The UU Crisis, Explained

By Mel Harkrader Pine

In. June 2017, when I heard a moderator of the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly call Robert’s Rules an instrument of “white supremacy culture” and thus unfair, I thought it was one of the most absurd things I had ever heard. I still think so, but now I understand the mindset that leads to statements like that.

And explaining the mindset will help clarify the crisis now enveloping the leadership of Unitarian Universalism.

If you’re like most UU church members, your reaction is likely to be: What crisis? Maybe that’s a good thing, and maybe the crisis in UU nationwide governance and vision will blow over before it reaches all the way to the average church members. But I doubt that — for reasons I’ll explain.

I’ll begin by describing something called Critical Theory. I came close to flunking Philosophy 101, so I’m sure I’m over-simplifying, but Critical Theory sees social systems as greater than the sum of their parts. Society can’t be “fixed” by working on parts of it, according to CT; it needs to be addressed as a whole. UUism has adopted CT as… well… an undeclared theology — especially the branch called Critical Race Theory.

Critical Race TheoryCRT holds that racism and white supremacy (and sexism, etc.) are not comprised entirely of individual acts by racists and supremacists but are endemic to American culture. We’re told that white supremacy is part of the U.S. DNA, built into everything in our laws, literature, norms, and so forth for the benefit of white people of European descent, especially if they’re men, and it can’t be fixed by simply stopping overt acts of racism and white supremacy. The system needs to be rebuilt. White people, especially men, can help only by getting out of the way and encouraging other whites to get out of the way.

That’s why UUs are hearing so much about their supposed “white supremacy culture.” According to many UU leaders, the dictionary definition of “white supremacy” — a belief in the inherent superiority of white people — no longer applies, at least not when the word “culture” is appended to it. Instead, they’d describe white supremacy as the water we all swim in and fail to see,

So everything in our Western world — the UU culture as well as the U.S. culture — is corrupt, according to Critical Race Theory. It’s corrupt because it stems from Euro-centric forces that benefitted historically from slavery and currently from racism and white supremacy. So things that many of us consider pillars of modern society — like logic, reason, and Robert’s Rules — have to give way. The same goes for pillars of UUism, like freedom of the pulpit and the Principles and Sources.

Here’s a quote from the textbook Critical Race Theory (Third Edition):

Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.

In other words, critical race theory rejects the liberal Enlightenment concepts that gave birth to modern Unitarianism and Universalism. The new mindset is part of post-modernism, but no one warned UU church members that their creedless religion was leaving Enlightenment values behind in favor of a new central philosophy.

Just to be clear, I believe that a culture is indeed the sum of its parts, and the way to improve a culture is to improve the parts, especially me and you. I also believe that social structures don’t dominate people; people dominate social structures. Call me old-fashioned. I like people and don’t trust groups. As George Carlin said:

People are wonderful. I love individuals. I hate groups of people. I hate a group of people with a “common purpose.”‘Cause pretty soon they have little hats. And armbands. And fight songs. And a list of people they’re going to visit at 3 am. So, I dislike and despise groups of people but I love individuals. Every person you look at; you can see the universe in their eyes, if you’re really looking.

For UU leadership in the last decade or two, the armbands and fight songs are in the interests of critical race theory and the idea that white supremacist culture dominates UU churches and organizations as well as the U.S. as a whole. This approach has become entrenched in UU seminaries, in the UU Ministerial Fellowship Committee, and in the UU Ministers’ Association, whether they call it “critical race theory” or give it another name.

Buddhe PortraitSo if your parish minister attended seminary in the last 15 or 20 years, she or he (or they) is likely to have a much more narrow view of UUism than ministers trained earlier. I’ve been told it’s a necessary generational change — the implication being that a religion can and should be defined in radically different ways from one generation to the next. This change is much bigger than Catholics eating meat on Fridays. It’s a radical culture change, necessitating a UU Commission on Institutional Change.

As UU ministers age and retire, they’ll be replaced by the newer breed. That’s why I think more congregations will experience the crisis many are not yet aware of. In the meantime, get ready to be told that:

  • Disagreement is injury
  • Books can be condemned by people who haven’t read them
  • People can be condemned for expressing “hurtful” ideas
  • Those of us who don’t meet the accepted definition of “marginalized” should be silent to leave more “room” for the marginalized
  • The UU Ministers’ Association can define the meaning of “responsible” in the Fourth Principle about a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
  • The UU Principles and Sources need to be examined and revised in favor of something more “covanental”
  • We who are white need to be careful not to welcome persons of color too warmly into our congregations lest they think “our” means white (a “microaggression”)
  • The UU hymnals need to be scoured for any references that might not be all-inclusive enough (like Standing on the Side of Love)
  • If we don’t like something, it’s part of the white supremacy culture
  • We all need to read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo even though it makes sweeping generalizations not backed by research
  • We should not bother reading books like The Gadfly Papers by Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof and The Self-Confessed “White Supremacy Culture” by Dr. Anne Larson Schneider because some people’s feelings might be hurt
  • White people need to acknowledge their “privilege” and their “benefit” they get from racism and white supremacy

I’ll stop there to focus on that last bullet. I used to consider myself both a Buddhist and a UU, but the last bullet puts those two faiths in conflict. My Buddhism teaches me that no one benefits from harm to another.

The conflict over the new values inherent in CRT has been simmering for years, but Rev. Eklof’s book and the way he and it were condemned by many of his peers brought it to the surface. And that’s what he was hoping his book would do.

I’ve avoided getting into the details around Rev. Eklof’s book and its distribution in part to focus on the overall trend in UUism as I see it and in part because what he wanted was to stimulate discussion. So I’ll close with a simple: Thanks, Todd.

Note added 11/14/19: At the suggestion of Rev. Richard Trudeau, I changed the first bullet from “Words do real harm” to “Disagreement is injury.” His wording makes my point better, but while my Buddhism calls me to Right Speech, it also informs me that we’re in charge of our own emotions and actions. I still believe that actions do real harm; words don’t.

Copyright 2019 © Mel Harkrader Pine


  1. I can relate to this controversy because I’ve long argued in my local church that certain things don’t mix, that one cannot “screw something in and out at the same time” using an expression of Siddharameshwar Maharaj. As a life-long Advaita Vedantist I fit in everywhere which necessitates that I fit in nowhere. Swami Rama Tirtha said “A God defined is a God confined.” I remain an enigma to my local church. As a Vedantist I say that God dwells within you as you. You are Infinite Spirit that has a body. As one gay devotee of Meher Baba said to other gays: “My sexual orientation is not who I am.” In other words it does not matter whether you are black or white, gay or straight, etc. We all are equal because we are endowed with the Buddha Nature (to put it in Buddhist terms) and no one need shut up. Of course discrimination and inequality exist but everyone cripples himself by limiting himself to the material identification. When we realize our true Self (or Non-Self as a Buddhist might want to put it) then we are much more capable in dealing with not only issues of racism but all moral issues. People seem to forget that Martin Luther King Jr.’s politics were based on his religious consciousness and definitely NOT on anything secular.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful and clarifying essay. In 2019 I made the very difficult decision to renounce my lifetime identification as a UU as a result of the changes that you described. I have found it terribly painful to suddenly be without the community that I have been part of for so long, but I can’t as a matter of conscience be part of an organization that enforces ideological conformity on its members. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any Religious Humanist institutions comparable to what the UU denomination formerly was, and I don’t think that any amount of discussion will ever return the UU denomination to its traditional tolerance of individual thought and conscience.

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