UUs in the Pews, Please Help!

By Rev. Richard Trudeau

I am writing this for lay members of Unitarian Universalist congregations. I believe there is a crisis in the national UU movement, and I believe that laypeople are in the best position to help resolve it. The rub is, very few laypeople are aware of the crisis…

I’m a UU minister. I first learned about the UU movement in 1960, as a teenager unhappy with my Catholic upbringing; I decided then that if I ever returned to church, it would be to a UU church. In the early 1980s, I started attending a UU congregation, which I then joined. I was granted UUA ministerial fellowship in 1994 and was ordained in 1995. I served two UU churches, 1992-2012. I am now semi-retired, preaching a total of about twenty times a year at a dozen or so UU churches in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The crisis I see is that a majority of our UU national leaders have become committed to a particular ideology that threatens two aspects of UUism: our commitment to social justice, and our values of reason and free expression.

These leaders — at the Unitarian Universalist Association, in our two seminaries, and in the UU Ministers’ Association — have become so committed and intransigent that I have started to think of the ideology that has captivated them as a mental virus with which they have become infected. By this analogy I do not mean to imply that they are mentally ill, of course, but only that they seem stuck in a rut (think Communism, 1917-1989). Victims of this mental virus can be recognized by their calls to “dismantle our white supremacy culture.”

I said this mental virus threatens the UU commitment to social justice. I was present at a ministers’ meeting ten years ago at which someone who had just ended a term on the UUA Board reported that there was then a consensus on the board that the UUA racial-justice strategy — at the time called “Journey Toward Wholeness,” and underway for thirteen years — had accomplished disappointingly little. What the UU leaders of today are doing is to double down on this same strategy.

While the name “Journey Toward Wholeness” has been retired, and the rallying-cry has changed from calling on whites to “confess our complicity in institutional racism” to calling on all to “dismantle our white supremacy culture,” the underlying strategy has not changed.

The racial-justice strategy our leaders are pursuing is a strategy that doesn’t work to make Black lives, or any other lives, better.

The reason I lean toward the analogy of a mental virus infecting the majority of our national leaders is that I have no doubt that they are well-intentioned, and for the most part capable, people, yet their behavior is to me incomprehensible. I can only understand it if I imagine them as victims. Just as a physical virus, like the one causing COVID-19, exploits laudable human traits to gain entrance to our bodies — like our human desire to be physically close to one another — the mental virus of which I speak seems to have gained entrance to our leaders’ minds by exploiting their laudable qualities of empathy and passion for social justice. But the result is that their judgment seems to me impaired; they are no longer thinking clearly.

I said that the mental virus also threatens the UU values of reason and free expression. This is clear from the treatment accorded over the last year to Rev. Todd Eklof of our Spokane, WA congregation. Rev. Eklof wrote a book, The Gadfly Papers, that expressed concern about the crisis in UUism to which I have been referring. Since the book’s appearance, the UU Ministers’ Association has publicly censured him and then expelled him; he has been fired by a UU seminary as a supervisor of ministerial interns; and he has been removed from UUA fellowship by the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee. These organizations have claimed procedural irregularities as the reasons for their actions, but upon close inspection I don’t find that any of their explanations hold water. And as a result of the example that has been made of this one minister, UU ministers across the land are intimidated.

I hate writing this essay. As a minister, my instinct is always to bring to the people in the pews a message that is positive. And what I have written today is hardly that.

What I have said today is that UUism is under attack by those sworn to uphold it. They are destroying the commitment to reason and free speech that attracted so many of us in the first place. And they are wasting our energy on an approach to racial justice that doesn’t work.

What can be done? You might think, “This should be brought up at General Assembly.” But General Assembly is not really democratic, according to the UUA Board’s Fifth Principle Task Force (2009), and the UUA has since become even less democratic because all UUA Board members are now elected at-large and do not represent local constituencies.

What can be done? All I can suggest is that lay UUs look into these matters for themselves and, if they agree with me that the situation is alarming, express their unhappiness loudly to their congregational leaders, to their Regional staff, and to the UUA itself.

UUs in the pews, please help!

Copyright 2020  © Richard Trudeau

42 comments

  1. Thank you for posting this, and as a note, I believe more than two of our values are at risk. Like many other liberal bastions in our society, we are threatened from within. I’m reminded of the ST:TNG episode “The Drumhead” (S4/21), and the ending of that episode which calls for constant vigilance against those who claim to be on the cause of righteousness, but are driven by fear for control and tyranny.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is too late me. I pushed against this in my Weside (Seattle) Congregation for two years.  I left.  I won’t be back unless there is a restoration or a split.  I think my old congregation uses this church as a social club. My son, Interfaith ordained, has fought this and continues, but, he, too, will probably leave. I give great credit to those ministers who are courageous  enough to speak out and to risk their jobs.  I  hope their congregations have their backs–Todd and Rick. Sandra Rudd

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  3. Well put. Please publicize widely. We need more ministers speaking up – perhaps pushing back on the UUMA & UUA. Perhaps, very visibly, organizing alternative/parallel organizations. (I’d really like to see Todd Eklof recruit the ACLU to sue the heck out of the UUMA, and meanwhile start a competing organization). So far, though, we have a few people who seem willing to talk about what’s going on – but it’s only the usurpers who are organizing counter-organizations (e.g., BLUU). Where are calls for an alternate GA, or an alternate to UU World (except from me). Is there anybody left in UUdom to respond to the call?

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  4. This is an eloquent plea for UUs to awaken. However, with all due respect to Mel, probably 1 in 1000 UUs read this blog. Unless they are aware of the on-going discussion and suppression of dissent within UUism, they are unlikely to be persuaded even by this eloquent and well-written discussion. So, here’s the question: How do we reach and activate the great mass of UUs who are not convinced of their own original sin due to their original skin?

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    1. I’ve been wondering about this a LOT lately. UU World no longer has a letters column, and the online version has long disabled it’s comment-on-articles feature. VERY few UUs seem to participate in online forums – UUA email lists have tiny memberships, the last large independent mailing list (UUS-L) is long defunct, and most UU forums on Facebook or reddit number in the hundreds, to at most 1 or 2000 people (the one exception, being the UU Hysterical Society Coffee Hour group on Facebook – 20,000 or so people, an old-style UU attitude, but lots of non-UUs, and limited to humor – admittedly lots of dark humor, but things like UUA governance are pretty much off limits – also, out of Canada, and Canadian’s are just different). The lack of communications channels really makes any form of communications, or coordination, among UUs-as-a-community of about 150,000 adults, and another 35,000 or so RE attendees – close to impossible. Short of delivering flyers to every congregation, it’s not at all clear how one might get a message – even an invitation – to the community.

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  5. Yesterday the UUMA members overwhelmingly voted down both due process and legal redress for members accused of bad behavior while at the same time adding such a plethora of “thou shalt nots” that we are all guilty of something. Only a little over 10% of our ministers voted to keep the right to due process and not to penalize those who feel they need a lawyer if those prosecuting them disagree. The 10% is, ironically, made up largely of older ministers, who will not be adversely affected themselves but are concerned with the totalitarian, ideological, direction of the UUA.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was in someone’s sig line in an email I just received, seems appropriate:
      “The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”
      ~Plato

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  6. Todd Eklof’s congregation just held a board of trustees/nominating team election and those candidates supporting Todd’s ministry have won! I hope this sends a message of hope to Todd’s friends around the country and a note of defiance to those who would squelch freethinkers such as we. As the chant from the streets says, “Stand up! Fight back!” Liberal religion survives!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’s good that Todd got support. I hope it was strong support. Nevertheless, in the final analysis it very probably is the congregation which counts. At our church here in Austin, Texas, the minister lost the support of the board. My understanding is that the minister could and did appeal to the congregation. There was a special congregational meeting, which, not being a member, I did not attend. A 2/3 majority of the congregational meeting voting for leave, and that minister was gone.

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  7. I have left the faith. I had faith in the search for truth and meaning. Once they were trying to force me to shut up and join them, I couldn’t do it anymore. I was in a large’ish congregation of 650. I spoke up at the services when everyone else nodded their heads in agreement that they were responsible for white supremacy. I said I agree we need to dismantle institutional racism, but that I am not guilty of original sin. The senior minister told me that the UU faith does not mean I can believe what I want in front of the whole congregation. That was it for me.

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    1. Sounds to me that the true UU response is to fight back – at least call a congregational meeting and call out your minister. (If you can’t get enough support to call the meeting, then maybe it is time to give up.)

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    2. What a terrible thing. The time is coming, and it will be soon, that all actual UUs will need to stand up and say the words you said. With the murder of George Floyd, the societal pressure to cave in to the CRT bullshit is increasing. I have no interest in saying lies with my words, and will not do so. I will not do it in church, either. My church is VERY skeptical of all the CRT/WSC bullshit, so no pressure there.

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  8. Consider this remark, which I heard from a Universalist who was a delegate to the first GA for the UUA, which completed the merger/consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America to create the UUA in 1961: “Where there is decay, there is merger. Where there is vitality, there is schism.”
    In my opinion, schism is not necessarily bad

    Consider this remark made to me by a member of a UU church in Colorado, years ago, when his mother was very ill,
    and I asked him why he came to church: “To get strength to get through another dangerous week”.

    Consider the prediction made by the first president of the UUA, the Rev. Dana McLean Greeley, when in 1961, he was elected first president of the UUA. Dr. Greeley predicted there would be 1 million Unitarian Universalists by 2000. In 1961,
    (official UUA figures, you can find them on the www) we had 151,557 members. In 2020 we have 152,921. That’s less than a 1% increase, when the US population is up over 75%. When you find the UUA’s own numbers, and get to the first link below the numbers for 2020, you can click on Vision for Unitarian Universalism. Guess what I got? “Private page”

    “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

    John Keohane
    keohane@prodigy.net
    member, First UU Church of Austin, Texas

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  9. The UUA is not a denomination but instead is an association of congregations. The power is supposed to be located in the congregation, not in the UUA Board or the President of the Association. It took seven years for the Purposes and Principles to be passed. We had vote after vote and two different years of study sessions.This drove me crazy at the time yet when it was passed it was unanimous. There is a relocation of power to a top down rather from the grassroots up movement. The Board of the UUA acts as if it is in charge…rather than creating policy to be discussed by those at the General Assembly and voted on by representatives of the congregations.

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  10. I think that if we want a better outcome, we need to offer a better positive vision.

    There is a real hunger in UUism for a positive theology of SOME sort. And there is a real hunger for a theology that will link up in a real way with the many obvious social injustices that exist in the world. Critical race theory offers what amounts to a theology, as well as a link with opposing some obvious social injustices.

    But there are alternative ways to build a theology and to deal with social injustices. Let me offer a few ideas.

    First, I think we need to go back, and somehow get people excited about how revolutionary the Enlightenment really was. An Enlightenment-based theology can provide a model for how to think about the world, and even for spiritual practice.

    I think the most revolutionary idea from the Enlightenment was: human equality is a practical, real-world reality. We really are not that different. Stephen Jay Gould once said, “Human equality is a CONTINGENT fact of human history.” It need not have been such if human evolution had proceeded differently.

    This is the essence of the teaching of the Enlightenment thinkers, in contrast to the classical philosophers. They were inspired by the ancients, yet they rejected Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery, and Plato’s notion that only a few could be philosopher kings.

    Read Adam Smith, not the Wealth of Nations, but the THeory of Moral Sentiments, where he said we are more equal than not, and have a natural sympathy for our fellow human beings. Read the Declaration of Independence (while remembering that its writers were hypocrites), where it held that ALL are created equal.

    This is why we need freedom of thought, and dialogue, and discussion. Our own ideas and perspective is never enough — we need to listen to others, even when we disagree. And why we also need policies that can turn the POTENTIAL equality of all human beings into reality, as needy people do not have the time or energy to be able to contribute what they could to the debate and to our society.

    And the notion of equality is a needed spiritual discipline. Let us learn to take an outsider’s perspective of our being — let us recognize the limits of our understanding, and let us recognize that the trappings of wealth or recognition that we try to attach to our persons are irrelevant, when what matters is our character. If we want to improve ourselves, we need to see ourselves as others see us.

    So, we need some more unified spiritual core. I nominate equality, and getting outside our own ego to realizing we are just a small part of a broader society of equals.

    Second, we need a theory of action, as to how to realize human equality in practice. As for practice, I would advocate spending less time on navel-gazing, and more time on trying to help people get their real needs met, so they can really be equal and not just potentially equal. Let’s get more people good jobs, good housing, good neighborhoods, and fair treatment from authorities.

    To do that, let’s embrace faith-based community organizing groups such as the Industrial Areas Foundation, Gamaliel, or PICO, all of which try to bring together coalitions of diverse religious groups in local metro areas, to take needed local action.

    But back to my main point: even if the vision I have suggested does not seem interesting to you, we need SOME positive theology and positive social justice vision, because this is what people are hungering for. But it needs to be a good theology, and a good social justice vision.

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    1. It used to be that our message was:
      “Love is the spirit of this church and service its law.
      This is our great covenant:
      To dwell together in peace,
      To seek the truth in love, and
      To help one another.”
      Or variants, thereof.
      Our first principle used to read: “To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship.”
      Many of us joined UUism to raise our kids with a religious & moral background that forced THEM to develop their own beliefs & codes.
      Personally, I think we should just get back to our roots.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think people are looking for a little more than: develop your own beliefs, whatever they are. If one thinks about it, the notion that we should endorse love, and seek the truth, and support one another in our searches, all of this rests on a whole bunch of assumptions — with some empirical support — about human equality and about what makes for a better society. If human beings are highly unequal — that is if we believe some people are clearly far superior to others — why on earth should we engage in dialogue, love, and allow for a free search for truth? Let’s just let the philosopher kings explain to us what truth is, and we should be forced to follow that.

        I don’t think people fully appreciate how unusual in human history is the notion that a free search for truth is a good idea. It does very much rest on the notion of human equality. So I do not think that UUism should be anything goes. It should be that we embrace a wide variety of beliefs IF those beliefs are consistent with the underlying assumptions of the liberal enlightenment about the essential equality of all human beings, and our nature as beings who can learn best and develop best in dialogue and community with others. But those broad agreements are consistent with many beliefs, for example it is consistent with many variants of both theism and atheism.

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      2. Re. “I think people are looking for a little more than: develop your own beliefs, whatever they are.”
        Well yes – support in doing so, a place to exchange ideas, education about the range of belief systems. As opposed to being force fed a set of beliefs. As opposed to every other religious tradition – which force feeds you a set of beliefs. (Well, not quite – a lot of Eastern religions are modeled on “every path leads to the same place… this is our path.”
        I think of it as the difference between grad school, and trade school – at one, you follow your own path, in the other it’s all proscribed.
        Grad school isn’t for everyone. Why should we try to make UUism be?

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Tim has a good post. I’ll build on it. First let me say I’m evangelical, not in the fundamentalist view, but in the view of having something we are really enthusiastic about taking to other people. Second, let me say that I’m political. I think Trump is probably the worst president in the history of the United States, that if liberal religion were stronger in this county, none of us would need worry about his re-election. By liberal religion I mean something different that what the vast majority of ministers, the current leadership of the UUA, and a huge number of UU members are about.

    Consider, for example, the First Baptist church of Austin, where Robert Jeffress, head of Trump’s evangelical advisory group is senior minister. Consider Dream City church in Phoenix where Trump recently had his no social distancing, almost no masks, rally so recently. Consider the Christian church with 20,000 members near Louisville where U. S. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is a member. Look at their www sites. Find their beliefs. Heaven and Hell for eternity. The Bible is completely true without errors, etc.

    They don’t read the Bible, but pull verses from it. We don’t pull verses from it, but we don’t read it either.

    We ought to read the Bible. Ought to talk about it. If we do we can go head to head with fundamentalists. A great topic right now is “Galileo, the Bible, and the Inquisition”. Galileo, as you’ll recall, was the father of observational astronomy, and has been called the father of modern science. Galileo supported the theory that the earth goes around the sun. That got him in trouble, because religious, Biblical, truth made clear that the Sun goes around the earth. Look in the book of Joshua. You don’t even have to read the entire book. Google the www. I just did that. It’s Joshua 10:1-15. Isn’t that enough proof for you? It was for the Inquisition. Galileo recanted somewhat, was only convicted of “suspicion of heresy”. If he had been convicted of heresy, he might well have been burned at the stake. He got off easy. Well, if you’re shelter-in-place because of Covit-19, you might not think it too easy. Galileo was subjected to house arrest for the remainder of his life, which was over eight years. And you thought shelter in place and our restrictions with Covit-19, for what may be a year or two or even three, is terrible. And you have modern conveniences of phone, internet, computer, zoom, etc.. We’re getting off easy, compared to Galileo. By the way those “believers” from First Baptist in Dallas, from Dream City in Phoenix, and from McConnell’s church near Louisville, actually might think that the earth goes around the Sun, but they still think, or profess to think, that the Bible is inerrant and infallible”.

    So, let’s do good, and have fun, and fight them head to head. In our churches, let’s focus on what we don’t do, and are unlikely to do anywhere else. Let’s talk religion. Our place in the universe. I think UUs basically agree on this. We may disagree on other things (I’m a supporter of Todd Ekhof), but we’re Universalists in Theology. We believe that whatever happens after you die happens to all. It may be heaven, it may be reincarnation, it may be nothing at all, it may be this and it may be that, but that we’re all in this together. We also don’t believe that truth concludes with the Bible. There is, for example, Galileo. In the words of a hymn by Unitarian minister Samuel Longfellow(1819-92), to music of Franz Joseph Haydn, “Truth and right are still revealed” (Hymn is “Light of Ages and of Nations”, #248 in Hymns For the Celebration of Life, UUA, Boston, 1964. Unfortunately it’s not in our current hymnal.)

    For more on being a Universalist in Theology, see the article titled Why I Am A Universalist in Theology in the January/February 2004 issue of the Universalist Herald. I know that is an obscure publication, one’s that probably doesn’t exist any more, but I’m close enough to the author that I think I can get you a copy. You’ll have to ask. Send me an email, titled something like Universalist in Theology.

    John Keohane
    member, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas
    keohane@prodigy.net

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  12. Our little UU community is indeed wracked by divisions. Our leaders use the language of pathology when they describe us as allergic to authority. We might do better to avoid reflecting their negativity, and I think we can describe the issue accurately without referring to viruses. Thanks for listening.

    —Jonathan Tweet
    member, University Unitarian Church, Seattle
    You can find me on Facebook or Twitter

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    1. Way too late for me. I’m a former board member of a UU Church in Michigan. I quit in April 2019 when I saw the writing on the wall: If you didn’t agree with the party line you were a heretic. No other views but those sanctioned by the minister, a card-carrying member of the “wokest” of the woke, were allowed. I still miss my friends in the church community but I’m not interested in following any kind of dogma– from Evangelical Christian to UUA wokeness.

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    2. “allergic to authority” – whatever happened to “question authority” as UU bywords? Seems to me that anybody who uses the phrase “allergic to authority” should be barred from any ministry or position of authority in UUdom – possibly excommunicated

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    3. “allergic to authority”?
      As a friend of mine, who was the first woman president of Duke University said:

      Mind your Niche
      and Mine your Niche

      Our niche does not include those seeking authority outside themselves. Community perhaps, Authority no. So, it seems like those in any UU church who blame us for resisting authority and at the best, bucking the tide, and more likely are either uncaring or unthinking as well.

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  13. I am now a friend of my local fellowship after being very active in various activities from choir to social justice taking leadership positions frequently and always as a member since 1964. I just read our New England Region newsletter and tried to copy a small portion of an article about covenant but failed. I may be rationalizing but there seems to me to be some movement in understanding problems with disagreement within UU communities and being in and out of covenant. It is accessible on line.

    I still follow what I can in the midst of this chaotic time and my age-related health issues and hope for the best for all of us.

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