presidential race one of the two dropped out after the nomination period ended. This did not mean “no election,” however, because two candidates ran as Nominees by petition — and one of them won! The fact that we had a robust race for president and that a petition Nominee that we VOTED for, who won the last time around, is proof that Kiskel’s dire predictions are unfounded and democracy is actually alive and well in the UUA.
YES, WE STILL HAVE ELECTIONS
Referring to a suggested modification in the bylaws, Kiskel produces another dire prediction:
“As Americans from all political persuasions decry Republicans passing bills to curtail voting access, our own UU leadership has conjured their own clever solution. Just wholly eliminate the election.”
Again, Kiskel began his essay by assuring his readers that he was not using hyperbole. Yet this is clearly conspiracy thinking, not reality-based rhetoric. The UUA has done nothing that eliminates elections; this isn’t an action enforced by the Board. To the contrary, the Board makes this proposal, but the General Assembly will have to VOTE on it to make it come to pass. Board-proposed bylaw amendments can get voted down or drastically changed.
I had a hand in amending a Board-proposed bylaw once where we the delegates amended it so heavily that it became the *opposite* of the original proposal. The General Assembly has that power to make significant changes, or VOTE for or against the Board’s proposed changes. So this action is merely the Board giving the delegates something to VOTE on.
KISKEL’S REAL TARGET: BLUU
Kiskel then tells the readers what he is really against, what is at the base of his concern for highly competitive democratic processes [or something]
“The first rationale is that requiring competitive races for the presidency of the Association is too costly. The “cost argument” went out the door with the $5.3 million grant to Black Lives UU (BLUU). We all spend our money on what we value.”
Here we see Kiskel showing what he’s really against, which is not bylaws, but rather our social justice values that led to the funding proposal for BLUU.
But let’s analyze what he’s talking about a bit here. This funding BLUU was the fulfillment, in today’s dollars, of a promise made, by UUA General Assembly VOTE , over fifty years ago. BLUU was seen by the UUA Board and all three presidential candidates in the contested election at the time, as the logical successor organization for us to fulfill that promise to. [Editor’s note: Please find the UUWorld article on this discussion here.]
For Kiskel to use the figure $5.3 million is also deliberately misleading. The UUA committed one million of the funds, and $100,000 was given by a UUA district (and so thus can reasonably also be considered to have been given by the UUA) and the rest was freely given offerings from UU congregations and donations from UU individuals. The reason Kiskel is choosing this example out of all the things the UUA funds, and painting it more extremely, is because it’s an example that’s about racial justice where he opposes the decision.
Yes, we give to what we value. And the large amount of giving to this cause by UU congregations and individuals shows our values in action. By funding this, we have shown that it is Kiskel who is out of touch. Moreover, if we disagree with how the UUA has managed our funds, that we the member congregation have given, we can VOTE to change things.
STILL HUNG UP ON THE GADFLY PAPERS
Kiskel turns to another dog-whistle:
“This suppression of deocratic processes must be seen in a larger context to suppress debate and dissent. The 2019 controversy over The Gadfly Papers was a highly visible example of our UU leadership’s effort to ban ideas they find inconvenient. The effort is ongoing.”
The mention of The Gadfly Papers is Kiskel’s second dog-whistle to people who disagree with the work our Association is doing to create greater justice for people of color both inside and outside of Unitarian Universalism. The Gadfly Papers is a subject that is well-documented elsewhere, and to address it in full would make this article even longer. [Editor’s note: in-depth analysis can be found here.] But for those not familiar with it, it’s a book by a UU author that was distributed at General Assembly in 2019, which claimed that the claims of racial discrepancies in hiring were false, and delved into a controversy at a LREDA conference, without talking to LREDA leadership.
When the author was asked to meet with the UUA Moderators, after they received concerns and complaints, he refused to, and because he was not willing to abide by the covenantal process, they asked him to leave the GA. [I find this timeline to be accurate and consistent with my understanding of events:please find link here.] Our faith is built on a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, as it says in our Principles, but it is also built on covenant, which is also in our Principles. When a minister steps out of a covenant they have agreed to, either their covenant with their colleagues, or the covenant everyone signs as part of registration for GA, they are asked to engage in processes of restoration. This is fundamental to our role in this faith. [Editor’s note: again, one example of Unitarian Universalist covenantal culture is the covenant agreed upon by Mr. Kiskel himself and the other Board Nominee, Samuel Trumbore. It can be found here (scroll down). Kiskel is continually and egregiously violating the very covenant he agreed to, with numerous false statements and blog posts.]
CONTINUING THE HARM
When Rev. Dr. Eklof was asked to leave the GA until he was willing to come back into covenant, this applies to all future General Assemblies. So the following year, he tried to come in the back door. The organization “UUMUAC” (the misleadingly named UU Multiracial Unity Action Council) had a booth, and at that booth they were offering a Zoom presentation at which Rev. Dr. Eklof would speak. It’s against the rules to bring in a speaker who is not registered for the General Assembly. The UUA General Assembly realized this, and removed their booth privileges for this action. The Fifth Principle Project leaders have been closely aligned with UUMUAC, with both their leaders and Rev. Dr. Eklof having been keynote presenters at UUMUAC events. [Editor’s note: find UUMUAC founder Finley Campbell’s public statements condemning the Unitarian Universalist Association and UUA anti-racism here (scroll down for Campbell’s statements.)]
“As we earlier shared, UU leadership has banned the promotion of our book, ‘Used to Be UU,’ at our General Assembly booth.”
Jay Kiskel and Frank Casper’s book Used to Be UU is essentially The Gadlfy Papers 2.0 in that it recounts Rev. Eklof’s case, shares its perspective, and makes the same key mistake of not interviewing the leaders on both sides of the issues that it addresses. In the recent UUA election forum, Kiskel said that the Commission on Institutional Change (COIC) report, which interviewed 1100 people, is flawed research needing peer review. If Kiskel had done even 1% as many interviews, or interviewed even one person who disagreed with him, some of the mistakes in his book would have been easily cleared up. But as the book stands, it appears he did not interview any former or current member of the Board, any Nominating Committee members, or UUA leadership whatsoever. The result of this lack of research is numerous misunderstandings and inaccuracies. So by bringing their book to General Assembly, it would be effectively another back-door way of bringing back The Gadfly Papers.
But the GA planners also have reason to be alarmed based on Jay Kiskel’s prior behavior, as well. Last year at GA, he and Fifth Principle Project leaders presented the offensively-named resolution “George Can’t Breathe but You Can Vote.” (Jay Kiskel writes about it in “Break Glass in Emergency” on the Fifth Principle Project website.) It was a horrible misappropriation of George Floyd’s name and death, for a resolution that carried no other statement about the death of George Floyd or police violence, or the situation of violence against people of color. It was, frankly, a title so egregiously awful and very arguably racist that immediate discomfort and upset broke out in all the GA chat areas about it. The General Assembly VOTED not to admit this to the final agenda.
“UUism is being betrayed by our own leadership in favor of a far more ecclesiastical organization where decisions at the top will no longer be subject to debate. Voting among rank-and-file UU’s will be curtailed or stopped altogether.”
Here Kiskel stopped making arguments, and just resorted to pure hyperbole. This is an exaggerated claim beyond any credibility. Kiskel apparently thinks that the UUA Board will somehow take over the governance of our Association by denying UUs the vote and ability to use the General Assembly process to shape the governance of our Association. I’m trying to imagine how that would happen — through militarizing Unitarian Universalism? Rolling tanks out to block the delegates from entering the General Assembly? Through mind-control, as the Board is replaced with people with telepathic powers? …Now I have followed him into hyperbole, but the point is that ending voting among UUs is not now, nor ever, likely to happen.
Voting among UUs can’t be stopped unless we VOTE to do that. That’s a situation that strains my imagination more than the tanks or telepaths.
There’s something that, in contrast to Jay Kiskel’s dire predictions, UU delegates to our General Assembly are invited to do this year: VOTE. We’ll take many votes, on elections, and issues, actions of immediate witness and other buisness to go before the Assembly, because our democratic process is alive and well. And for UUA Board Trustee, MY VOTE GOES TO SAM TRUMBORE. [Editor’s note: so does mine.]