THE THIRD ESSAY
I begin with The Gadfly Papers’ final essay because it is the most openly deceptive. Author Todd Eklof titles it, “Let’s be Reasonable,” and calls it “A Rational Frame Regarding Charges of Racism and White Supremacy within the Unitarian Universalist Association.” The phraseology itself is suspect. Scientific studies of the brain show that juxtaposing “reason” versus “emotion,” as Eklof does in this essay, is a scientifically obsolete fallacy. Rather than “reason” or “emotion,” one or the other, both work in concert, playing off one another. More than ninety five per cent of the decisions we make form in the unconscious level of the brain. Five per cent—or less—(PF 12-13) is conscious “reason.” This is equally the case with men, women, and all ethnicities.
For millennia, the Western tradition has extolled “reason” and “logic.” But while the logic of Aristotle, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Descartes may be impeccable, their conclusions are, all too often, demonstrably wrong. We need the test-and-replication of science. Some may elevate “reason”—in quotes—to the level of idolatry. But “reason” in this sense is just as mythical as the Loch Ness monster.
Eklof either fails to realize this, or simply ignores it. He also ignores the Western intellectual tradition’s toxic legacy of pretensions about “reason” and “logic.” For millennia European men claimed the mantle of “reason” as a talisman of superiority over “emotional” women, as well as non-European societies.
This is built into the United States’ own racist past, right through the 20th century. For example, pioneering black theologian James Hal Cone lamented “reasonable” white liberals in his breakthrough book, Black Theology and Black Power, in 1969:
“Since whites do not know the extent of black suffering, they can only speak from their own perspective, which they call ‘reason.’ . . . The liberal, then, is one who sees ‘both sides’ of the issue and shies away from ‘extremism’ in any form. The white liberal wants to be a friend, that is, enjoy the rights and privileges pertaining to whiteness and also work for the ‘Negro.” (BTBP 23)
Not only was “reason” long used to “prove” white male superiority over women and people of non-European descent, then, it also became a byword to impede the black struggle for equality.
Moreover, while Eklof professes to use “reason” and “formal logic,” close reading of his text shows, he uses the pretense of logic and reason to obscure the reality that his thinking is uninformed and deceptive. He laces his essay with complex jargon which has no function other than to distract the reader from the shallow and fallacious nature of the claims themselves.
Editors and advanced writing teachers note that overuse of jargon is just, plain bad writing. It obscures the point you’re trying to make—unless, of course, its real purpose is precisely that: to confuse the reader the way a carnival barker uses patter and motion to confuse the audience they’re tricking with their shell game!
THE 2017 SOUTHERN REGION LEAD POSITION HIRE
Eklof’s essay pretends to “logically” examine the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 2017 Southern Region Lead hiring process. But he repeatedly omits crucial details central to the controversy.
Among applicants for the position were two sitting members of the UUA Board of Trustees. (Ekloff claims only one, but that is false. There were two.) One, as Eklof notes, was the “Latina” who was later passed over for the position. The other, whom Eklof fails to mention, was Rev. Andy Burnette, who was chosen for the position.
According to UUA policy, neither should have been eligible without full Board of Trustees approval. Applicants were required to be off the UUA Board for a year before joining UUA staff, to avoid conflict of interest. UUA Director of Congregational Life, Rev. Scott Tayler, who ultimately made the hire, solicited an agreement with Moderator (Board Chair,) Jim Key, to waive that policy for this hire. The full Board was not informed until after the fact. There was never a proper vote to suspend the rule.
Eklof also fails to mention any requirement for the successful applicant, reasonably enough, to live in or near the Southern Region. Furthermore, in the interview process, multiple applicants finished their interviews feeling as though they had secured the position. This was inexcusable clumsiness on Tayler’s part, and invited the controversy that followed. Flawed process ensured bitter feelings. Eklof blithely ignores all this.
He also fails to mention that Rev. Andy Burnette, the successful applicant, lived in Phoenix, Arizona, two states away from the nearest Southern Region Congregation—and did not intend to relocate. Tayler agreed to this, even though qualified candidates lived in the Region.
How convenient for Eklof to omit such facts! He suggests that only one person was angry, “the Latina,” as he calls her, and that only she was passed over. That is untrue. Other people were similarly passed over, and many were angry at the sloppy process.
MORE FOGGY FACTS
Despite the fact that a white male from outside the Region received preferential treatment over female and non-white candidates from within the region, Ekloff maintains that accusations of racial bias are logically incorrect.(GF, 90)
He begins with a long, involved explanation of the logical term, “affirming the consequent.” Granted, he says, the percentages of people of color in supervisory positions in the Unitarian Universalist Association are uncomfortably low.(GP, 89) But it “affirms the consequent,” he says, to suppose the disparity is due to racial bias within the association. (GP 81)
There are multiple problems here. First, Eklof suggests that “racism” was the only issue. Yet the multiple qualified women passed over—who lived in or near the region—shows that patriarchalism was at work, as well. As former UUA President William Sinkford has noted, racism and patriarchalism go hand-in-hand.
It’s also worth following Eklof down this rabbit hole of “affirming the consequent.” Suppose you have a basement room with no windows and a single light fixture for illumination. “If the light is burned out, then the room will be dark” is a logically correct statement.
On the other hand, “If the room is dark, then the light is burned out” is not logically correct. After all, the light could simply be turned off, the power could be out, etc., etc. That assumption as to the cause would be “affirming the consequent.”
Eklof accuses the UUA of such an assumption: “The rate of poc [sic.] hires in the UUA is low, therefore we have racist hiring practices.” This is, he says, “affirming the consequent.”(GP84)
This is a “straw man” logical fallacy by Eklof because the UUA did not draw that inference from just that one bit of data.
First, going back to our basement room—if the room is dark, it is perfectly logical to observe, prima facie, “This room is dark.” Eklof himself admits the low hiring rate of People of Color in supervisory UUA positions, which he, himself, acknowledges as “concerning, to say the least.” (GP 79) Meanwhile, he ignores the classic, good-ole-boy process of the Southern Region Lead hire, under circumstances that were—at least in the professed requirements—not allowed for women or People of Color. This is precisely how white supremacy culture works. We hire our friends. We bend the rules for our friends. We “forget” to tell applicants from outside our circle which requirements are real and which ones they need not worry about.
Eklof fails to mention that the UUA had, for years, received complaints from People of Color about discrimination and insensitive treatment. This is just one of many crucial facts he conveniently omits. He repeatedly builds “straw man” logical fallacies, omitting inconvenient facts and details, distorting words and actions of others, then conveniently criticizing the distortions.
He goes on to say, “In the same way, to correctly argue the UUA has racist hiring practices and upholds white supremacy, the antecedents (conditions) leading to these racist consequences must be affirmed. The systems that lead to such racial disparity, that is, ought to be made explicit so they can be reasonably [here we go again] considered.”(GP 88)
Those conditions were, in fact, “made explicit” in the Commission on Institutional Change’s report. Eklof just ignored them.
This is also one more situation in which the white guy refuses to believe the Person of Color is being hurt until the Person of Color convinces the white guy—to the white guy’s full and complete satisfaction—that the harm is taking place. Which will, of course, never happen, no matter the evidence, unless and until said white guy has a change of heart on his own and is willing to take the Person of Color’s lived experience seriously. In practice, that demand becomes an endless litany of moving goalposts. The proof was in the report, but Eklof just ignored it. It will always depend on the emotional state of the person in power, who often, as in this case, ignores facts and clings to the comfort of existing power structures.
After asserting the UUA has no overtly racist hiring policies, Eklof turns to sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s 2001 book, White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era, ostensibly to research the possibility of what Bonilla-Silva defines as “color-blind racism.” Briefly, Bonilla-Silva’s categories are 1.) “Abstract liberalism;” 2.) “Biologization of color;” 3.) “Naturalization of matters that reflect the impacts of White Supremacy;” and 4.) “Minimalization of racism and discrimination.”(GP 88-90)
Eklof “proves” the absence of color-blind racism by narrowly defining each category, quoting them word-for-word from Bonilla-Silva’s book. Examples in the UUA hiring controversy don’t precisely match the exact wording in Bonilla-Silva’s book, Eklof says. Therefore the UUA does not practice color-blind racism either! (GP 90) “It is not reasonable [!] to conclude it is a racist organization,” he says, then adds that it therefore cannot be logically proven that we are practicing either overt or color-blind racism. (GP 90)
This is a blatant distortion of Bonilla-Silva–and the facts. Bonilla-Silva makes plain that “color-blind racism” is subtle and complex. The categories are not definitions at all, Bonilla-Silva explains, but “frames:” “fluid,” “flexible,” and “pliable.” In fact, Eklof’s distortion of them is exactly what Bonillia-Silva means by “color-blind racism.” “Actors” in a “racialized society,” like Eklof, “can tiptoe around the most dangerous minefields because the stylistic elements of color blindness provide them all the necessary tools to get in and out of almost any discussion.” (RWR 75-6)
Eklof shamelessly mischaracterizes Bonilla-Silva’s work, taking quotes out of context and misapplying them to his own ends. The manner of the Southern Region Lead hire fits Bonilla-Silva’s category of “naturalization of matters that reflect White Supremacy.” That is, to Rev. Scott Tayler, the person he chose was “just a better fit.” Eklof himself demonstrates Bonilla-Silva’s “minimalization of racism and discrimination.” In addition, “abstract liberalism” lies at the very center of the “religion of humanity” Eklof repeatedly advances in his other essays. I will cover that in detail below. Bonilla-Silva scrupulously avoids the term, “racist.” But both Rev. Scott Tayler and Todd Eklof are, in Bonilla-Silva’s terms, “actors” in our thoroughly racialized society. (RWR V XV) (As are we all. That is what Bonilla-Silva means by “color-blind racism.”) What Bonilla-Silva actually writes is completely opposite to Eklof’s claims about him. In much the same way, when Eklof simply ignores Commission on Institutional Change information on the long history of complaints about U.U.A. discrimination by People of Color, he has crossed the line into real dishonesty. Eklof is hardly capable of pronouncing on the Unitarian Universalist Association’s struggle to overcome past failings.
THE COMMISSION ON INSTITUTIONAL CHANGE
Following the Southern Region Lead hiring debacle, the UUA formed a six-person “Commission on Institutional Change” to interview those affected and make recommendations. I found reading their final report to be a heartbreaking exercise. Few structures were in place to guide hiring. The ones that did exist were ignored. Those in power failed to notice the “good ole boy” staffing process. (This seems understandable, given that such practices would seem natural until they’re named by someone outside the favored circle.) Informality allowed bad habits. Bad habits led to bad process. Bad process ultimately blew up the system.
It was, in fact, a case study in institutional dysfunction and white supremacy culture. As Bonilla-Silva writes (and Eklof conveniently ignores,) “every white person is baptized in the waters of color-blind racism;”(RWR V, XIV) and “once a society is racialized, all actors “participate in that racialization.(RWR V, XV)
Those in power hire within our circle. We choose those we know best, whose capacities we already trust. So—a white UU minister on UUA senior staff passed over numerous qualified candidates to hire a white UU minister who was on the UUA Board of Directors. That’s classic white supremacy incest.
Diversity in leadership hiring was a proclaimed UUA goal, but easily “put off till next time.” This is precisely what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is talking about. No ones was intentionally “racist”—Bonilla-Silva scrupulously avoids that term. But all were actors within our racialized institutional culture.
Rev. Burnette did withdraw his application when the firestorm broke. I witnessed some (not all) the social media vitriol aimed at him in the aftermath. As the Commission on Institutional Change notes, this was most unfortunate.
But if what happened to Rev. Burnette on social media was unfortunate, what happened to the “Latina,” to continue Eklof’s term for one woman passed over for the position, was out-and-out criminal. She was not the only person who felt cheated. She was just the one who, as a Person of Color informed for the Nth time that she was “not the right fit,” even though she lived in the region and the winning candidate lived two time zones away, denied any grievance process for what she saw as unethical hiring—took out her frustrations in a public blog post.
I find it ironic that religious liberals can cheer an anonymous “whistle blower” who reveals unethical acts on the part of a President they dislike—but call for the blood of a whistleblower who reveals incestuous, good-ole-boy hiring with their UUA-donated money! That any Unitarian Universalist could be as cowardly and cruel as the people who hounded this woman off the UUA Board and, subsequently, out of her paid employment—is stomach-turning to me. Alas, the Commission affirmed, this is an all-too-common response to people of color who speak out in our almost-all-Euro-American tradition. Shame on us.
As is his wont, Eklof misrepresents her blog post. And while it is true that Rev. Tayler cited “confidentiality” in refusing to explain why one person was chosen and others were not—Rev. Tayler’s cavalier handling of UUA policy and written requirements begs the question whether he was protecting himself just as much as the people he rejected.
I don’t see how any caring person could read the Commission report and watch the aftermath, and not be heartbroken at the racism directed at this woman, not to mention her children! This demands we all take a hard look at the racialized, sexist, good-ole-boy quagmire we perpetuate.
For all his protestations throughout the book that we should “assume best intentions,” Eklof does not grant the Commission on Institutional Change that courtesy, nor does he grant it to the “Latina” candidate. His treatment of all of them ranges from dismissive to downright negative. In the process, he routinely omits all facts that don’t fit the story he wants to tell.
In gathering information, the Commission conducted interviews with fifteen people. “Subjective”(GP 94,97) information, Eklof calls it, darkly hinting that “subjective” information is worthless and, therefore, the Commission’s conclusions are worthless.(GP 101) But this is what’s called a “fallacy of origins,” presuming information is invalid because of where it came from. After all, were “subjective” sources invalid, half of world history would need to be thrown out, as would much insight gained in the fields of ethnology and the social sciences.
Moreover, while Eklof considers the Commission’s interviews “invalid,” he accepts at face value information from the few people he interviewed. This becomes truly problematic in his account of the 2017 Liberal Religious Educators fall conference. Instead of interviewing any of the attendees who found the scheduled presentation on so-called “Nonviolent Communication” inappropriate, he interviewed only the presenters. They, of course, had a stake in presenting themselves in the most favorable light, and the dissatisfied attendees as lacking in understanding.
Treating the Commission on Institutional Change report one-sided in the same way, Eklof ignores the fact that “racial tensions were already at the breaking point in the system,” that is, within the UUA, “before the hiring decision was even made.” Nor does Eklof acknowledge UUA leadership’s acceptance of the report and initiation of work toward improvement in the ways marginalized members are treated.
As Eklof makes clear in his first essay, he has a display of nerves when it comes to any improved institutional standing for LGBTQI folx or POCI. Meanwhile, at no point does he express more than pro forma sympathy for those same people, or for women.
Numerous employees of color had been made to feel unwelcome at Unitarian Universalist workplaces by careless or insensitive Euro-American members. Eklof dismisses their claims as—again—“subjective.” Well, hell, yes, racism is generally a subjective experience for the person on the receiving end. But I, myself, have had conversations with UU professionals of color who have been made to feel “less than,” who have even left their UU employment due to issues arising around their ethnicity. It saddens me that any minister would feel threatened or express annoyance at an organization that’s trying to overcome its shortcomings. (Of course, he well may not see them as shortcomings.)
The report details numerous systemic problems, inefficient organization, lack of written policies or guidelines, failure to follow the ones that did exist, and also ways in which color-blind racism—white supremacy culture, if you will—played a role in hiring. The whole process was an accident waiting to happen. Unsurprisingly, particularly given the quickness with which Rev. Tayler and other top leadership resigned, the aftermath played out hurtfully on social media.
The report actually provides several reasons for the social media flareup. Eklof ignores all of them except one—which he jumps right on. He quotes from the report, “Resignations precluded the opportunity for further dialogue and full information disclosure. (GP 95,96) Instead the events were tried in the court of conjecture and social media.” Eklof addresses only that single sentence, ignoring all the information that comes before or after. “By not explaining why turning to social media was the only alternative means of discussing the matter,” he writes, “the report may also present a ‘false dilemma,’ (GP 96) meaning there may, indeed, have been other means of communication available, or those who chose to use social media did so. . . without considering other options to begin with.”
This is patent dishonesty, ignoring clearly provided information, jumping to an ever more suggestive “may” and ever more ravenous “why.” The Commission fulfilled the fact-finding task assigned them. Eklof simply ignores any data he doesn’t like.
Eklof refuses to acknowledge that poor hiring process, playing out in an atmosphere of white supremacy culture, in which people of color already felt marginalized—led to a catastrophic result. These are lessons we ignore at our peril.
The capping travesty is Eklof’s shameful treatment of the “Latina,” whose frustrated (and courageous) blog post “outed” the color-blind racism of UUA hiring procedure, and precipitated the changes that followed. As systems psychologist Edwin Friedman has observed, in a dysfunctional system, the person who names a problem will be viewed as the problem.
Eklof does exactly that. He dismisses sloppy process and disastrous hiring decisions. We have only her word, he says, that she was even qualified for the position in the first place. Her description of events “remain only a fraction of what must have been said.”(GP 83 84 italics mine.) This is a blatant “argument from silence” logical fallacy. Eklof has no idea what was or was not said in any of those conversations. But in his mind, the “logical” person (himself, despite his repeated fallacies, deceptions, and omissions) “must reserve judgment” as to what actually happened.” (GP 83-84) This begs the question—is he really “reserving judgment?” Or is he once more refusing to acknowledge facts that do not fit the judgment he has already made?
I can’t imagine why Eklof felt he needed to further denigrate and insult this woman or the stand she took. She and her family paid a high price following the events in question. Having already suffered years of racialized abuse, this woman didn’t need Eklof “hanging her out to dry” all over again. To me, this adds real irresponsibility to Eklof’s litany of deceit and omission.
For me, this was the point at which this book descended from merely annoying (and occasionally laughable) in its inept writing and chopped logic, into inexcusable prejudice and misanthropy. Nor is Eklof innocent of the harm some of his readers practiced in his name against marginalized people at the 2019 UUA General Assembly. His illicit charges became a cudgel with which some of his followers accosted People of Color, trans people, etc., demanding that they, personally, answer his nonsense accusations. Genuine harm took place. Many LGBTQI folks and People of Color came to seriously doubt the sincerity of good-faith Unitarian Universalists.
We who desire that our tradition “practice what we preach” in welcoming all seekers, not just Euro-Americans, should be equally offended. We are doubly hard-pressed to make our welcome real and visible in the face of Eklof’s screed and his equally dismissive followers.
Toward the end of their report, the Commission on Institutional Change goes into a list of reasons why a “reconciliation” process would be unlikely to be fruitful. They provide seven bullet points, beginning with the fact that reconciliation requires “a climate of honesty, accountability, and disclosure,” but that religious professionals of color “do not feel safe to tell their truths because of what they have experienced from congregational leaders, colleagues and many of the systems set up to support them.” Witness what became of the “Latina” who spoke up after the Southern Region Lead hire: she lost her position on the Board and, later, her employment. Her family was threatened. She still receives attacks and condemnation. Most People of Color witnessing her mistreatment would say, “Oh-h-h-h, no. I’m not stepping into that trap.”
After listing several more disheartening conditions, the Commission notes that, “The time for ‘reconciliation’ may be passed. What may be needed is what author Melvin Bray calls a ‘truth and transformation’ process which looks at not reconciling us to equity under an outmoded system but reimagining a system of equality, inclusion, and innovation.
Typically, Eklof ignores the bulk of that passage and quotes only, “The time for reconciliation may be passed.” (GP 93) Such out-of-context quotes are standard for him. He compares this one unfavorably to “truth and reconciliation” processes in Rwanda and South Africa, using the comparison to imply that the whole report lacks worth. This is one more act of deceit.
It’s also a false analogy, even on its own terms. Truth and Reconciliation worked in Rwanda and South Africa because, if the forces who had wielded unjust power were to remain in the country and survive, they had no choice but to come to the table with the—formerly subservient—people who were now in control. No such conditions exist in the UUA. Of the white leaders responsible for the hiring decision and subsequent blow-up, three had already fled the scene of the accident by resigning, while a fourth had died. Thus, the principles were no longer available for “reconciliation” work in any event.
Eklof holds forth on logical/semantic terminology, not as clarification, nor for explanation, but purely for the purpose of obfuscation. He uses long, irrelevant explanations as smokescreens to hide the weakness and/or deceit of his argument.
One prime example is the Commission on Institutional Change report’s use of the term, “white supremacy culture.”
Eklof launches into a several-page discourse on the difference between “intensional” and “extensional” definitions. (GP 103-5) An “extensional” definition of “white supremacy,” he explains, would be listing white supremacist groups: “Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nation, Skinheads,” etc., etc. As an example of an “intensional” definition of white supremacy, he turns to the Oxford English Dictionary. “The belief that white people are superior to all other races. . . .” (GP 104) He lectures for another page or so, then turns to a sociological definition of white supremacy, and notes that this “intensional definition is similar to the [dictionary’s] lexical definition cited earlier, though [the author’s] extensional explanation. . .” (GP 105) ad nauseum for another page before concluding that, no, the UUA is not guilty of “white supremacy.” (GP 106)
Through all these pages of high-fog-index definitions around “white supremacy,” however, a perceptive reader notices that the term Eklof defined at such length—is not the term the Commission used! He pretends to define “white supremacy culture,” by turning on his fog machine and endlessly holding forth on the significantly different term, “white supremacy.” This is vintage Eklof.
The Commission report itself defines their term clearly: “‘White supremacy culture’ refers to the unspoken beliefs and cultural practices which reinforce an institution’s white-centered practices.” As other sociologists put it—and Bonilla-Silva agrees, though with slightly different terminology (RWR V 16)—white supremacy culture is a matter of habit (“cultural practices”) and so much the water we all swim in, (“baptized in the waters of color-blind racism,”) that we don’t even know we’re even doing it.
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.
ROBIN DIANGELO AND EKLOF’S MISREPRESENTATION OF SOURCES
In the last part of his third essay, Eklof tears into Robin DiAngelo’s article, “White Fragility,” in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, a peer-reviewed journal for educational professionals. DiAngelo later expanded this article into her book, White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People To Talk about Racism, which Eklof has not read. He does give DiAngelo credit for extensive documentation in the journal article, but he then complains that “most [of] the references cited are meant only to support the truth of propositions she’s asserted without explaining why they should be considered true.” (GP 117)
This is what’s called a “demand for perfection” logical fallacy, similar to “moving the goalposts.” Eklof can’t fault her for lack of documentation, so he does the next best thing, complaining that each citation is not adequately explained. Yet many a writer—including Eklof himself—uses citations in the same way. In essence, Eklof faults DiAngelo for doing the same thing he does.
He further attacks her research by comparing it unfavorably to that of his preferred source, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Bonilla-Silva’s research is just, plain better than DiAngelo’s, Eklof suggests, largely because Bonilla-Silva uses more statistics and primary research. (GP 120) The hint, of course, is that we should accept Bonilla-Silva and reject DiAngelo. This totally misrepresents Bonilla-Silva’s work. While they use somewhat different terminology, Bonilla-Silva agrees with DiAngelo, As previously noted, Eklof repeatedly takes Bonilla-Silva’s words out of context, completely reversing Bonilla-Silva actual conclusions.
ON TO CODDLING AND RELATED CONCEITS
Eklof’s third essay epitomizes the rest of the book. We don’t need fog lights quite as badly for his first essay, “The Coddling of the Unitarian Universalist Mind.” It is so poorly written, though, it helps to have a wry sense of humor.
Eklof apes Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Coddling of the American Mind. Lukianoff and Haidt lament that American college education is going to the dogs because of what they call “safetyism” and “identity liberalism.” The fact that these things bother them—and the outrageous state of tuitions, fees, and student loans doesn’t merit even a peep of concern, suggests that they’re really just “concern trolling” on education. Scholarship is their proclaimed worry. But cultural change and increased voices from marginalized persons are their real concern. Older Americans have long condemned students for doing what students have always done, though: exercise their own freedom of speech in sometimes-strident ways. As one example, my generation were condemned for vocally opposing the Viet Nam War. Time revealed who was right on that issue! Lukianoff and Haidt are doing nothing new. “Kids today. Where will it all end?”
Eklof proclaims that “identity liberalism” is not just a bane on university campuses, but in Unitarian Universalism, as well. He also refers to it as, “identity politics,” (GP 8) a term beloved of conservatives. Eklof particularly condemns “left-wing violence” born of such concerns. (GP 1, 2, 3, etc.)
Violence is bad no matter who does it. The rub is, I’m not aware of any Unitarian Universalists being violent at any church or in General Assembly, or anywhere else. But there’s a continual implication-by-association in this essay that such (overstated) campus violence is somehow related to what Unitarian Universalists do.
After condemning “identity politics,” Eklof writes: “This was demonstrated, for instance, during the UUA’s 2017 General Assembly in New Orleans, its first gathering following the election of Donald Trump. Yet, instead of focusing on a collective response to the impacts of this shocking political disaster for liberals or ministering to those still experiencing degrees of anxiety and grief just a few months past the election, the assemblage dwelt almost exclusively on internal accusations of racism and white supremacy resulting from a hiring decision.” (GP 9)
Typically, Eklof fails to mention that, immediately before the New Orleans General Assembly, the Association’s three highest-ranking officers had resigned rather than face accountability for that “hiring decision.” Also, the Moderator, who chairs GA Plenary Sessions, had died. The Executive Director of the UU Ministers Association had also resigned rather than face accountability for a racially insensitive outburst of his own. It would be impossible for such a slate of top-level personnel changes to not dominate proceedings. Moreover, as discussed above, the racial blow-up that caused the resignations was much more than just a “hiring decision.” Again, racial tension had been building within the UUA and UUMA for years.
That quote is revealing for another reason. Eklof denounces the UUA for working on internal racism and racialized hiring practices—rather than providing pastoral care for liberals dealing with the “anxiety and grief” from election results eight months before. Since Eklof fails to express concern for Unitarian Universalists with “identities,” one must conclude that the liberals to whom he refers can only mean members of the Euro-American, binary majority—such as himself.
For example, what about President Trump’s by-then proclaimed intent to put Hispanic children in cages, ban Muslim travel, and Trump’s rhetoric about violent neo-Nazis, then demonstrating in Charlottesville, being “fine people?”
Not a word from Eklof. Crickets.
For all his denunciation of “coddling the Unitarian Universalist mind,” then, close reading reveals that Eklof’s real concern is that we are coddling the wrong Unitarian Universalists. Other than an occasional pro forma declaration, he expresses little sympathy for Unitarian Universalists of Color, LGBTQI Unitarian Universalists, or women.
He does add, right after the aforementioned statement on hiring discrimination, “This matter surely needed to be addressed, even more thoroughly and honestly than it was.”(GP 9) Apparently, the 2017 General Assembly did too much about racism in hiring. At the same time, they also did too little. And also did it dishonestly. I was never able to discern what he was getting at with “honestly.” He went on without explaining it.
TRANSGENDER FOLX SHOULD KNOW THEIR PLACE
Eklof expresses concern for the “anxiety and grief” of Euro-American liberals like himself, but one must search to find expressions of concern for the marginalized—what he considers “identity” groups. He expresses real you-will-not-replace-us fear at times, for example, that the UUA website will someday “include a preponderance of persons who are not white and male.” (GP 45.) Why this should bother anyone is beyond me. But Eklof repeatedly worries about the future of white males. (GP 45, 49, 57)
Equally inaccurate is Eklof’s account of criticism around the first UUWorld magazine article on transgender Unitarian Universalists. (GP 23) This includes near disdain for the idea that trans folx would desire to speak out of their own experience, rather than having a straight, white person describe what their lives mean to straight, white people.
One could write a thoughtful essay contrasting the dominant culture’s image of a marginalized group versus the marginalized group’s lived reality. (And let’s be honest, it is hard to be more marginalized than transgender folx. Assaults on transgender people run into triple digits each year. Fatal beatings in 2019 alone ran into the dozens. Those are just the ones we know about.)
But Eklof makes the idea—transgender people wanting to explain their Unitarian Universalist experience, rather than have it explained for them—sound rather silly.
That’s striking. Eklof is a white male who climbs into a pulpit each Sunday and speaks his mind, knowing that people will hear him and his words will be repeated and commented upon. Yet he fears exclusion and censorship of white males. (GP 49, 57) Meanwhile, a trans person faces a possibly fatal beating just for walking down the wrong street at the wrong time. The world pays little attention to that constant threat, and even a fatal beating may not make the news. Yet to Eklof, the idea of a trans person wanting to tell their own story—is silly. One needs to sit, let that hypocrisy sink in for a moment.
A NOTE ON HOUSES THAT JACK BUILT
I can’t resist an occasional smile over the inept writing in this book, particularly the opening essay. One symptom is a penchant for seriously “run-on” sentences. Editors and writing teachers sometimes call them “house-that-Jack-built” sentences. A sentence should be a concise thought. Good writers do vary sentence length and rhythm to help the reader stay engaged. But that does not mean sentences that go on and on, shift between subjects and thoughts, and finish up in some different realm from whence they began.
I’ll provide a full quote of one of the better “howlers” below. Suffice to say, there are multiple candidates for “worst” among poorly constructed sentences.
Poor writing matters. Sloppy writing often correlates with sloppy thinking. That is eminently the case with The Gadfly Papers. Eklof’s book is poorly thought out, full of deceptive statements and logical fallacies. Ideas are left hanging as the author moves on to the next rant.
Just as important, fast, sloppy writing can provide what poker players call “tells.” An observant poker player watches the other players’ faces and even how they physically handle their cards. Careless fidgets and expression changes can provide clues to what cards the other players hold. “Tells.”
Ditto with careless writers. For example, “tells” in which Eklof reveals his preoccupation about preserving the status of binary Euro-American males like himself. He occasionally plugs in a quick, pro forma endorsement of equality for the marginalized. But the broader context of this book invariably returns to his baseline: that social justice work is to be done at the comfort and convenience of Euro-Americans, that Euro-Americans should set the timeline and the agenda, and that “our” Unitarian Universalist Association is being subjected to hostile takeover at the hands of POCI and LGBTQI folx.
Beginning about page 12, he talks a lot about a “religion of humanity,” and “community,” (GP 12) but it remains a humanity/community in which Euro-Americans still hold the reins. So that when he talks about “safetyism,” “narcissism,” and “coddling,” I believe he’s projecting. To those who enjoy white privilege without self-awareness, equal treatment for the marginalized comes across as preferential treatment. Real equality feels like loss.
In one of his better “house-that-Jack-built” sentences, Eklof worries about his potential loss of privilege. “Secondly, and even more troubling for me, has been recognizing the parallels between what’s now happening on college campuses and what’s also happening within the Unitarian Universalist Association, even though individual autonomy and freedom of conscience have been essential to its meaning dating at least as far back as 1568 when the Edict of Torda, human history’s unprecedented religious toleration law, was issued by King John Sigismund Zapolya, the Unitarian King of Transylvania.” (GP 3-4)
Whew! Going from campus violence back 350 years to the King of Transylvania. That’s an achievement! It’s a journey from which he never seems to return.
Not only is this one of many laughably disorganized sentences—and paragraphs—it also marks another “tell.” Eklof can draw no actual connection between sporadic violence on college campuses and any kind of violence among Unitarian Universalists. The “violence” he finds so troubling consists of non-congenial (to him) words and ideas only. It is truly ironic that a person who repeatedly rejects and condemns words and ideas that fail to center his own ethnic group should accuse others of “censorship” and “suppression.”
Because the “violence” he cites is only in his own mind, he throws a stream of words and superficial history to hide the speciousness of his claim: the irrelevant story about the King of Transylvania and his Chaplain, Francis David. You might call this a “salvation by verbiage” logical fallacy. But it’s just standard Eklof.
A LITTLE U AND U HISTORY
Listening to Eklof’s on-line sermons, he seems to consider himself an expert in many fields, including history. On that one, at the very least, he’s dead wrong. His interpretations of our tradition’s history range—frankly—from careless to clueless.
For example, his shout-out to Arianism (GP 12) starts out as just careless. Arianism was not the original idea of Christianity. Arius of Alexandria, for whom it is named, was born more than two centuries after Jesus of Nazareth died. As historian Bart Ehrman’s books lay out in detail, Christian factions followed a wide range of doctrines during that time, and for hundreds of years after. More important to Unitarian and Universalist history, however, Arianism also was not the “belief in Jesus’s humanity and his humanitarian teachings.” (GP 12) Arians believed in the divinity—Godhood—of Jesus. He was, however, a lesser—created—being, apart from God. In technical terms, his divinity was not homoousious (of one substance) with God.
The doctrine that Jesus was not divine at all, but fully human, developed more than a thousand years later, and is called Socinianism. Eklof mentions Socinianism, (GP 13-14) but does not seem to understand the difference. The two different doctrines have very different histories and are connected to two different strains of Unitarianism. Eklof’s lack of distinction between them shows how little he understands our actual history.
There’s no excuse for such errors. This history is basic to Unitarian Universalist ministry and some is also basic to informed Christian ministry. It’s quickly and easily looked up.
More technical are mistakes he makes around the theology, life, and death of Michael Servetus. (GP 13) Eklof’s claim notwithstanding, Gutenburg’s invention of the printing press did not, at least initially, “make it more possible for people to read the Bible for themselves.” (GP 13) From the 1300’s on, the Roman Catholic Church made it a crime punishable by death to even possess a Bible in a vernacular language. Arguably, Martin Luther’s most revolutionary act was not posting his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, but translating the Bible into German in 1522.
In 1536, before England’s King Henry VIII fully broke with the Catholic Church, religious scholar William Tyndale got burned at the stake for the crime of—smuggling English language Bibles into England. That should be an example of how important translation was—long after the printing press was invented.
Which brings us to Michael Servetus. Neither the printing press nor Biblical translation enabled Servetus to “read the Bible for himself.” Linguistics was his primary field, he was a genius at it. He became expert on Scripture by reading it in its original Hebrew and Koine Greek, as well as the Latin Vulgate Bible.
Nor did Servetus’ Bible study cause him to abandon the Christian Trinity, as Eklof claims. Servetus lived and died a Trinitarian Christian, although an unorthodox one. His comments On the Errors of the Trinity were what we would consider mere technical adjustments.
So Unitarianism wasn’t “reborn” (GP 13) because of anything Servetus wrote, not least because Servetus was never Unitarian. Rather, later scholars found through their own study that the Trinity was not actually supported by Scripture. Thus, Unitarianism kept popping up like toadstools, particularly in Eastern Europe.
Eklof proclaims himself such an expert on Unitarian Universalist history, though, that he happily pronounces on our movement’s future. It should not be too much to ask, for him to actually understand that history. Instead, his understanding of Unitarian and Universalist history falls far short of what we have a right to expect from any UU minister.
SOME THOUGHTS ON NAME-CALLING
These comments are by no means an exhaustive collection of the misstatements, logical fallacies, and outright deceptions in The Gadfly Papers. There are simply too many. To cite each one would be to repeat myself ad nauseam. I can provide only a representative sampling.
We now turn to the book’s use of language, which is anything but scholarly. This is particularly true of the first essay, a windblown pasture strewn with steaming heaps of invective. At various points in the first essay, Eklof compares the UUA’s anti-racism, anti-oppression, multi-cultural efforts to the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror and Joseph Stalin’s purges, (GP 38) then to Adolf Hitler as “the embodiment of evil.” (GP 47)
He also refers to “Puritanical pressures,” (GP 23) “enraged” self-righteousness, “inquisition,” “heresy trial,” and most of all, “witch hunts.” (GP 37) This is not scholarship. Nor is it logical argument. Invective is only invective.
Moreover, if heaping such insults upon already marginalized people is not hurtful language, someone needs to explain to me what the term, “hurtful,” even means. Whether it’s intentionally hurtful is hard to say, since, based on this book as well as sermons to which I’ve listened, Eklof’s mind just seems to work in hyperbolic terms.
He also approvingly quotes, from The Coddling of the American Mind, such terms as “Maoist,” McCarthyite,” “Jacobian,” and, again, his apparent favorite, “witch-hunt.” (GP 38.)
If it’s wrong for Donald Trump to throw such terminology around, how is it somehow acceptable for a Unitarian Universalist minister to use it—or for that matter, ostensibly liberal journalists? It’s also disingenuous to name-call in this fashion, then claim that he’s trying to have a rational discussion of issues.
He also notes, “It may seem equality and freedom go hand in hand, but in practice they are at great odds. . . . An extreme emphasis on equality can result in societies that are unbearably oppressive.” (GP 54)
This is a statement I would expect from Fox News or the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, but not a “liberal” minister. It reveals Eklof’s obvious distaste at efforts toward equal treatment of our marginalized members: that a Person of Color of LGBTQI person would dare to aspire to respect and self-determination on an equal footing with Euro-Americans! It is, however, consistent with the rest of the essay, in which he repeatedly expresses real concern for white males, but proportionate concern for no other demographic.
Even more remarkable, as an example of radical equality, Eklof gives us—the Soviet Union and its tributary communist regimes! (GP 54-55) He declares at length how “the overbearing State they erected enforced equality upon its citizens by restricting individual freedom.”
This is not just right-wing rhetoric, it is a perfect example of someone holding forth—at volume—with no idea what he’s talking about!
The Soviet Union and related regimes did suppress individual freedom, but not for the sake of equality! Rhetoric aside, the Soviet Union, East Germany, Communist Romania, North Korea, et. al., were rigidly hierarchical. Party bosses and their cronies lived in luxury. The laboring rank and file were reduced to drab squalor, kept in line by the military and secret police (the KGB in the Soviet Union, the Stasi in East Germany, Romania’s Securitate, on and on.) Those who stepped out of line were punished in a brutal prison system or by execution.
That someone can cite Stalin’s blood purges on one page, then hold forth on how Stalin made people too equal just a few pages later, is nothing short of breathtaking. This is yet another point where one must question Eklof’s honest intentions. Can it be possible that he actually believes such patent nonsense himself?
A WORD ON REAL WITCH HUNTS
Eklof likes The Coddling of the American Mind’s use of such terms—as he quotes them—“Maoist, Jacobian, and above all, witch-hunt.” (GP 38) I fail to see a substantial difference between this kind of talk and what Donald Trump tweeted—at least until Trump’s Twitter account was closed down.
Moreover, I have personal experience with a couple of the terms Eklof casts about so loosely. I can relate, from my own experience, that McCarthyism and witch-hunts are no fun at all for those on the receiving end of the real thing.
In 1954, my father, Paul McCarty, was terminated from his job as an electrician at the Paducah, Kentucky, Gaseous Diffusion (nuclear enrichment) Plant. He was subsequently blacklisted as a security risk. It turned out that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had been keeping a file on my father, full of erroneous information, since before the Second World War.
My father had never been a communist. He was a politically naive farm boy from Iowa, who worked long and hard to earn his ticket as a union electrician. (Of course, the “union” piece, by itself, might have been enough for Hoover.) He served ably in the Second World War, first as a Radio Operator, then as an Electrician’s Mate. Much of his duty was on an ammunition ship a particularly dangerous post. They supplied ammunition for the Marianas campaign, Manus Island, and at Iwo Jima. At Iwo Jima they came under enemy artillery fire, suffering serious damage. Fortunately, the hit did not set off a secondary explosion in their deadly cargo. A couple of ammunition ships did explode during the war, and they never found enough pieces of the crew members to bury.
Surviving such duty during the War, my father returned home with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and his name blacklisted. He went to his grave without ever finding out what caused Hoover’s FBI to conduct secret, inaccurate surveillance on him. But he was just one of tens of thousands of American citizens who lost jobs, lost careers, even wound up killing themselves over the disgrace of being labeled “communists” or “communist sympathizers.” All too often, as in my father’s case, this was done on faulty evidence or no evidence at all.
I personally witnessed how my father shrank inside himself over the years, due to difficulty finding employment. This was never related to his work ethic. Everyone I ever talked to who had worked with him referred to him as “a good electrician and a good guy.” It was totally due to government-applied stigma.
I watched our family gradually fall apart, moving from city to city as my father sought work. I would be put into one elementary school, then pulled out and moved to another school in another city six months later. This happened time after time. I have since learned, these years provided the seeds of my own PTSD.
That’s the way it is with a real witch hunt. Real McCarthyism.
That Eklof and Coddling’s authors use such terms so loosely and carelessly, without an instant’s thought—much less concern—for the thousands of very real men, women, and children (like me) harmed by the very real thing, says much more about them than about university campuses or the Unitarian Universalist Association. It makes me seethe. The terms they fling about so glibly: “witch-hunt,” “reign of terror,” “Maoist,” “blood purge” describe the real suffering and death of real people. None of that seems to matter to these authors. Such terms are just flails with which to assault those with whom they happen to disagree.
How could I possibly have an ounce of respect for them?
And if I seethe at Eklof’s glib dismissal of my family’s (and many other families’) suffering, how can I not sympathize with the linguistic concerns of people more marginalized than I am: People of Color, people with disabilities, Transgender and other non-binary people? Words mean things. They convey attitudes. They establish hierarchy.
Related is Eklof’s oscillation between whining and mockery of Unitarian Universalist work toward more inclusive language in hymn/song lyrics. (GP 34-35) There is actually a thoughtful conversation to be had here, but Eklof never has it.
Changing language concerns are, for a baby-boomer like me, genuinely challenging. As a songwriter, I’ve been asked to change lyrics to reflect concerns around ableism, gender, and other issues of human diversity. I confess that I resented it at first. Yet I can also say, the added thought and reflection have more often led me toward stronger lyrics than weaker ones. That’s a point worth serious consideration.
It seems to me that if Eklof really wants to claim a “religion of humanity,” he should be willing to take into account the concerns of all humans—not just able, Euro-American humans like himself. He and I obviously differ on this.
CULTURAL APPROPRIATION AND HUMILITY
Eklof closes out his first essay by drawing once more, at length, from The Coddling of the American Mind. The authors (and he) return to the rhetoric of equal rights, quoting Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, “The earth is the Mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.” (GP 58) Of course, quoting is easy. Observing equal rights—equal access to justice and the good things of life—requires thought and hard work.
This quote is one example. After all, the Nez Perce and every other indigenous Nation got booted off the land they occupied and placed on reservations—or worse. Many resisted, but Euro-Americans—my culture and Eklof’s—relentlessly took all. The land the Nez Perce once occupied was exploited for its mineral, timber, and recreational resources, while, today, they eke out a living with 35% of their population below the federal poverty level.
That’s oppression. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz puts it, “not much in US history makes sense” if we omit this indigenous genocide. (IPH, 7) Are we to pretend it never happened, or that Euro-Americans were not the perpetrators? Yet no indigenous person (or any Person of Color,) has ever asked me, as a Euro-American, to feel shame or guilt over such oppression. I have been asked—and I agree—to feel humility at what I have inherited unearned, which has been denied or stolen from other ethnicities.
Growing up mostly in the Rocky Mountain West, I do feel humility, benefitting as I do from the ouster of Ute, Paiute, Kiowa, and Cheyenne peoples (among others) of my native state. Eklof has likewise benefitted. He resides and makes a living on land which the Nez Perce once roamed. Yet he quotes Chief Joseph with no hint of curiosity what that quote’s real origins are, or its implications for the Nez Perce or the descendants of Chief Joseph themselves. Rather, he uses those words the same way he uses the insults cited earlier: with no thought toward their actual meaning.
That lack of curiosity, I suspect, is one reason he’s so inept with history. For him, facts have no significance or interest in their own right. The real Nez Perce people vanish into meaninglessness. They’re all just words, used outside any context or concern for the people who lived and spoke them. To him, even considering “identity groups” (including the Nez Perce,) just turns “life [into] a battle between good and evil people,” with “the main axes of oppression usually point[ing] to one intersectional address: straight white males.” (GP 59)
Ah, those poor, picked-on, straight white males! Why do I not feel picked on, I wonder? Is it that I’m just not smart enough to realize how picked-on I am? Or is it because humility calls me to acknowledge undeniable history without flinching or taking it personally?
Alas, the oppressive history of indigenous people, people of African, Latin, and Asian descent, not to mention women and LGBTQI people in the United States, does point to Euro-Americans and Euro-American males. As a straight, white male, I cannot see how it’s picking on me or anyone else to acknowledge what happened, or that historical patterns still persist.
Meanwhile, Eklof glibly compares anti-racism anti-oppression multi-cultural work to Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Then he has such lack of self-insight as to claim someone else is turning life into a battle between good and evil people?
Eklof repeatedly calls for the assumption of best intentions. (GP 21) In discourse between equal partners, that really can be best practice. But it misunderstands social power differences. We can acknowledge, for example, the good intentions of Thomas Jefferson, at least within his own realm of perception. But those good intentions were cold comfort for the slave, Sally Hemmings, who bore Jefferson six children with no voice as to her fate or theirs. Jefferson’s self-proclaimed idealism brought nothing to those children or their descendants, who were denied any portion of their famous ancestor’s material wealth or regard in the public eye. This is not even to mention Jefferson’s role in genocidal Manifest Destiny. The more stark the power differential, the less relevant are good intentions.
Meanwhile—again—despite his repeated requests for assumed best intentions, Eklof himself grants that courtesy to no one.
SO—WHAT KIND OF DIVORCE ARE WE EVEN TALKING ABOUT?
I will finish with The Gadfly Papers’ second essay, which Eklof titles, “I Want a Divorce.” Reading this essay, it’s difficult to guess what the author’s intent was in writing it. Even he doesn’t seem to know. One suspects it’s just another jab at religious diversity and “identity politics.”
It does return to Eklof’s lack of understanding of Unitarian and Universalist history. He has done the minimum reading required for Unitarian Universalist Ministerial Fellowship. We know this because he proudly—and repeatedly—cites those texts. But those books are just survey reading. He shows no in-depth knowledge of Unitarian Universalist (or even general Christian) history. This results in numerous blunders.
As one example, he has a shallow understanding of the differences and similarities between Unitarians and Universalists in the early days of the United States. “Theology and class,” he says, as though that covers it.
But that doesn’t cover it. There was theological discord among early Universalists, for example. Universalist patriarch, John Murray, (of whom Eklof has read,) was a “Restorationist.” He believed that sinners received a period of divine punishment after death, and only then were restored to God’s good graces. Hosea Ballou, on the other hand, (whom Eklof does not seem to have read,) was an “Ultra-Universalist,” preaching that everyone went straight to heaven.
These were not small differences in belief to the people who held them. It led Murray’s wife, Judith Sargent Murray, to denounce Ballou from the pulpit after Ballou had preached at their church. (John Murray had suffered a debilitating stroke, so she was acting in his stead. The nineteenth-century Universalists were more open to the empowerment of women than the Unitarians would be for another century. Eklof is blithely unaware of that piece of Universalist heritage, but it’s one we should honor in our own day.)
A further salient point is that Ballou’s theology was quite similar to that of Unitarian icon, William Ellery Channing. The two men’s pulpits were within blocks of one another, but they were not friends, for reasons I’ll get into below.
On the Unitarian side, Eklof mentions New England’s “Standing Order” Churches with no depth of understanding of their influence or origin. (GP 64) They were not just instrumental to the development of Unitarianism, but to American democracy. Briefly, the Standing Order Churches were the original network of churches founded by the Puritans. Eklof correctly notes that they were supported by public taxes. But they were much more than that. As meeting places, they were the spawning ground for democratic debate and decision-making in New England.
Equally important to both Unitarianism and Universalism was that—democratic spawning grounds that the Standing Order Churches so long were—they were also central to political power in New England. The Unitarians were inside that circle of political power. The Universalists were outside. Eklof does superficially allude to this. (GP 64) But it also meant that New England was rife with Unitarians in public office, while Universalists were not even allowed to run for office. This remained the case well into the nineteenth century. Just one ramification was that Universalists formed a key part of the movement to “disestablish” the Standing Order Churches—that is, stop public funding, sending tax money to those chosen churches. Meanwhile, Unitarians fought like tomcats to perpetuate public funding. Public funding of Standing Order Churches only ended in 1818 in Connecticut and 1832 in Massachusetts, over the prostrate, writhing bodies of Unitarian judges and legislators.
The point being that, yes, there were class differences, as Eklof states. But more importantly, Unitarians clung to political clout and power, not least to feather their own parish nests. While Universalists were held outside that circle. This is a difference between the two traditions—the embodied tension between the powerful and the powerless—that a thoughtful minister should be at pains to carry into every Unitarian Universalist parish. We receive different historical blessings from the two traditions, and should honor both. So that “identity politics,” that concern for those in the margins which Eklof so derides, can be included among our gifts from the gentle-but-determined Universalists. It evolved as American society evolved.
Moving into mid-to-late nineteenth century Unitarian theology and history, Eklof seems to be totally lost. Knowing so little of the essential backgrounds of our two religious antecedents, by what stretch of the imagination does Eklof believe he has foundation for proclamations on what our future ought to be?
He misunderstands the function of the American Unitarian Association, claiming that it did not “allow” congregations to join. (GP 67) The A.U.A. was a product of the congregational system of the Standing Order Churches. Their independent polity fostered theological differences between “Orthodox” Trinitarian Congregationalist ministers and “liberals” dubbed “Unitarians” by the Orthodox. Intended as an insulting nickname, the Unitarians later took it as their own. In this process, the American Unitarian Association organized as a group of individuals, particularly Unitarian ministers. Churches still had mixed Unitarian/Orthodox membership well into the nineteenth century. It was never a matter of churches being “allowed” to join. Eklof plainly does not understand this..
The Unitarian tradition was born in bitter controversy, Eklof does not seem to understand that, either. He makes passing mention of the Unitarians’ Transcendentalist Controversy, which roiled Unitarian theology for decades. But he seems not to have fully understood it. He then states that the “Universalists were, ironically, more theologically diverse than the Unitarians.” (GP 65)
That statement can rest only on pure ignorance. In mentioning the beginning of the National Conference of Unitarian Churches, (GP 67-68) he is plainly unaware of the conflict that immediately ensued because of Unitarian religious diversity. The first National Conference blew up because free-thinking Unitarians, opposed to the mention of Jesus Christ in the Conference Bylaws, walked out after a vicious floor fight. Unitarian ministers such as Francis Ellingwood Abbott, Octavius Brooks Frothingham, and Thomas Wentworth Higgenson joined Unitarian luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lydia Maria Child in forming the Free Religious Association. Their ranks included agnostics like Frothingham, scientific theists like Abbot, spiritualists like Emerson (who acknowledged the influence of Buddhism,) as well as non-Unitarians.
My point is that, Eklof’s claims to the contrary, controversy and religious diversity are the marrow in Unitarian bones, and have been for the better part of two centuries. If he can’t even grasp this most basic fact of our history, what business does he have proclaiming our future?
There is plenty of documentation for the Unitarian theological diversity which Eklof claims didn’t exist. He cites the American Unitarian Association’s 1936 Commission on Appraisal Report, (GP 62) but had he bothered to read it all the way through, he would have found a listing of the theological strains Unitarians claimed almost nine decades ago.
The 1936 Unitarians listed nine theological categories, acknowledging that then, as now, a person might be part of more than one. There were those who attended for community; those who attended for conscience and for self-improvement; Rationalists who exercised “intelligence in religion;” Mystics; Humanists (distinct from Rationalists in their emphasis on social justice); Theists; Evangelicals (seeking forgiveness of sin and the practicality of prayer); traditional Christians; and, finally, followers of non-Christian religions.
In other words, since 1936, only the percentages and a couple of details have changed. We were religiously diverse then. We’re religiously diverse now.
Yet Eklof insists that such diversity is “an identity crisis” which did not exist prior to the 1961 Unitarian Universalist merger! And that it prompts people to “describe themselves as Buddhist UUs, Christian UUs, Pagan UUs, Humanist UUs, etc. etc. Such descriptions would have been both unnecessary and inconceivable prior to the merger.” (GP 69-70)
His historical cluelessness is profound. He doesn’t even know information in a source he claims to have read!
He mistakes natural process and ease around the language of religious diversity—evolving with us for almost two hundred years—as a crisis. That’s merely a problem in his own perception, not in Unitarianism and Universalism’s long history of religious seeking, innovation, and debate.
SLOPPY METHODS PRODUCE SLOPPY RESULTS
Eklof then issues yet another charge that the Unitarian Universalist “identity crisis” “suppresses” UU Humanist “free speech.” (GP 73-74)
Let’s take a look at this. Eklof has written a manifestly ill-informed, inaccurate book, yet he still has his position as minister at the Spokane UU Church. Rev. Andy Burnette, for all that he was treated harshly on social media, retained his ministry at the Chandler, Arizona, UU Church. The UUA President, Chief Operating Officer, and Congregational Life Director did resign their positions rather than face accountability over the Southern Region Lead hire. But at least some of them received rich severance packages, contrary to UUA policy.
Meanwhile, the person forced out of her position on the Board and, later, her employment because of what she said about that fiasco, was the “Latina” Eklof condemns. If anyone’s free speech were violated, it was hers, not that of the humanist, Eklof.
Beyond that, though, it really is difficult to know what to make of this thoroughly muddled essay. It concludes by suggesting that “members begin seriously discussing the dissolution of the UUA.” (GP 77)
That’s actually the first time Eklof mentions “dissolution.” He starts out with the subtitle, “A Case for Splitting the Unitarian Universalist Association.” (GP 61) He claims throughout the essay that 1961’s Unitarian Universalist merger produced an “identity crisis” due to the same “identity politics” and “you’re suppressing free speech” snarks that fill the first essay.
One must note, however, that constant repetition of the same charges do not constitute fact. They only constitute repetition.
The implication, up until the last couple of pages, would be that Unitarians need to “divorce”—Eklof’s term—from Universalists. What this would even look like is hard to imagine, since relatively few people are still with us who were adults when the merger took place. For most Unitarian Universalists, including myself and Eklof, the Association as it currently stands is the only Unitarian Universalism we have ever known.
Nor does anyone even still think in terms of “Unitarians” versus “Universalists.” Unitarian Christians (or for that matter, Trinitarian Christians—there are some) within our ranks with whom I’ve spoken, don’t consider themselves “Universalists.” The various other theological leanings among our ranks may use “Unitarian” as a term of convenience, but would be hard-put to explain themselves in terms of one root or the other. Still, Eklof claims that differences between Unitarians and Universalists are “irreconcilable,” without explaining what that means or addressing the fact that our real membership rarely distinguish between one and the other. “The merger has not successfully reconciled [our] disparate theological traditions, nor has it even tried,” he claims. (GP 75) We have—again—fallen under “the spell of identity-based ethics, politics, and liberalism.”
I have searched for any kind of reality that might justify this rhetoric, and found nothing.
Then Eklof must have gone and gotten a cup of coffee, or perhaps had a good night’s sleep before continuing. Because in the very next paragraph, he laments the loss of “our ancient devotion to the shared calling that once bound these two traditions together.” (Italics mine.) A “shared calling” which, in the previous paragraph, never existed in the first place! (GP 76)
Well, no matter. We’ve gone to the dogs. Universalism is dead in the water, it will perish if left to its own devices. (GP 76) But Unitarianism, he claims, still might retain a little of its “commitment to reason, freedom of conscience, and our common humanity.”
It’s interesting to me that, to Eklof, the Universalists’ steadfast opposition to political privilege in New England, tolerance and support for suppressed religions in early nineteenth century America, and advancement for women a century before the Unitarians caught up, does not constitute “commitment to. . . freedom of conscience, and our common humanity.”
One must presume, therefore, that Eklof intends the same “religion of humanity” proclaimed in the first essay, in which Euro-American male humanity still calls the shots and doesn’t worry itself overmuch about “identities” and “feelings” of non-binary and non-European-descended humanity. I think that’s a privileged “humanity” the Unversalists would happily eschew.
“For these,” he goes on, “I hope a renewed commitment to Unitarianism alone will be a better alternative. . . that can finally move forward toward our common [!] goals because we have connected with our historic past.” (GP 76)
He seems unable to decide whether such common goals or history ever existed or not! Or to be more precise, as I laid out previously, he worships at the altar of a Unitarian past that never was. For all the world, this sounds to me like Eklof channeling Donald Trump: “Make Unitarianism Great Again.”
He’s not talking about “dissolving a marriage,” even though he starts out by indicating he is. In “seriously discussing the dissolution of the UUA,” he seems to be talking about uncomfortable Euro-Americans like himself going off and organizing their own church. Or something. I can’t even be positive about that much.
There is something deeply problematic in writing an essay in which the author himself seems unable to comprehend his own intent. Or at best, does not realize what he’s writing about until the final three paragraphs. It speaks not just to a lack of logical organization in his own mind, but also to a failure in self-awareness. Is he writing just for effect, like an insect stinging someone just to watch them jump? Does he desire for Unitarian Universalists who happen to be humanist to join a specifically humanist organization with him, and do—something? Which both begs the question—and possibly answers it—why he bothers to take the time to write and extensively promote a book which condemns the organization he no longer wants to be part of. But I note that he still accepts his paychecks, as a minister within that organization, with no sense of the irony in that act.
AN AFTERWORD ON THE AFTERWORD
Eklof’s Afterword cites some of his own social justice work. This includes legislative advocacy, making educational documentary videos, and social justice ministry, both from the pulpit and on the street. It’s only fair to note that this is real work, and some of it has achieved real results. Eklof’s supporters protest that—how could his book possibly undermine racial and gender equity when he has years of genuine social justice work behind him?
Yet taking his book as a whole—not even counting the logical sleight-of-hand and outright deceit that fill its pages, he also expresses real white fragility, to the point of repeated paranoia about mistreatment of Euro-American males like himself. He repeatedly belittles the concerns of trans people, People of Color, and women. He sees no problem with attitudes in UUA leadership that resulted in hierarchical, white-males-at-the-top hiring patterns.
So I think what I see in Eklof is a Euro-American man who lacks self-awareness and has far more patriarchal and white supremacist notions in his subconscious than he realizes or will ever admit. Or to put it differently—he would be happy to go out and stomp the streets for “Black Lives Matter” as an example—but would feel uncomfortable if those same black lives were directing the operation. He is plainly squeamish about having non-Euro-Americans, particularly non-binary folx at the top of the UUA, directing policies that affect him. Like a lot of Euro-Americans, I suspect the increasing numbers of non-white faces in our churches and our national organization, small though those numbers are, bring him distress.
I believe Eklof would stand up for an oppressed group only so long as that group remembers who the hero is—him—and that they are mere characters in his heroic drama. What he refuses to do, as his book demonstrates, is be part of the supporting cast in marginalized peoples’ own heroic struggle, their own self-determination. He still resides in an imaginary world where white males freed the slaves in the Civil War, where liberal white men extended the vote to women in 1920, where whites gained civil rights for African Americans in the 1960’s.
SOME SOURCES REFERENCED (an informal list)
BTBP: Black Theology and Black Power, by James Hal Cone; Orbis Books (Maryknoll), New York 1969
GP: The Gadfly Papers, self-published by Todd Eklof 2019
IPH: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz; Beacon Press, Boston; 2014
PF: Philosophy in the Flesh by Geoge Lakoff and Mark Johnson
RWR IV; RWR V: Racism without Racists, Fourth Edition and Racism without Racists, Fifth Edition, by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva; Rowman and Littlefield; 2014 and 2018.
WF: White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard To Talk to White People About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo; Beacon Press 2018
I reference the Report of the Commission on Institutional Change, but I do not provide page numbers since it is an online source: https://www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/findings_related_to_the_southern_regional_lead_hiring_revised_03.20.2019.pdf