Snob Faith

By Rev Kate Braestrup

Every now and then, I come across an idea that serves as a fresh new lens that makes what was formerly opaque instantly — though often uncomfortably — clear.

A U.S Air Force veteran, Yale alumni and doctoral student at the University of Cambridge by the name of Rob Henderson recently provided such a lens, in an essay published in the online journal Quillette.

Entitled Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class — a Status Update, the essay  recaps the eponymous book (by the famous economist and sociologist), adds in a bit about biologist Amotz Zahabvi’s  “handicap principle” plus a sprinkling of Jared Diamond and Emil Durkheim and tops it off with a soupçon of Jordan Peterson and Robert Putnam to make an original and convincing case for the existence of a phenomenon he calls  “luxury belief.”

He is not specifically addressing Unitarian Universalists, of course. But his analysis seems applicable. (Does it ever!) Henderson writes:

Luxury beliefs are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.

Henderson did not begin life in what he calls the Luxury Belief Class.

I was bewildered when I encountered [this]…new social class at Yale four years ago… My confusion wasn’t surprising given my unusual background. When I was two years old, my mother was addicted to drugs and my father abandoned us. I grew up in multiple foster homes, was then adopted into a series of broken homes, and then experienced a series of family tragedies. Later, after a few years in the military, I went to Yale on the GI Bill.

So… Not your typical Yalie. Some  69% of Yale students’ families are in the nation’s top 20% for household income, and only 2.1% come from poor families; they are also far less likely to come from broken homes or to have grown up in rented housing. And for the same reasons, Rob Henderson would not be a typical Unitarian Universalist either.

But I’ll get to that.

First: remember, back in the day, when snooty rich kids wore those expensive Lacoste shirts? If you are young enough to have missed the phenomenon, these were basic, cotton-knit polo shirts. They came in a variety of colors (I longed for the pale pink version, myself) and were distinguished by a small green alligator embroidered on the left breast.

That little alligator cost boo-coo bucks and, Henderson would assure us, that was the point. They were a reptilian advertisement that the owner of that shirt had money-to-waste. These days, however, things that used to be prohibitively expensive have become more accessible to the middle-class. Everyone wears “alligator shirts” if they feel like it and even Bill Gates spends his days in blue jeans.

The elites have not, however, grown past the need to signal superiority. It matters — a lot — to an upper-middle-class person (actual or aspiring) that he or she not be mistaken for a Deplorable. They have a lot riding on their identity: admission to the desired social circles, interesting and lucrative employment opportunities, and access to the choicest of choice mates. Their ingenious solution? Wear jeans, and cultivate luxury beliefs.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion, nest ce pas? We’re in the belief business. And, if I may say so, luxury beliefs are and always have been our market niche.

Like Yale University, Unitarian Universalism has traditionally been an institution for upper-middle to upper- class Americans. Indeed, 1.34 percent of Yale students today identify themselves as UU, a far higher percentage than American Unitarian Universalists can boast of overall. Traditionally, we’ve been proud of our well-heeled, well-educated demographics,  bragging as recently as 2008 about the five U.S. presidents we count as “ours” and touting a 2001 ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey) that ranked Unitarian Universalists as the highest scorers on a list of 24 economic indicators.

Our Sunday services are commonly ones in which everything of religious importance — the existence of God, the possibility of miracles, the meaning of suffering, the necessity for behaving well, and the rules by which one’s behavior is or should be judged — all this is deliberately left open to question. Could it be an accident that pews were and are filled with folks who can claim a measure of certainty, control and confidence in their everyday lives?

For anyone whose daily life is, or feels, precarious, the attraction of orthodox religion is precisely the assurance it offers: Even if you don’t have a lot of power and control in your life, someone knows the rules, someone  has the formula, and the ultimate Someone — an omnipotent and eternal God — knows and cares about you.

Attending a church that doesn’t offer assurance or supernatural concern and divine help signals that you don’t think you need it.

Like the peacock’s tail, or the lunatic risk-taking behaviors of young men, a UU by being a UU is advertising fitness; social, financial, spiritual and educational. No wonder many more people will, when surveyed, identify themselves as Unitarian Universalists than actually attend our churches!

canstockphoto5405647Fortunately or unfortunately for us, Henderson identifies what we might call a “trickle-down” of luxury beliefs. What were once daring, unusual ideas — that there was no hell or perhaps no afterlife at all; that women could serve as clergy; that foreign, exotic religions could be fascinating and valuable; or that an openly gay person should be welcome in the pews and (later) even in the pulpit — all these have become mainstream.  Episcopalians, Methodists, American Baptists, Congregationalists, liberal Jews, even some evangelical Christians are all pretty much on the same page.

From many perspectives, this is a good thing. Still, it does present Unitarian Universalists with a chronic, if unacknowledged, problem. When you can access formerly boutique beliefs at the religious equivalent of Wal-Mart,  the bar for luxury religion is raised and, given the unprecedented speed at which ideas travel these days, it will be raised and raised again. And so the UU brand has to be continually updated so as to remain obviously special and expensive.

This might explain why opinions that were once considered normal are now anathema for Unitarian Universalists. Barack Obama was on record as being opposed to same-sex marriage in 2008, and UUs gladly voted for him. Now, opposition to same-sex marriage is a sign of irredeemable evil.

The phrase “a woman is an adult human female” would not have struck even the most progressive Unitarian Universalist as controversial a mere five years ago. It is now morally imperative that you believe that a woman can have a penis because declaring your absolute adherence to this idea, along with ideas about open borders, loose sexual norms, or the malevolence of the police is like wearing a shirt with a little alligator on it. As Henderson puts it: When someone “uses the term ‘white privilege,’ they are engaging in a status display. They are trying to tell you, ‘I am a member of the upper class.'”

No, you aren’t imagining it: The rules for verbally signaling your membership in this luxury-belief class are indeed becoming ever more arcane: “Your typical middle-class American could not tell you what ‘heteronormative’ or ‘cisgender’ means… When someone uses the phrase ‘cultural appropriation,’ what they are really saying is, ‘I was educated at a top college…'”

Or maybe they’re saying they’re prosperous enough to be UUs. After all, writes Henderson:

Only the affluent can afford to learn strange vocabulary because ordinary people have real problems to worry about…

The economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell once said that activism is “a way for useless people to feel important, even if the consequences of their activism are counterproductive for those they claim to be helping and damaging to the fabric of society as a whole.”

Advocating for open borders and drug experimentation are good ways of advertising your membership of the elite because, thanks to your wealth and social connections, they will cost you less than [a middle or working-class person].

I’ve always been irritated by  Unitarian Universalist clergy who believe that service to the world means donning  a clerical collar and getting “arrested.” It bugs me that these thespian self-sacrifices have often been arranged ahead of time, the fine already paid, the whole experience choreographed so as to take no more than an hour or two.

Obviously, I’ve been missing the point. The demonstration isn’t about solidarity with the less-privileged (for whom getting arrested is a very different thing) nor the salvation of the planet. This is why there is no obvious connection between the demonstration (let alone the arrest)  and the stated goal. The true goal is to let folks know that  Unitarian Universalists are affluent. We’ve got time on our handcuffed hands, emotional energy to spare for vicarious outrage, and money to blow on airfare and fines. Rob Henderson’s well-heeled, woke elite-college classmates (white, black or brown)  are our target demographic, not the drug addicts, graduates of foster care or military veterans, whatever the color their skins might be.

So the next time a  UU  assures you that ours is a white supremacist organization, just picture her, him or Xher popping the collar on a polo shirt with an itty-bitty but very visible alligator embroidered just above the left breast.

Copyright 2019 © Kate Braestrup


  1. Yes, we do have luxury beliefs. Kate mentions some of them. We do believe in trans rights. But I will tell you from personal experience that the trans “experience” is hell on the family. And it is not a fact, it’s a belief. I know a family now, today, that is being ripped apart by the trans fallacy. Trans is the very embodiment of the luxury belief. It is a cost-free belief and one that seemingly carries the advantage of “free choice” and “living out your true self”. None of this is true. It’s confusion, and it’s delusion. These points are anathema to my UU friends, but in future years trans, like lobotomy, the use of radiation to destroy the fertility of “mentally feeble” person, and other discredited quackery, will be viewed as a moment of cultural insanity.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. That article blew me away with how enlightening it was into the current problems plaguing the UU church. And this further ties the whole thing together. Thank you for writing this.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. A saddening commentary, a caricature of our tradition. Is there truth to it? Of course. Is it partial? Thankfully, yes. I hope you move through this bitterness and your faith in Unitarian Universalists, as people of faith, is restored in some form, Rev. Kate. (I do not say faith in the UUA, or the institution, or the party line. Faith in the people, as a whole, has sustained me in my ministry under the UU umbrella. Bring one good UU to mind and fan out from there….) On the other side of disillusionment, there is wisdom — or failing that, there is wry humor. Hope you return to the fold, I am holding a place for you. — Rev. Elaine

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Dear Rev. Elaine: Well, of course it’s a partial truth. But “caricature” is just how I’d describe the version of UU-ism that is emerging out of the UUA at the moment. It’s like an “Onion” satire, only everyone participating in it is deadly serious. Henderson’s essay offers a plausible explanation for why so many have gone along with the dreary-fication of our formerly good-humored, interesting and reasonably humble religion. He named for me one of the big disconnects between what is said —with tremendous passion—to be absolutely crucial for human well-being, or even for “survival” … and the problems and concerns (and, for that matter, sources of contentment and joy) of the “normal” people I work and engage with every day.

    Liked by 6 people

  5. Elitist snobbery? You think using the language of anti-racism and being trans-affirming is elitist snobbery?
    It’s the epitome of elitist snobbery to believe it takes a high level of education to understand anti-oppression terms.
    You know who clearly understands anti-oppression terms? Oppressed people. It’s elite snobs who need to get busy leveling up.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. I think it is very possible—and quite fascinating, really—that using the language of anti-racism and being trans-affirming—especially the very particular language that the extra-special woke use—serves to signal membership in a particular social class. And it happens to be the social class that UUs have traditionally either belonged to or wanted to believe they belonged to.

    Obviously, I travel in different circles. But I’m not acquainted with many folk who appreciate being labeled “oppressed.” The ones that do occupy a slim slice of one or another of those delicate demographics that have been targeted for what does, now that I think about it, sound disturbingly like noblesse oblige.

    The idea is worth considering, I think. Especially if it stings a bit.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Oh, and I meant to add—the members of that slim slice that kinda like being known as “oppressed”? They’re the ones who’ve been to expensive institutions of higher education.


  8. The vast majority of handicapped find UUs “de-ableist” cleansing of UU language stupid and infantilizing. One on this site said as much.about the removal of the word “stand,” saying both that it never bothered him and it offended him that people thought he didn’t see it as a metaphor.

    I am a member of two of the UU categories of marginalized, and when people try to use PC terms “for me”, I say the old terms are fine and what offends me is treating me as if I’m a five year old.

    Saying to someone “Your feelings (no matter what they are) are objective truth, and no one can question you and no objective fact can prove you wrong” or “Let me protect you from that book cover over there” is what you say to a dim five-year-old or someone with some serious psychiatric or mental development troubles.

    You hear of “Books for Dummies”? I swear that UUA is trying to come up with “Theology for Infants.”

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Do you have evidence that people with disabilities prefer the use of “stand” in a metaphorical sense to any alternatives, or is that a guess? It -is- true that most people with disabilities usually prefer “disabled” or “people with disabilities” to “handicapped,” much as most African Americans prefer “African American” or “Black” to “Negro.”


  9. I add that a handicapped person I know just emailed me to say in my above post that the “de-ableist” scrubbing of the word “standing” is condescending. She said the one word I forgot to include in the post is “condescending”– according to her, it’s condescending to the handicapped.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I’ll add that parents and teachers are teaching kids that their “you feelings are objective facts that can’t be questioned even by facts and logic,” and that “viewpoints or opinions or ideas contrary to yours are wrong and harmful and you will not be exposed to them,” I would catalog that as child abuse. Anyone hear the phrase “I wanna be a narcissist when I grow up”?

    It also makes me wonder if that’s the education that Donald Trump got.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Using personal feelings as objective facts, ignoring and considering opposing opinions harmful, and disregarding logic. You would think Donal Trump would be the poster boy for the UUA. Maybe when he’s out of office, the UUA can hire him to give workshops at GA.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’ve long noticed that the far left and the far right are remarkably similar in many ways. That a far-left group or movement would use techniques used by the far-right (illiberalism, dogma, ad hominem attacks, book banning, ideological purity requirements, etc.) should hardly surprise anyone who is observant. It’s a psychology.

    Eric Hoffer’s famous The True Believer was about movements on the far right and the far left, secular political and religious. The funny thing is that he wrote that almost 70 years ago (Listen up here for a second UUA and UUMA), is that standard techniques the cult-like religious, political and social movements is to tell their followers to disregard logic and prevent any questioning of the dogma.

    The UUA board is actually employing and endorsing the very techniques Hoffer wrote are used by fanatical movements, including religious cults and authoritarian fascist governments. Telling members to dismiss logic is straight out of his book.

    There is a reason why some UUs have commented to me that the UUA and some of their groups remind them of a cult.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. The main problem with telling people to ignore logic is most people will or will eventually use it to analyze what you’re talking about and often then conclude that, wait a second, your theory doesn’t make any sense. The latter usually why the people didn’t want you to employ logic in the first place.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I think the UUA and ministers telling congregants to not use logic and reason to assess the current orthodoxy and dogma (and that there exists a dogma) will prove to be about as effective as, say, telling UUs not to buy and read a book (Boom! Overnight bestseller).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree – and to me it’s obvious that anti-racism and anti-oppression are as logically defensible as they are morally defensible.


  15. I have often worried about my beloved faith becoming one that “serves the over-served,” in the words of a beloved trans colleague and friend. The lens of “luxury beliefs” is an interesting one, theologically.

    Applying that lens to a UU belief in the inherent worth and dignity of our trans kin and POC beloveds is beyond the pale. The average life span of a trans woman of color globally is 35. There is no luxury in that. The urgency of our solidarity with human siblings whose lives are on the line arises not from academe but from pastoral concern and faithful conviction and a deep and abiding love for flesh and blood humans who are already in our lives and congregations.

    UUs are being called in this time to spiritual humility as those we have chronically under-served (like trans and POC UUs) claim their voices and offer us truly life-giving theology and practice from a deep experience of both oppression and resilience.

    There are many things about which we can disagree, but the dignity of our trans and POC kin is not up for debate. That’s not orthodoxy or snobbery. It’s the beating heart of our faith.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You missed the point. First, no one went after the dignity of anyone. That’s a strawman. The struggles and needs of trans people and POC is not being questioned. However the approach being used by the UUA is not helpful as it doesn’t do anything to address world wide problems facing transpeople or do anything to address POC right here in the US. I actually suggested a project to the UUA which would allow them to fight racism and literally dismantle white supremacy right here in my own city (helping to fight the I-81 project in Syracuse – literal white supremacy built right through the backbone of a black neighborhood) and the response I got from President Frederick Grey was “Nope, not going to do that.” Apparently it was “patronizing” to help someone begging for help.

      Let me ask you this. You step outside, and you see your neighbors house is on fire. They are struggling to put it out and failing. The government decided to handle it by driving the firetruck through the middle of the house. How do you respond?

      1. GOP way: Offer to sell them a hose.
      2. UUA way: Stand by and do nothing.
      3. My way: Get your own hose and help fight the fire.

      The UUA has no problem giving $5.3 million to the Black Lives UU group – led by Leslie Mac whose “Safety Pin Box” was either horribly managed or a criminal scam. This money is being stolen from trusts meant to support churches. It is also unaccountable – despite non-profit best practices demanding accounting and financials, BLUU is not required to report back to the UUA about the use of the cash. That’s a recipe for corruption and waste. Want to know why this is important? Go check out “Charity Watch” –

      So yeah, there is plenty of room for debate. Tons of room. You could move entire planets through the moral and ethical gaps that exist in the UUA approach.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Do you have any evidence of your claim that Leslie Mac may have engaged in a criminal scam? If you do, please present it, and, if you don’t, please withdraw your claim. Thank you.


  16. In this blog post, I read a lot of criticism of how UU’s are living their values without any suggestions of other ways UU’s might do that. Learning the language of the marginalized is criticized. Activism is criticized. Yet those very behaviors reflect efforts to honor the inherent worth and dignity of every one and live out the value that “service is our prayer.”

    Does the author believe that these behaviors are disingenuous? Are they motivated by elitism?

    I certainly see lots of work to do in UUism; for example, we claim to be anti-racist, but our churches have very few POC.

    So how does the author propose a change? How SHOULD UU’s show up in the world? How SHOULD UU’s talk about oppression? How SHOULD UU’s take action about the “real” issues others have that we care about?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jen, these are great questions.
      Answering the question of what I would prefer is worthy of a blog post in itself, maybe one that should wait until I’ve taken full advantage of this chance to talk the issue through with folks like YOU!


    2. A few comments from elsewhere that address this:

      And the best things I have seen on what we should be doing instead are this post by Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford
      Recommitting to an Ethic of Personal Responsibility or “Backless Chairs Are Not the Answer”

      and her following series, starting here
      My Love Song to Unitarian Universalism …
      and Unitarian Universalists. Part 1 of 5, written in May,

      and her post from last year “The Most Controversial Thing I’ll Write All Year”

      Liked by 2 people

  17. Molly, I didn’t make it clear.

    The idea isn’t that the transgendered, the marginalized and oppressed are, themselves, possessed of luxury beliefs.

    (Dang, I wish WordPress would let me italicize!)

    The idea is that UUs are being strongly encouraged (!) to hold and express specific beliefs about the marginalized and oppressed, including—if I may say so—a strangely narrow definition of who counts as marginalized and oppressed because such beliefs are signs/advertisements of membership in the upper-middle to upper class.

    Holding and expressing or even advertising specific beliefs isn’t unusual in a religion, after all.

    Churches, especially the more obscure ones, have to do some advertising in order to get folks in the door—that’s why there are roadside marquees with messages like “This Church Is Prayer-Conditioned” and “Jesus Knows You And Still Loves You.” Naturally, UUs wouldn’t greet the Marginalized with the assurance of Jesus’ love, but we offer what we believe to be a superior alternative—our love. (Which is an interesting little luxury belief in itself, but never mind.)

    Luxury beliefs are especially potent advertisements for social class when they demand new language and etiquette—the more fiddly and awkward the better.

    Recall that Veblen’s original work described behaviors and language that were, by any rational measure, useless. Think “using the right fork”—still the classic sign in pop-culture of a snob. The importance of knowing which fork to use for salad and which for fish has nothing to do with getting the food into your pie-hole, and everything to do with advertising that you’ve got money to spend on superfluous silverware and time to spend on teaching your kids how to use it properly.

    Acts like expunging “problematic language” from our materials (“standing” “seeing” “hearing” and of course “women and men”) can be seen as sacrifices made in the name of those we count as needy, but unlike a genuine sacrifice (that is, giving up something you might actually need on behalf of someone else) these are ostentations unlikely to, for example, extend the lives of transgendered women worldwide by a single week. They won’t even lower the paper-towel holder in the gender-neutral bathroom a bit, so that a person in a wheelchair can dry her hands.

    “There are many things about which we can disagree, but the dignity of our trans and POC kin is not up for debate.” As far as I know, no one said it was. But I am interested to know what things we can disagree about?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. “It is now morally imperative that you believe that a woman can have a penis because declaring your absolute adherence to this idea […] is like wearing a shirt with a little alligator on it.”

      I imagine this is where your readers are picking up on a disregard for the dignity of trans people.

      No one can force you to believe it, but it is messed up to suggest that affirming the womanhood of trans women is as morally neutral (or morally suspect?) as wearing a little alligator or using fancy forks. What are you hoping your trans UU readers will conclude from this passage? About your opinion of them and their bodies? About their place in this faith? About their right to ask for affirmation in the future?

      I’m all for talking about elitism and overly academic jargon, but if that was the goal of this essay, it seems like there’s a lot of splash damage, which super bums me out.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I wasn’t declaring an opinion either way, Sally. I was pointing out that a remark that would have been considered too self-evident even to bother saying aloud a mere decade (at most) ago is now—as you make clear—too controversial and potentially harmful to utter.

        And yes: I think that’s a problem. As another correspondent on this site has told us, and as many of us can attest from our own experience, individuals and families are having complex, difficult, painful and unresolved experiences with transgenderism. It is not —and, given the time frame, could not possibly be—a settled question. Not theologically, not ontologically, not socially and not medically.

        I’m sorry that you are super bummed-out, but that’s sort of part of the deal in a community in which people with diverse perspectives are encouraged to engage in free and open discussion, isn’t it?

        And so I’ll ask you the same question I asked Molly: What are UUs allowed to disagree about?

        Liked by 1 person

  18. As far as the insidious word “stand” goes, I notice that our music director (and past ones), always starts a sing-along song by saying “Rise in body or spirit.”

    Kind of explains it all, doesn’t it (metaphors, words having different meanings, figurative nature of language, etc.). . . Though probably someone decided to add “in body or spirit” to note to people that there are different meanings and connotations to the word rise. Without it, maybe some congregants were suddenly getting hungry for bread.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I say “Please rise in body or spirit” to acknowledge those who can’t – we have a couple of people who have back problems and can sometimes and can’t others, and it reminds all of us that inabilities are not always visible. Some of our other worship leaders say “as you are willing or able”, which I find less satisfactory. Common worship is a community exercise, in which everyone able should be willing to co-operate. People who are not willing don’t need a pass (although they shouldn’t be condemned, either – and “in body or spirit” reminds us not to judge.)

      Liked by 1 person

  19. I can’t wait to see what the next event in the oppression Olympics is going to be.

    So far we have homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, ableism, ageism, fat-shaming, heteronormativity, and racism.

    What is left to be outraged about?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What makes this interesting, Steve, is that UUs got used to being out on the cutting edge —and for that edge to remain exclusively ours for quite some time, decades even. I remember getting pretty smug about our Welcoming Congregation program, back in the day. We were the envy of our mainline church friends.

      But now—and maybe it’s the internet?— I can’t find a smidge of difference between the UUA and the UCC when it comes to any of these supposedly “risky” issues. The UCC offers more Jesus-and-God–but just barely, and the new UCC clergy of my acquaintance are just as woke as the wokest UU, A lesbian Episcopal priest has just been named the head of the National Abortion Federation… and Episcopalians join Presbyterians, Methodists and Jews, as well as UUs, in declaring abortion a “blessing.”

      The cutting edge has suddenly gotten really crowded. We, who used to have to content ourselves with discerning the potential for “evolution” in our candidate are now looking at twenty-seven (or whatever it is now) Democratic candidates, one of whom is gay and the rest are falling over themselves to tell us their pronouns, loudly mourn the tragic death of Michael Brown and affirm the right of women to abort on demand through all nine (or perhaps ten) months.

      This development may or may not be a good thing for the country as a whole, but it presents the UU with a delicate problem. What, exactly, do we offer that other churches don’t? For that matter, what do we offer that just about every social institution doesn’t? A transgendered person can be affirmed while relaxing at home on Sunday with a cup of coffee and the New York Times.

      That the UU is just one more liberal church aligned with, rather than thrillingly contradicting, the major mainstream institutions (media, academia, the democratic party) may explain the slight air of panic that lurks beneath the wordy surface of the national leadership.

      Oddly enough, my most recent conversation with a transgendered stranger (as opposed to those I am either friends with or related to) took place at a Catholic church. The trans-woman’s devotion to Catholicism was apparently stronger than her sense of alienation, go figure. That Catholic church was filled with a glorious, enviable diversity of folks, even if their poor priest was forced to speed-speak the Mass so he could get through two masses at three parishes every Sunday.

      So…yeah. Where do we go from here? Especially since we are clearly being asked to jettison the one thing that set us apart from other religions?

      Liked by 2 people

  20. “I’ve always been irritated by Unitarian Universalist clergy who believe that service to the world means donning  a clerical collar and getting “arrested.”” 
    Me too, Kate. And deeply saddened by it. Those of us who have had loved ones incarcerated know the horrors of what real imprisonment is. When I witness colleagues lining up for these staged ‘arrests’ I always have a knot in my belly over it as it seems so insulting (and patronizing, and lacking in compassion) to those who are “really” arrested and who enter into a prison system where truly only the wealthy have chance of surviving with their souls (physical and spiritual), and even then it is not a guarantee.
    Of all the clergy who march to a place they know they are going to be “arrested” I know of less than a handful who would don their collars for such a purpose if the “arrest” were real, and if there were real possibilities of them serving time in prison for the “crime.” 
That would be a good self-test for clergy to take prior to mapping out their arrest plans:
    “If I were to really go to prison for the next 2-5 years for this “act” of solidarity and/or protest, would I do it?”
    If the answer is no, perhaps clergy could put their luxury time and resources to better use serving the community in other ways.

    Rev. “Twinkle” Marie Manning

    Liked by 3 people

  21. Kate, your experience is not my own of Unitarian Universalism and how change is and has been happening for our larger association. I witness your focus on status signaling through the use of particular language and certain forms of activism to reflect membership in and beliefs of an elite religious group. I certainly would never deny the existence of some people who may be concerned about such status signaling and who lack authenticity and heartfelt commitment to the values and practices of the religious tradition. That obviously is not a unique concern that any mainstream religious tradition could experience among its membership – and in fact, the discrepancy between beliefs and practices is a well known critique to which the language of “luxury beliefs” can add a perspective.

    However, in my experience – and speaking as someone who does come from a working class heritage and is a participant in a multiracial family and has served in urban settings and who has participated in every UUA General Assembly since Boston – the struggle to put our faith into action and to be accountable to our ethical principles and purposes very much is authentic. There is no way to have authentic love and relationship between people without taking into account power – who has the most resources, the most capacity for decision-making, and the greatest capacity to establish norms and standards in any situation. This is not something measured against individuals but against cultural collectives and institutions. Language matters in this – language used by a dominant group, or any of its members, can reinforce institutional power or help to foster different ways of being. My experience has been that the struggle over language has not been about ‘imposing dogma’ or ‘signaling elite status’ but about really learning to witness to the experiences of those who have been and continue to be harmed in relationship to a dominant group. This struggle has not arisen within the elite dominant group, who most often are unaware or comfortable with their status, but from those being impacted – who time and time and time and time again try to raise awareness and call for their inclusion in choice of language. Yes, all language is metaphor – and the choice of metaphors matters when we reflect together on who is included and who matters in the variety of choices made available for practice.

    In terms of activism itself – of course, some activism can happen without consideration for leadership by those most impacted. Yes, in the length of our history as Unitarian Universalists, I have witnessed and experienced that we respond to the call for being allies or accomplices time and time and time again. The issue of language is one area, and I witness that we have responded direct calls by those impacted to being present in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, to resisting SB1070 in Arizona, to coming to Standing Rock, to going to the border, to protesting pipelines, to showing up for the LGBTQI community, etc. etc. The definition of an ally or accomplice is to use one’s privilege when asked by those impacted because they are more at risk. I am aware of more situations where people of faith, including Unitarian Universalists, have indeed been in jail for long periods when risking on behalf of their faith.

    Finally, because yes, language matters, I strive to be aware of the many people with whom I am in relationship in my Unitarian Universalist faith and if the language I am using in my writing does reflect the level of respect and care I want to take in regards to their lived experiences and identities. I do this not to signal status but to signal care and to continue to deepen the possibility for mutual relationship – the ground from which any efforts to transform our deeply troubled and at-risk shared world depends. Theologically, the practices of our faith hinge on a fulcrum of power relationships balancing our first and seventh principles in this, however we find our way through our sources to our practices in this balance.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. If language is used to signal care and the possibility of mutual relationship, what does it mean when the UUA uses “white supremacy culture” and “white fragility?” Do these phrases signal care?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think that actually is an excellent question, BF. There are different roots to those particular terms – one originates in a systematic cultural power analysis of the development of race in the United States as a legacy tool of colonialism for benefiting a particular group of people, people racialized eventually as white though they first were identified as Christians of Northern European descent, while institutionally oppressing other groups of people – including the genocide of indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans. It is not a language intended to be individualized or personalized but reflects a system that damages or harms all of us eventually, though in very different ways. It’s not uncommon for people less familiar with the systematic history of racism and other oppressions in this country to feel unnerved or shocked when they first hear this language – associating it solely with the modern day KKK and less with the larger historical context that creates the phenomenon of the modern day KKK as the most extreme example. Mutuality occurs through a more lengthy process of education and experiential exercises where our interdependent relationship with the larger historical whole can be felt and thus understood. You are correct that the UUA has embraced the call to dismantle white supremacy culture in all of our institutions. I too embrace this as necessary because I witness to the destructive and insidious nature of this culture as a legacy of colonialism in contributing to mutual assured destruction of our planet and all of her creature, including all of us. I embrace it also out of deep love for my multiracial family and the ways that I have seen this culture continue to harm them in the present – and I embrace this call because I witness how white supremacy culture as a legacy of colonialism is also intimately connected to the harm done to people of other marginalized or oppressed identities whom I love and hold dear in our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition.

        The second language you reference is specifically associated with Robin DiAngelo’s work and book of the same name. Her work is embraced by many as one tool for dismantling white supremacy culture, particularly the internalized superiority that white people are socialized into but which also reflects hidden vulnerabilities when that superiority is challenged. This internalized superiority also harms us in ways we often don’t realize. I honor Robin’s work, and I also tend to use different language to get a bit more directly to the human vulnerability of all of this, including by doing more personal sharing from my experience with it than Robin typically does in her pedagogy. Her public style often reminds me of Tim Wise’s public personality style, another well known white anti-racist activist. I value their work, and I have my own style and way of engaging this work with fellow white folks, built on years of experience with congregant volunteers and students in higher education.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I became aware some time ago during all this that the specific phrase “white supremacy culture” did not come from the mainstream of cultural power analysis or the civil rights movement at the time, but from a conspiracy theory by a marginal race theorist which specifically posited that white supremacy culture was a deliberate and widespread effort of long-standing due to white Europeans jealousy of melanin.

        The term, which does indeed cause dismay among those who are accused of supporting it, is being used specifically for that shock value, by implicitly conflating all white people and majority-white organizations to those who espouse white supremacy as the term is generally used and understood. Dan Morales pointed this out in 2016.

        And as BR pointed out, both white supremacy culture and white fragility are used for gaslighting, and any attempt to point that out is used as further proof of fragility and denial.

        Liked by 3 people

  22. This language is harmful to me. It reminds me of my abusive ex-husband. He liked to define my feelings and motivations just like you just did.

    It doesn’t seem to me that I am being cared for in UU spaces.

    I don’t see how you dismantle anything by using harmful language.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “This language is harmful to me”. This is the kind of vague, form-free, fact-free statement that causes all kinds of problems. “This language” – specifically what language? “harmful” – in what way? Language is not harmful. Language can be contentious, incorrect, or rude. It is not harmful.


      1. Paul, I think BF means the language of “white supremacy” and so on, which does have a certain abusive “when did you stop beating your wife” quality to it! And with the word “harmful,” BF is using the language of the Woke to critique the Woke.

        Language can be harmful, at least in the sense that being continually berated and harrangued by someone you can’t get away from and/or who is meant to love you can be very upsetting (at best) and psychologically painful at worst. But I think we agree that speech is not the equivalent of physical violence and ought not to be conflated with it.

        Liked by 2 people

  23. LdeG, Very interesting observation, comparing it to gaslighting. I’ve often said, “I just don’t subscribe to the theory or terms, so they mean nothing to me when you try to apply them to me.”

    The other thing they do is when they (condescendingly) say “Oh, you’re just not educated enough.”


  24. And, Michelle—notice how long your explanation of the use of these terms is, and how many academic assumptions are embedded in it? Rob Henderson might argue that the subtext, there, is “Look! I went to a good school.”

    Maybe that’s unfair. Still, expensive, post-modern, “-theory” and “-studies” does seem to produce a vocabulary unintelligible to the normal, educated speaker of English…which is to say, a vocabulary that separates “us” from “them.”

    That doesn’t mean that you, personally, are trying to show us your bona fides; we pick up habits of speech and behavior from the institutions we belong to (or want to belong to) whether we intend to or not. And it is natural—probably inevitable—and not even necessarily bad for any group of people, however earnest and well-meaning, to morph into a club for the cool kids.

    What strikes me as grimly amusing is how badly our Leaders have failed in their effort to get the rank and file on board. For such clever, well-educated people, they’ve made a hell of a mess. I’m glad it isn’t my mess and I sincerely hope it isn’t yours either.

    As for what we—that is, people like us, exchanging views on a website—should be allowed to talk about, it seems to me that the areas declared out of bounds are precisely those that desperately need to be discussed.

    For instance (in no particular order): What should the relationship be between the UU church and left-liberal politics?

    Is demonstrating the same thing as helping?

    How shall we now understand those ancient objects of religious concern, “body” and “soul” or “mind” and “substance” and the relationship between these when there are folks among us who believe themselves to be a “soul/mind/self” born iinto the wrong body/substance?

    How are we to negotiate the very disparate impacts that transgender demands for opportunities, recognition and space have upon women compared with men?

    You may say that none of this can be open to discussion. But let’s not pretend the priority is protecting the feelings of :marginalized” people: I doubt a transgendered Trump supporter (these do exist, BTW) would feel particularly welcome at a UU church. I’ve watched as intersectional anti-racism comes to a screeching halt when faced with black women who firmly believe that abortion is cruel.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. By the way, some of us (well, me) have read Robin di Angelo’s work and been unimpressed. I found her book anachronistic and unrealistic. But lucrative! Like Leslie MacFayden, she figured out how to monetize white guilt—ah, capitalism.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suggest “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum, which is excellent. Would you like a copy Rev. Kate?


  26. I am so troubled by this. I’m troubled that ministers in my faith denomination are not sincerely engaging folks where they are. I’m not fancy educated like you and the lot you describe, but I have folks in my life who have been good and kind in the face of my flubbery to say things like, “hey, when you said that thing, I had some feelings and those feelings will get in the way of us having an honest, respectful relationship.” (Note: no one ever said this exact thing to me, but it has been the undercurrent when I realized the relationship had shifted and had someone point out that I had said a thing with words that rang of racism, ableism and even snobbery. Is it too much to ask our clergy to have this capacity, i.e., to listen, to learn, and to act in a more loving way? I hope not. But here’s the other thing, if you think you don’t belong here any more, if you aren’t comfortable shaking up ingrained ways, if you don’t find evolution worth doing, maybe you aren’t a UU anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. TinaLBPorter—I agree! I think. That is, I am very much in favor of just the kinds of conversation you’re talking about, the ones where someone says “you just did something and I feel rotten about it” and then we hash it out together and we learn something and, as you say, evolve.

    That’s happened to me plenty of times, and I don’t doubt for a second that the lessons are going to keep on coming.

    Once, not long after Obama was elected, I was at a reception in Washington, DC for a law enforcement “thing.” Over my cracker-and-cheese, I found myself eagerly telling another guest how excited I was about Obama’s presidency, and wasn’t he just thrilled as well?

    “Look, I’m a conservative, ” the guy said. And then: “Hey! Did you assume I voted for Obama because I’m black?”

    No way around it: I had to admit that yes, that was exactly what I’d done. Dang! Super-bummed, as Sally would say.

    He was a McCain man, and very annoyed with me—and rightly so. I apologized and, because he was a nice person, he made some forgiving noises.

    It is that unfortunate reflex—making assumptions based on irrelevant characteristics— that I believe is being encouraged when we are told “there is no way to have authentic love and relationship between people without taking into account power – who has the most resources, the most capacity for decision-making, and the greatest capacity to establish norms and standards in any situation. This is not something measured against individuals but against cultural collectives and institutions.”

    I can think of lots and lots of instances of authentic love and relationship between people in my life. While I do a bit of “taking into account power” in my work, for the most part this focus on power seems neither necessary nor useful. Take the anecdote I just offered: What would an analysis of relative power yield? Did I have more power than he because I’m white? Did he have more because he was male, tall, muscular, some sort of muckety-muck at the FBI and armed?

    I didn’t offend him by abusing my supposed power. I offended him by being presumptuous and, yes, racist. I was dyring to talk to someone about Obama, and without thinking, I’d figured he was the one guy in the room guaranteed to have voted the way I did. Because he was black.

    It still pains me to think about it—which of course is what made it such an educational (sigh!) experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. While I think it’s important not to assume someone’s political beliefs based on their race, I also wouldn’t say someone’s race is “irrelevant” in a country where one’s racial identity can put someone’s life in danger. Indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising for us to find out that this man’s racial identity shaped his (conservative) worldview in some ways, just as my worldview is undoubtedly shaped in some ways by my racial identity. And, indeed, political views are strongly correlated with racial identity, and that was hardly ever more true than among Black Americans in the 2008 election. There’s no problem recognizing the great relevance of race in politics and society. We just ought not, as you correctly pointed out, make assumptions about individuals based on their race.


  28. “As Henderson puts it: When someone “uses the term ‘white privilege,’ they are engaging in a status display. They are trying to tell you, ‘I am a member of the upper class.’””
    As someone who isn’t a member of the upper class who uses the term “white privilege,” I’m thoroughly confused by this statement. If the Rev. Kate doesn’t like the term “white privilege,” she should tell us why and what alternative she proposes, not question our motives.


    1. Status signalling is not something that high-status people need to do; they have power and everybody knows it, although occasionally in situations with a new group, they may need to make it clear. Status signally is important for people who don’t have high status but are aspiring, or for people who are unsure that they are being regarded as high in status as they want. And IMHO what “inherent worth and dignity” means is that status should not have to be a consideration at all – no-one should feel that they have to prove themselves worthy of respect and being listened to.


  29. How are Black people supposed to talk about racism they experience without being labeled “snobs” by this minister?


  30. “Only the affluent can afford to learn strange vocabulary because ordinary people have real problems to worry about…” but really, the Black people who worry about things like “white privilege” are indeed facing “real problems to worry about” like systemic racism, which endangers the health, safety, and well-being of Black people. That’s hardly a made-up problem invented by elites.


  31. “I’ve always been irritated by Unitarian Universalist clergy who believe that service to the world means donning a clerical collar and getting “arrested.”” That may indeed be a problem, but the settled minister at my congregation spent six months behind bars after protesting the School of the Americas, so it’s hard for me to share this Rev. Kate’s cynicism.


  32. The idea that those of us who value work against racism, transphobia, Islamophbia, anti-Semitism, or whatever are doing so because we’re “snobs” or virtue signaling is not only an inappropriate assumption about our intentions, it’s often just flatly incorrect. Not only is it often flatly wrong, but assuming the worst of others’ intentions is a violation of your own website’s code of conduct, which says, “play the ball, not the person.” If you don’t like certain anti-racist ideas, explain what you don’t like about them. Don’t accuse people of having bad intentions or motivations.


  33. Truly disheartening to see a UU minister “like” a comment saying that being transgender is “confusion, and it’s delusion” and that being transgender “in future years trans, like lobotomy, the use of radiation to destroy the fertility of “mentally feeble” person, and other discredited quackery, will be viewed as a moment of cultural insanity.”


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