This December, the American version of The Financial Times published a feature on what is often termed the Gadfly movement within American Unitarian Universalism. The Financial Times is a London-based daily whose editorial stance is to the right of the Washington Post, but not as far right as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. Similarly, Jemima Kelly, the article’s author, is to the right of Kathleen Parker, but not as far right as Ann Coulter.
I mention this because, while the article is responsibly “factual,” in a journalistic sense, it features the kind of sound-bite interviews that are often a problem in this era of click-bait journalism. Kelly gets quotes “from both sides” of what some call the Gadfly controversy. But she does not delve beneath the surface, to assess the accuracy of the quotes themselves. That is something I will try to do in this essay.
Kelly’s editorial stance, along with that of The Financial Times, helps explain her overall treatment: which information she includes and which information gets left out. It helps explain why Kelly covers a years-old conflict within a relatively obscure liberal religious tradition, while ignoring more significant, more current conflicts within, say, the conservative Southern Baptist Convention. America’s largest religious tradition, the Southern Baptists banned female pastors this past summer and also acknowledged mishandling decades of sexual abuse charges. That is much bigger, more current news. But those are not attractive topics for conservative journalists. The last time The Financial Times covered the Southern Baptist Convention was in 2008. (Although they happily seem to cover conservative religious support for Donald Trump.)
Thus, there is an aspect of “owning the libs” that explains why this article was written at all, as well as the manner in which it was written.
Kelly opens with quotes from Rev. Todd Eklof, author of The Gadfly Papers, the self-published book that catalyzed the Gadfly controversy. She describes Eklof sympathetically, as “a teddy-bearish” man with “a rescue dog [that’s] a dead ringer for Scooby Doo.”
She takes Eklof’s version of events totally at face value. Eklof sprang The Gadfly Papers on the 2019 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly “around lunchtime” on Friday, GA’s third day. Kelly fails to question Eklof’s false claim that he “waited until the conference was almost over before handing it out.”
She should have dug past the surface. Midday Friday was precisely halfway through the convention—arguably the convention’s high point–and right after Friday Worship. As minister of the host congregation, Eklof led that service. It qualifies as, arguably, the strangest religious service in General Assembly history. It amounted to an infomercial for Eklof himself, in which he had a local friend give a testimonial to “Todd Eklof’s deep scholarship.” Either Eklof failed to tell Kelly about that little tidbit, or she just chose to leave it out. But that service is what dictated the timing, not Eklof’s professed concern for controversy the book would cause.
Nor has Kelly taken time to look into The Gadfly Papers’ numerous factual inaccuracies and outright libels against Unitarian Universalist Association staff and members. A minister should hardly expect to insult and lie about colleagues without repercussion. But Kelly—again—takes Eklof totally at his word that the controversy was all about “freedom of speech,” and that he was the victim of Unitarian Universalist “safetyism.”
Eklof has long claimed that he was “banned” from General Assembly and “excommunicated” from the Unitarian Universalist Association. Such claims of victimhood are simply bogus. He was told not to return to General Assembly until he was willing to engage with the people he had libeled and insulted. He was later removed from Ministerial Fellowship because he continued to stonewall all attempts at restoring the relationships he had broken. None of this had anything to do with freedom of speech. It had to do with irresponsible conduct.
The article does correctly mention Eklof’s refusal to meet with GA leadership the day after his book’s release. And that he was “politely” told, over the phone, not to return without participating in such a meeting. Kelly then quotes Eklof saying, “I hung up the phone and I said to [my wife] ‘I think we’ve just won. The GA can’t get away with banning a minister for giving away a book.”
Worthy of note: two years after The Gadfly Papers, Eklof self-published The Gadfly Affair, an excruciatingly detailed account of his side of the controversy. Yet nowhere in 180 exhaustive pages does he mention such a statement. This leads me to suspect that Eklof is rewriting history on the fly, to his own advantage.
In The Gadfly Affair, Eklof relates that he received another voicemail from the GA moderator later in the day, to check in on how he was faring. (He either did not mention this to Kelly, or she chose not to write about it.) But Eklof could not call back, he claims, “because it was from a restricted number.” Even if the dial-back option were not workable, it is always possible to get ahold of the moderator via numbers that are publicly available. In other words, this is also a case of disingenuous accounting.
The point is that Eklof “rewrites history” with some frequency. I will cite one further, faintly humorous example. Eklof admits that The Gadfly Papers was hastily written and self-published. He has never acknowledged one result of his haste: the word, “THE” accidentally printed twice on the front cover. The first “THE,” printed above the full title, was in a different font. He had apparently changed the cover layout at some point but had neglected to completely remove the first version.
This led some wags to refer to early copies of the book as The The Gadfly Papers, sometimes shortened to “TTGP.” Eklof never acknowledged this boo-boo, but the extra “THE” soon vanished. Until that is, Eklof published a “second edition.” On this version, in place of—and also in the same font and type size as—the original, extra “THE,” we now find the letters, “TFE:” Eklof’s initials.
Anyone can make a silly mistake while hurrying. I’ve done that. Anyone can then remove the mistake while preferring not to acknowledge it. I admit I’ve done that, as well. But it is eyebrow-raising to then put the mistake back, altered in such a way as to be able to claim, “That’s not really a mistake, I meant to do it all along.” That takes, shall we say, quite a remarkable ego.
From his fib about the timing on the release of his book, to gold-plating the error on the book’s cover, these are all, in various forms, examples of Eklof re-writing reality. They are all forms of what is called gaslighting. As I quote a psychologist in my book, such gaslighting is not really done with harmful intent (although harm often follows,) but to make the gaslighter, in this case Eklof, feel better about himself.
In comparison with Jemima Kelly’s shallow interviewing style, my book, A Gadfly Report, contains a chapter on journalist/podcaster Aaron Rabinowitz. In his 2022 interview with Eklof, unlike Kelly, Rabinowitz did probe beneath the surface. Rabinowitz cited multiple examples where Eklof had drawn conclusions from faulty or one-sided sources, or done research that was just plain faulty and one-sided itself. Eklof’s response every time was to refuse to admit a mistake, even when it was staring him in the face. He would double down, then change the subject and portray himself as the victim of nefarious treatment by the UUA or UU ministers. At no point has he ever taken responsibility for his own actions. Nor, apparently, does Kelly ever challenge him to do so.
Kelly then writes about her interview with Unitarian Universalist theologian, Rev. Dr. Thandeka. As I cover in a separate chapter in A Gadfly Report, Thandeka has made noteworthy contributions to Unitarian Universalist thought—but not in the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Suffice to say, the quarter-century-old lecture the Gadflies like to cite—and to which Kelly refers in her piece—has not aged well. Nor has Thandeka’s own thinking evolved. This is despite the fact that society itself has greatly shifted in that time, along with the Unitarian Universalist response to social changes. Thandeka’s theological strengths are very real, but they lie in other areas.
The article then moves to Kelly’s interview with former UUA President, Peter Morales. Morales resigned from that office at the end of March 2017, with less than three months to go in his final term. It is plain that Kelly got her interview list from Gadfly sources. As do the Gadflies, she blames Morales’s resignation on what they claim was Unitarian Universalists’ overreaction to a blown hiring decision, in which a woman of color was passed over in favor of a white male minister.
That was a complex and fraught chain of events, and Kelly can be forgiven for incomplete reportage. (Again, I cover this in detail in A Gadfly Report.) But it is important to note that tension had been ramping up between Morales and the UUA Board of Trustees for years. It is inaccurate to portray the final eruption as a product of the hiring decision and nothing else.
Part of the tension was structural. The UUA was shifting to a governance-by-policy administrative system. Such a shift was predictably stressful. But there was also a problem with Morales’ own tendency toward rigidity and a sharp tongue. Arguably, lingering patriarchalism within the UUA contributed to his election in the first place. And I believe he can be justly cited for not adequately challenging lingering patriarchalism in his own attitude.
In the moment, Morales responded to the hiring controversy with a memo to UUA staff, justifying his policies during his term in office, but also acknowledging the need to improve diversity in hiring. Unfortunately, he closed the letter with the kind of cutting remark to which he was too often prone: “I wish I were seeing more humility and less self righteousness, more thoughtfulness and less hysteria.”
This is not to deny Peter Morales’s good intentions. But multiple colleagues have explained to me how they have received hurtful comments from Morales, too often made in public forums. In this instance, it poured avgas on the controversy. An angry person is unlikely to appreciate being called, “self righteous.” And I cannot envision any English-speaking woman anywhere who would appreciate being called, “hysterical.”
Three days later, Morales tendered his resignation in a follow-up letter to the Board of Trustees: “Unfortunately, a note I sent to UUA staff a few days ago made matters worse. In my hasty effort I created more hurt for those already hurting. I failed to lead appropriately. I reacted when I should have listened. I am deeply sorry.” (UUWorld 3/30/17)
If Kelly has honestly reported her interview with Morales, those conciliatory words could not have been sincere. That is unfortunate. But in Kelly’s article, Morales stands behind his initial letter, then adds: “It never occurred to me that ‘hysteria’ would be seen as an attack against women.”
What I find problematic about this statement is not just that the UUA President is very well paid to know precisely that sort of thing. And should be accountable for not knowing it. But there is also the level—again—of unacknowledged patriarchalism in the remark itself. Kelly’s tone—which may or may not reflect Morales’s actual attitude—is that criticism on that point was rather silly.
Kelly then quotes Morales expressing the same kind of snark that got him into trouble in the first place: “It’s [the UUA, that is] a soap opera and there are a lot of dead bodies.”
I find this troubling. It is hard to be patient when a person keeps saying such things when disagreed with. As basketball pundit Charles Barkley puts it, referring to a current controversy in sports: If someone keeps doing stuff like that, “We can’t keep calling him a good dude.”
Does Morales really consider himself one of those “dead bodies?” He acknowledged to UUA staff, back in 2017, that “No one forced me to resign, or even mentioned my resignation.”
Resignation was his own idea, then. It is my observation, at age 73 and with a lifetime of interacting with the kind of men we often term “alpha males,” that when such a man can no longer dominate a situation, they are likely to abandon it completely. This seems to apply to Peter Morales–and to the other (white male) UUA leaders who also resigned in the wake of the controversy.
Moreover, the article does not mention—possibly because Morales did not tell Kelly—that he secretly received a severance package that amounted to the better part of a full year’s salary! So did some of the other men who resigned–again, by choice, with only three months left in the UUA President’s term. When the three hastily appointed co-presidents found out about those bonuses, they termed the severance packages “shocking and appalling,” and “a breach of any reasonable understanding of right relationship.” (UUWorld 6/16/17) If there was a “dead body,” it was arguably UUA finances, which Morales, and other UUA leaders who also resigned with “shocking” severance packages, happily left for dead.
Instead, Kelly portrays the emergency co-presidency as a power grab by social justice warriors within the UUA. She suggests a level of disdain that three Black co-presidents were chosen. But that kind of rhetoric is pure Gadfly. The reality is that it would have been extremely challenging for a single person to have filled the position on such short notice. Moreover, one of the co-presidents was a past president, while another later became president in her own right. And the third was an expert on the very diversity issues that caused the rift in the first place. So it was not as though the three were chosen without regard to merit, as Kelly implies.
A great part of their short co-presidency was a kind of trauma ministry. As the co-presidents later reported at General Assembly, many UUA staff were traumatized by events of those months. Kelly does not acknowledge any of that, likely because she never bothered to become aware of it.
Kelly then goes through the motions of presenting the obligatory “other side.” She quotes Reverend Sarah Skochko, whom she describes as “a 39-year-old mother with a masters in poetry.” That would, of course, be a master’s degree in English, with an emphasis on the study of poetry. Poetry is actually a demanding subject, but I sense a certain superciliousness in Kelly’s description. She certainly does not mention the multiple graduate degrees Skochko has actually earned.
Nor does Kelly mention the years of relentless vilification Skochko suffered from Gadflies, ever since she delivered a sermon criticizing The Gadfly Papers in late 2019. Kelly incorrectly claims that Skochko “gave” the sermon “to her congregation in Eugene, Oregon.” Kelly apparently did not bother to find out—or ignored—that Skochko was still a student–a parish intern at the time, under the supervision of that congregation’s minister.
It would be only fair to allow parish interns to speak their minds, given that their work is directed and then evaluated by their supervisors, the church’s Intern Committee, their theological school, and the UUA. Instead, Gadflies nationwide immediately commenced attacks, many of them personal. This included a public call-out by best-selling author and Gadfly ally, Kate Braestrup.
A best-selling author attacking a parish intern. Bullying much?
The attacks continued after Skochko graduated, passed her oral exams with the UUA, and went into search for a congregation of her own. Gadflies opposed her candidacy with the church that selected her. Then, when that congregation voted overwhelmingly to call her anyway, a few Gadfly members managed to create conflict, split that congregation, and drive her from that pulpit. For all her scholastic excellence, acknowledged by multiple colleagues, including myself, Skochco does not currently serve as a parish minister. That is a loss to all of us.
Gadflies have done the same thing in other congregations. Where enough Gadflies are members, it takes less than a half dozen, campaigning relentlessly, to create enough conflict to drive a minister out. This has happened to at least three ministerial colleagues, known to me personally. That is one reason I write on Gadfly topics. I am retired. They can condemn and vilify me—which they have done. But they cannot take away my income.
It is worth noting that Kelly applies a level of critical thinking to Skochko, which she neglects with interviewees with whom she agrees. Kelly believes she has caught Skochko in an inconsistency, quoting her that “Gadflyism is tearing apart our churches,” but that Gadflyism, as a whole, has too few adherents to be an actual movement.
Kelly plainly does not want to see it, but both statements are accurate. While, on average, the total number of Gadflies is less than one per Unitarian Universalist congregation, random mathematical distribution means that there will be zero in many places, a few in others—but enough to cause real conflict in some. Which they do not hesitate to do if a minister dares disagree with them. Experts on church dynamics have shown that it takes only five or six antagonistic members to disrupt a church and force a minister to resign. This holds true whether it is a 100-member congregation, or a 700-member congregation.
Which brings us to another thing Kelly takes Todd Eklof at his word on: Unitarian Universalist statistics. That is not accurate, either. Eklof shorts the number of UU congregations in their interview, though only by about 50. He understates overall UUA membership by much more, about 20 percent of the total. This is not least because he does not count the number of young people who participate in Religious Education—what other religious traditions call Sunday School.
As I discuss in A Gadfly Report, Eklof has little use for Religious Education. He had little interest in it in his own church. And it was Liberal Religious Educators Association leadership that he most openly libeled in A Gadfly Report. With no basis in fact whatsoever, he accused them of financial fraud against their members. It was their formal complaint—which he refused to even acknowledge—that resulted in his being removed from Ministerial Fellowship. All while portraying himself as the victim of crimes by others. Needless to say, Kelly mentions none of this.
She also takes Eklof at his word, that none of his detractors have ever actually been able to cite an offending passage from his book. That is a lie, pure and simple. Eklof critics, including myself, have quoted Eklof’s books extensively. But Kelly once more takes his claim as Gospel–apparently without ever bothering to fact check it. (For the record, Eklof made the same claim in his interview with Aaron Rabinowitz. Rabinowitz called him on it, finding “plenty” of quotations from Eklof’s book, cited by people criticizing it. That was before I wrote my book, which cites plenty more.)
Predictably, though, Kelly gives Eklof the last word. Worth mentioning, though Kelly does not cover it, is that Eklof announced in 2021 that he was going to run for the position of UUA President in the next (2023) election cycle. Back at that time, he was remarking in online “Zoom” conferences with supporters, that they should engineer an electoral takeover of the UUA, modeling after the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. “We could get the endowment,” I myself saw him speculate at one point, in one “Zoom convocation.”
That was before repeated Gadfly candidacies went down to crushing defeat in repeated General Assembly elections. In repeated campaigns, the greatest vote total received by any Gadfly candidate in any election was under thirteen percent!
Eklof quietly abandoned his campaign for UUA President. Rather, earlier this year as Kelly puts it, “Eklof officially launched a new Unitarian Universalist body: the North American Unitarian Association.” (If you have no hope of being elected by honest vote, then form your own group and declare yourself president. Which is precisely what Eklof did.)
The very title shows that the NAUA is hardly a “Unitarian Universalist body,” as Kelly claims. Beginning with The Gadfly Papers itself, Gadflies have consistently disdained, often refused to even acknowledge, the Universalist side of our tradition.
But even using Eklof’s own numbers, his “new body” consists of fewer than one member per UU congregation: “more than 700 individual members and four member congregations,” Kelly tells us. Against a total number of just under 200,000 Unitarian Universalists and just over 1,000 congregations nationwide. But even adding the “two [new] members a day” that Kelly and Eklof claim, we are hardly talking about a significant religious movement—or even a significant numerical shift in Unitarian Universalism. We are, rather, talking about what I termed them in the subtitle of my book: “a reactionary fringe.”
A very noisy reactionary fringe. Which a right-leaning correspondent may find fulfilling to write about. But which is much more adept at creating discord and harm than at producing any constructive result.