The following post will perhaps be of little interest to those not involved with Unitarian Universalism (UU). However I believe this issue has relevance in our broader society including the universities, government, NGOs and businesses . So please – read on!
The post documents the recent fall of Canada’s most liberal church into one now dominated by critical theory ideology. Critical ideology has been gaining adherents in both social and commercial life since it emerged from the Universities in the last two decades. However, I hope the story will perhaps be of value to other denominations and organizations confronting the challenges of this ideology.
Unitarians have always been leftist leaning progressives, with liberal values built right into their Seven Principles. The first and arguably the most important Principle is “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Thus, it was a complete surprise to me, to see that Unitarians are being asked to understand and to describe themselves as a racist organization, because the vast majority of Unitarians are ‘white’ and thus have, and continue to enjoy ‘white privilege’.
We are challenged by Critical Theory to be “woke” to the inherent racial and gender issues that demand our immediate attention. As I read and learn, I have come to believe that this agenda challenges, in a variety of ways, the liberal values of free speech, compassion, and independent thought, and thus should only be undertaken with caution and a great deal of open and honest discussion.
In this post I discuss and provide links to some of the articles and books that have been influential to me in this important discussion – not just to Unitarians, but to all.
Like zillions of Amazon purchasers, I read DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism.” Published by Beacon Hill Press. The book sparked a rigorous response- which was likely welcomed as consistent with Critical Cultural Theory – to challenge and disrupt.
However, the spark for me was lit by Rev. Todd Eklof when he wrote, printed and distributed a book the The Gadfly Papers: Three Inconvenient Essays by One Pesky Minister or free PDF download here at the Annual 2017 UU General Assembly – to which his church was host. The book has three essays. The first takes ideas from The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Eklof applies these coddling ideas to such things as being afraid of honest debate for fear of causing harm to the other and of believing that every feeling that passes through your being must be acted upon. In the second essay “I want a divorce” he argues that the 1962 merger of the Unitarians and Universalists hasn’t been good for either. In the final essay he recounts a version of the events and controversy over staff hiring that led to the resignation of the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
I liked many of the ideas in the first chapter and went on to read the coddling book. I personally wasn’t convinced by Eklof’s argument that the UUA ought to divorce, but I certainly don’t think writing about the possibility is a major sin. The final chapter, a blow by blow description of a really sad hiring episode in the American Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) always has at least two understandings of what occurred. So – an interesting book, but one that contains ideas with which some people will not or cannot engage.
The astounding part of the story for me comes from the reaction of the UU Ministers Association and the UUA. Within days an open letter shaming Rev. Eklof was signed by over 500 UU ministers – must of whom likely had no time to even read the book. Eklof was subsequently ejected from the Ministers’ Association and efforts were made to undermine his support in his own congregation. A shameful public ‘outing’ of a respected person merely for writing a book.
To provide a flavour of the reaction to Eklof’s writing see the
Eugene Or. UU Board ‘s statement
- “Among our objections to The Gadfly Papers are what we believe to be misrepresentation of easily verifiable facts about recent events in the UU community, claims that historically oppressed minorities are putting their own interests above everyone else’s, assuming the worst intentions in others while insisting that the historically privileged be judged only by their good intentions, and dishonest appeals to logic and reason meant to discredit the emotions and experiences of marginalized populations while absolving the historically privileged of any responsibility for self-examination. By doing this, The Gadfly Papers violates the first and second principles of Unitarian Universalism. These essays deny the inherent worth and dignity of every person by dismissing and demonizing the voices of marginalized people, and argues against seeking justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
As I read the book for myself, I reached none of the conclusions noted above. I also note that very few of Eklof’s critics, provide direct quotes that are harmful or are willing to engage with the issues he raises.
The events associated with this extraordinary and unprecedented shunning are chronicled by Eklof himself in his second book The Gadfly Affair: A 21st Century Heretic’s Excommunication from America’s Most Liberal Religion, and in the persecution of Rev. Rick Davis who was assigned as Eklof’s advocate and “Good Officer”
Finally the affair is documented in a book by Anne Schnieder’s The Self-Confessed “White Supremacy Culture”: The Emergence of an Illiberal Left in Unitarian Universalism. Schnieder’s book is described by Amazon as:
- “The purpose of this book is to introduce readers to the new “White Supremacy Culture” (WSC) anti-racist movement of the left and several closely related concepts: White privilege, implicit bias, micro-aggressions, and white fragility. The analysis examines the potential impact of these ideas on anti-racist social justice work and the unintended negative effects on fundamental U.S. values such as free speech, freedom of conscience, individualism, objectivity, logic, reason, efficiency, and others. This is a critique from the left of the extremist form that the White Supremacy Culture strategy of anti-racist work has taken, especially within Unitarian Universalism. “
For those not wishing to read the whole book, a shorter, open access essay covering much of the same ground is available here. Schneider writes that this is a book she didn’t wish to write, but the alarming adoption of Critical Race Theory by Unitarian ministers, seminaries and organizations demanded her response.
This of course made me need to understand Critical Race Theory. The following quote from Critical Race Theory (Third Edition) by Richard Delgado & Jean Stefancic illustrates the breadth of CRT and the challenge it presents to “traditional civil rights”.
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.
Although I’ve since read many books. articles and blogs on critical theory – some by right-wing pugilists, the most interesting book was Cynical Theories by by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay
This is a scholarly book that chronicles the development of critical theories from their birth as post modern critique and deconstruction of dominant ideas and practices. The conversations were mostly confined to Universities until they spilled out of the academy and now are propelling reflection, writing and social action, a whole panorama and a multi billion dollar race relations and inclusion training industry. The book covers similarities and differences amongst the family of critical theories including gender, feminist, gay, trans, queer, disability and fat theory. The final chapter details how liberalism – without identity politics – is a far superior way to meet the challenges of 21st Century living. Critical theories and their enactment leads to and is dependent upon controversy, challenge and disruption.
Pluckrose has gone on the develop a support site for those being challenged or shunned for beliefs not aligned with CRT dogma. Her Counterweight site has some excellent videos and I especially liked the video explaining the difference between liberal and critical social justice.
Canadian UUs 8th Principle
The validity and rationale for the rushed and spontaneous adoption by the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) at its 2021 AGM, of a new 8th Principle and for a move to CRT, was grounded in a survey conducted and a final report by a Dismantling Racism Study Group of the CUC. The survey found that Canadian Unitarian churches harbour persistent racism and white supremacy. The survey methodology and its biased question wording was severely criticized by a professional statistician from Vancouver. However, there was no response to these concerns from the Study Group.
I now understand Critical Race Theory research does not necessarily depend upon or even search for an objective ‘truth’. Rather, if the research furthers the aim of the ‘cause’ then it can be righteously manipulated and used as a tool – in this case to ”dismantle racism”.
The delegates to that meeting passed an extraordinary motion to immediately adopt an 8th Principle. This rushed process was later deemed to be in violation of the CUC’s own bylaws and I believe also violated the 5th Principle of supporting demographic processes.
The proposed 8th Principle states “We, the member congregations of the Canadian Unitarian Council, covenant to affirm and promote: “Individual and communal action that accountably dismantles racism and other oppressions in ourselves and in our institutions.” The CUC then set a process for educational courses and special meeting to discuss and vote on the proposed principle in Nov. 2021.
The CUC then hosted a series of Zoom forums to discuss the proposed 8th Principle and possibly to recommend changes to the wording. Very unfortunately, these “Forums” ,were structured lessons in Critical Race Theory at which all were required to “do the work” including a good dose of atonement. Again, no space was given to allow divergence of thought, no place for different opinions or conclusions and essentially no debate was permitted on the wording of the proposed Principle. The Woke have a profound distrust of engaging in potentially divisive conversation- no matter what its validity. This rejection of dialogue is common in many illiberal and authoritarian groups but very novel to Unitarians.
Prior to the vote, the CUC called out the “big guns” of the Canadian UU Ministers – all of whom spoke (by video) for the need to pass this 8th Principle- without amendment. These ‘professionals’ supported, by paid CUC staff members, conducted an all out campaign to insure the Principle passed. Moreover, no one addressed issues of the meaning of accountability, definition of racism, or even what dismantling really means. The one change in wording that was accepted dropped the words about changing “other oppressions” to more clearly focus on dismantling racism and systemic barriers to full inclusion”.
Let me be clear I do not support racism – either systematic or overt and welcome effective efforts to eliminate it in all of its forms. However, I don’t support this principle for a number of reasons.
- First, it isn’t a principle, but rather a call to action. I can think of other actions, notably climate change, that demand response from all of us, as required by our commitment to the 7 existing principles. The CUC’s 2008 Statement of Principles Task Force recommended that the CUC “lead a process to include a “Call to Action” in the envelope text.” I think that if Principle was an action statement on racism and climate change would be useful.
- Second, the language of the principle fails to meet the standard of a “simple and incontestable principle” called for In 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man. Some have argued that “it’s only words, let’s get on with work” however that is all a Principle is – words – and thus they must be chosen with care and wisdom. I find three words to be highly contestable and lacking of clear definition. The first is “dismantle” which does have some common understanding, but eliminate, end, or other words would be more easily understood. When an oil tanker is demolished, you still have lots of waste to deal with. How will you know when racism has been ‘dismantled’? The second word is ‘racist’, which used to have a fairly common meaning. But we have come to understand that it is a socially created concept and some are now arguing that black people can’t be racists and then all white people are racists because they have grown up in racist society or exist with a white supremicist Church – we see that the word is highly contested. Finally, and most bothersome is the key word ”accountable”. “Accountable” cries out for definition. Accountable to whom or to what? Holding others accountable for anything raises the spectre of thought police, speech police, outing, silencing, shaming and division. Unitarians do not all think, talk or act the same and this diversity should be nurtured – not extinguished. We are charged to engage in A free and responsible search for truth and meaning, not to be held accountable for thinking or acting differently than others. Holding each other accountable to others ideas or actions is also in direct contradiction to the the intent of the principle covered by the First “inherent worth and dignity” Principle and the Second “justice, equity and compassion in human relations.”
- Finally, adding additional principles only lessens their total impact. I do not oppose, on principle, addition of new Principles. However, any new Principle must be clearly written, easily understandable, aspirational and inspiring, and finally it must be shown to not to confuse or lead to widely disparate understandings. Highlighting only racism also leaves a lingering question of where is wealth inequality and climate change? What of those UUs whose passion and energy for social justice are focused on other challenging issues? How accountable can these people be and to whom?
I’ve since read a number of books on racism that I find much more reasonable. The first was Caste: the origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. This book notes that much of what we describe as racism is a form of caste oppression. A second and perhaps more relevant book is by Irshad Manji Don’t Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times This book uses a pretty corny literary technique of a conversation with her blind dog, but contains a great deal of sound advice for dealing with other people. As the title suggests – she comes down hard on boxing and labelling people based on criteria that you invent or choose to focus on.
The latest move for “accountability” by the CUC includes publication on their web site of a Responsibility Covenant
This looks to me like an escalation of the “group accountability” theme that will require a host of thought and speech police to enforce and will drive liberals and Freethinkers away from Unitarianism in droves. Fortunately, there is no discussion (yet) on the use for or adoption process of this ‘covenant’.
This escalating debate has been referred to as “the Gadfly Movement” by critics. You can see a particularly alarming and one-sided critique of the “Gadfly Movement” by Rev. Sharah Skochko. She claims that the Gadfly movement is an alt-right movement, supported by white middle class men, who are determined to end the long UU tradition of working for social justice. I’ve been called many things, but this a first to be slandered as “alt-right”. Rev Skochko solution is to “Kick them Out“. She does note that Unitarians are quite rightly very reluctant to kick anyone out, but she sees no other solution.
I fear that most Canadians Unitarians won’t bother fighting this critical theory driven agenda and will just walk away. A much more reasonable approach to the controversy and to the vote on the 8th Principle would be to hold an honest and open debate. The Unitarian Universalist Multi-National Association recently held a debate on the 8th Principle, and I urge all Canadian Unitarians to watch the debate.
Our Westwood Congregation had two zoom meetings in order to discuss the proposed 8th Principle and to instruct our two delegates on how to vote at the upcoming CUC Special meeting. I and a number of others spoke as elegantly as we could on the problems with the proposed Principle. However, there was little exchange, questioning or negotiation – both sides seemed stuck in either opposing or supporting (with elegant language) the proposed Principle In the end, our Westwood Congregation and later, the CUC voted to adopt the 8th Principle.
An ex-president of our congregation concluded that the CUC made a fundamental mistake of believing that all Unitarians can be forced to believe in a single ideology (of either left or right) and that the discussion, debate, and consensus can be discarded if the cause is of sufficient importance.
I am not quite prepared to believe all of the Woke similarities to a new religion as argued by John McWorter’s “Woke Racism: How a New Religion has Betrayed Black America or Tripp Parker’s The New Religion Of The Woke Left Is A Faith Without Atonement. However, the ‘Elect” certainly has a large number of active adherents within the Canadian UU leadership.
At this point, I feel that I can no longer support or be a member of an organization that supports and reflects Critical Race Theory in its programming. At its roots, I believe that Critical Race Theory is a racist ideology that is, (by design) extremely divisive. I also realized that I no longer felt much community with many of the members of our congregation.
Thus, I resigned my membership and with it my responsibilities for the Westwood website and as Building coordinator. However, I couldn’t walk away from my ‘beloved’ 🙂 Westwood Unitarian’s FreeThinker’s Book Club.
Thus, the end of my almost 50 years as a Unitarian. I look forward to a day when all of society works towards and acts with justice and compassion to all its members, but I see a near future of continuing and escalating confrontation. All of this reading has left me worried not only for Unitarians, but for all liberals who value diversity, free thought and tolerance. We should and can work on large challenges including racism, income and wealth disparity and climate change – but using critical theory as a basis for our thinking and actions will only lead to diversion and stall any real progress.
Thank you Terry. As always, your words and thoughts are rich with meaning and provide a reasoned level of clarity on a challenging topic. I hear a sadness in your chosen direction, but understand.
I shut my social media sites down as I got tired of the mean and hateful discourse. I was being drowned out at every opportunity and there appears little room for thoughtful discourse on almost any topic. Our democratic processes are in peril.
You mention a number of sources on this topic and speak of the ideological challenges faced by many organizations. It is these organizations that form the framework of our societies. The social contracts our forefathers gave us are in danger of being torn down and rewritten with a rather myopic perception of the impact.
There are many interesting writings on the demise of democracy – The Atlantic’s “Mussolini Speaks, and Tells Us How Democracy Dies” is just one of these.