“The Gadfly Papers”

The controversy around the Rev. Todd Eklof, the minister of the host church for the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly (UUA GA; ), is one I never thought I would see.

It hinges on his book The Gadfly Papers, which he was distributing for free at the GA. He and his books were removed following a Right Relations process. I’m still waiting for a formal report-out from the General Assembly.

Generally, the claims (I’ve seen no specific examples) are that his ideas and even the titles of his essays are so hurtful as to be intolerable. That’s something I never expected to see among Unitarian Universalists, but here we are. One such denunciation is from DRUUMM (Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries) and another is from an ad-hoc group of white ministers, which I have seen but do not have a public link. (I’ll add it if and when it becomes available.) I have also seen individual statements from ministers on Facebook.

These claims map to the claims of harm attributed to the UUMA proposal response I co-wrote and signed. I am, so I hear, “being watched.” Again, is this Unitarian Universalism?

So I’m doing the most UU thing — or at least the most sensible — I can think of: read the book. You can order a copy here. I don’t promise to like it and will give my unvarnished review when I’m done, or perhaps after finishing each of the three essays depending on how it reads. I will look for what might be causing grief among its denouncers.

Update: I have found another denunciation, from the People of Color and Indigenous UUMA Chapter. It cites references to Christina Rivera in particular, and calls on the UUMA to enforce its guidelines, presumably disciplinary action against Todd Eklof.

Update: Some links to the third letter and outside commentary, plus two versions of the Right Relations interchange (one by Todd Eklof) in the comments.

41 Replies to ““The Gadfly Papers””

  1. There something good to be written about this. I spent three dollars and an hour of my time deciding this isn’t it. Thanks to the anti-PC framing, there’s far too much that’s not relevant for the parts that are useful to stand out.

  2. The reaction to his book seems to justify his criticism of UUs. Seriously, it’s so hurtful to discuss criticism they disagree with that they’ve got to ban it? And they want intelligent adults to take them seriously? This is the death of liberal religion, which used to be about free inquiry.

  3. Go for it, it’s not that that long though it’s a pretty painful read if you actually understand either formal logic or employment discrimination and doubly unpleasant if you understand both, which I mostly do having been trained in both.

    The reading experience is kinda like listening to an anti-vaxxer mom lecturing group at a party. Like “ugh, I should say something in case someone here is buying this but this is wrong in so many different places, how do I start?”

    I sympathize with the desire to say “what this guy is saying doesn’t reflect my values” but the more interesting point is his badly the book reflects his as he states them.

    I’m kinda tempted to write a post explaining all of this in nerdy detail but giving this neither heat nor light seems like ultimately the best approach, as it was with UUism’s last self-declared Gadfly from Canada.

  4. I don’t see the parallel with Robin Edgar. I downloaded and read it last night, and I think explaining one’s objections in nerdy detail is exactly what needs to be done, rather than attempting to dismiss or ignore his points. That has been the essence of liberal religion – and as Karen says, a refusal to engage justifies his criticism (just as invoking white fragility to shut down discussion does.) And I think he has underestimated the impact that the last two years have had on lay people in congregations.

  5. I would like to clear up some misconceptions about what happened at GA.
    1. His book was not removed by any member of the UUA staff, the board, or the GA Planning Committee. The books were all given away to folks attending.
    There was a misunderstanding about what happened to a box of books that did end up being held. That box was returned to the table.
    2. He was in violation of the disruptive person’s section of the covenant we all sign to be part of the GA event. That violation included refusing to go through a right relations or be in dialogue with folks who were attacked by what is said in the book.
    3. Effort was made to bring him back into right relationship and conenat with the General Assembly.

    I would urge folks to ask questions and gather information for all sources before sharing.

  6. In the spirit of fairness, I will let the Rev. Todd Eklof reply if he so wishes.

  7. Dear all. On Friday evening of the GA five members of Right Relations asked to meet with me about my book. We found a quiet spot to sit, along with two of my church members to bear witness. It was a difficult conversation given some obvious anger from some present, though all admitted they had not yet had time to read my book, though one person was about halfway through. Though we slipped sometimes and let our hostilities show, all behaved as we’d expect mature UUs to do, by admitting our errors and offering apologies. A couple hours later I received a call at home asking me to be in a 7:00 AM to discuss “the disruption your book is causing” with a Co-moderator, a UUA Board Member, and another Right Relations member. Having just had an difficult meeting and realizing I would not be able to find support to attend with me, I declined the invitation and was then asked not to return to GA. I honored this request. I did notice another email that came at 7:33 AM Sunday morning inviting me back if I would meet in order to enter back into right relationship. By then I had been advised not to attend any additional meetings without first establishing a Good Offices relationship, plus I am troubled by the insinuation that I am the one out of right relations. I consider a culture that shuts people down to be in violation of our covenant. Nevertheless, the person who called me and sent the email was very kind and respectful in their tone. Despite rumors, I was not escorted out of the convention center. As for the books being taken from our booth, and the verbal assaults against some of my church members, I’ve been told this was done by a specific group in the Exhibit Hall and was not condoned by UUA officials who saw to it the books were returned. I hope my book will eventually be read by all its critics and a genuine and open dialogue about the concerns and issues it raises will ensue, rather than the secretive complaining some of must engage in because we are afraid to be open about our dissent for fear of being demonized. I also have much respect for those who are angry with me and hope we can someday find time to listen to each other.

  8. I invited a response from Todd Eklof, he wrote one and I have approved it. It appears unedited.

  9. Rev. Scott Wells, thank you for providing a space where people can dialogue about the controversy.

    I look forward to reading more about the controversy here and elsewhere.

    The path towards better justice through the ages? Messy, misunderstood, and controversial. Today is no different.

  10. Scott, thank you for providing Todd the opportunity to respond with his personal insights. I plan to purchase a number of copies of his book so they can be sold at our congregation’s bookstore. I encourage others to do the same.

    Was it ever determined which group removed Todd’s books and spoke so poorly to his congregants?

  11. Lisa, I’d love to hear you expand on this:

    “I think he has underestimated the impact that the last two years have had on lay people in congregations.”

  12. I am witnessing many comments that seem to condemn the actions of the UUA, letters, what happened at GA before getting all available information. I hope we all take the time to gather and evaluate all available information.

  13. I am manually approving new commenters. Also, three comments were caught in the spam filter.

    I generally approve comments, but reserve the not to, or remove cruel or defaming remarks. I have approved all comments to date.

  14. John, I would love to but I am lay leader this week and trying to write a sermon. It is “Reason as a Spiritual Practice. 😉 If anyone can suggest a hymn in extolling reason, or a pop/rock/folk/any song, I’d be obliged.

    I’ll just say that a discussion of Centering, specifically the issues of authority raised by its discussion guide, caused an ugly incident in our tiny congregation and the effects continue. Meanwhile, this went up over on Reddit today, and it talks about the effect in one congregation, among other points.


  15. Thanks. Die Gedanken Sind Frei sprang to mind, and we use it from time to time, but it is more about free thought than the importance of reason. I think nobody has ever written a hymn to reason. My husband suggests it is because humanists don’t believe in hymns. I think it is because we don’t hold up reason as we do love, but to put love into action, we need reason to determine right action. Which, when it comes down to it, I think is part of our current dilemma with anti-racism – we (or some of us) have lost the necessary balance between thought and emotion.

  16. The first thing that leaped to mind was Love → Building On Fire.

    But less “tweet, tweet, tweet like little birds” and more Facebook (which is on fire).

  17. Thanks for helping get the facts straight on how the book ban happened. I would add one note: I was standing at the Spokane booth early Saturday when a person came by and told them to take the books off the table and put them out of sight. She seemed to be speaking with UUA authority and was saying the book slandered a uu member (Christina Rivera), was filled with hate speech, was causing a disruption, and was harming people therefore should be banned. I had already read the book and said I did not see any of that in it. One of the Spokane volunteers did remove the books from the table but said she would give one if someone asked for one. IMHO this incident—book banning—is a frightening incident … I worry about where uu values are. Thanks for listening

  18. I used to play that when I worked for a government accountability and transparency organization!

  19. Thank you for the added detail. I wonder who the “person with authority” was.

  20. Thank you.

    [I divided this post to remove the appearance that I’m asking the commenter to reach out.]

  21. [The rest of the comment]

    I’m afraid I only know [Wendy von Courter] by reputation, and not well enough to ask if she has a comment to make. (Does anyone here?)

    Or perhaps she mentions this herself in a public place? I’d be happy to link to her side of the story.

  22. I found an email address for the Rev. Wendy von Courter, and I have just asked her to confirm or deny the claim, and to make a comment here or in a public place of her choosing (I’ll link) should she wish to.

  23. Scott, thanks for asking. I was surprised to read this characterization of my engagement with the good folks of Spokane. I did not speak as a UUA authority nor did I suggest, let alone demand, the book be banned. Having written immediately to Todd to ask if we might speak about his launch and having no reply (still true), I stopped by the booth to speak with him. As he was not there, I offered my sympathy for what might be unexpected pain to the volunteers as his surprise launch was indeed causing harm in the gathered community. I suggested that now that they knew about the pain, I hoped they would choose not to participate in creating further harm during GA. Having read this comment I checked in with a couple of people who were at the booth when I spoke and they affirm my recollection. I’ve seen the word “banned” used several times regarding this incident in reference to Todd and to the book. From what I know, neither are accurate. Back to vacation now. I hope you enjoy your summer.

  24. My apologies if I misrepresented your interaction with the folks at the table. Someone had just told them to take the books off the table and I thought it was you. I understand it could have been to keep the volunteers from further harassment. I am quite sure he believed he and the book were banned .., not by you … but by skmronevwhen he refused to go to the 7:30 am meeting Saturday morning. That was overturned by early Sunday morning. I hope you enjoy your vacation.

  25. There might be something less than banning and less than UUA official authority in play, but more than a misunderstanding.

    But, you were there and I wasn’t.

  26. Early Saturday morning, Rev. Eklof (who has spoken for himself, of course) told me he and his book had been banned from GA… not to come back into the conference area. So, we met off-site instead of at their booth. I was at the booth 9 am Saturday morning when the volunteer was taking the books off the table and putting them underneath because someone had told them to. This is when the UU Minister described the book as racist, hate speech, slandering Christina Rivera, harming people. Someone later took a box of books from the booth Someone told them to return them. Someone took them again. Someone told them to return them. Rev. Eklof was told early Sun. morning that he could come back to GA. I think these are facts. I would call this “banning the book” and “banning the minister”…. it appears that various people in the UUA hierarchy were not all on the same page, but the victimized party — Rev. Eklof — was banned and someone tried to keep his books from being disributed… that’s “banning” the book. Someone did this!! Sure haven’t heard anything from UUA and it has been a week. So, I think it is a “ban”… maybe not really authorized y the UUA board , but the person banned sure thought he and his book had been banned. More than a misunderstanding, for sure!!!

  27. Thank you for the additional information and context.

    Sometimes it’s like I think people haven’t heard of Streisand effect.

  28. My question is how do we get fuller statements from involved parties. I still feel like we are dealing with too much hearsay.

  29. Here are a couple of the core principles and ethical values which caused me to become a Unitarian more than 50 years ago:
    “Unitarian Universalism’s approach to belief is that spiritual and ethical values should fit individuals, rather than fitting everyone into the same religious mold. We have no single religious text or creed to which you must agree.”
    Unitarian Universalist Principles
    There are seven principles which Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote:
    • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
    • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
    • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
    • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
    • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
    • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
    • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
    At GA Todd was accused of “The dissemination of racism, ableism and the affirmation of other forms of oppression, including classism and homo-and transphobia” by the UUMA POCI.
    DRUUMM stated: The Gadfly Papers by Todd F. Eklof being shared at General Assembly reintroduces toxic history and theologies containing transphobia, ableism, sexism and targets people of color, and in particular religious educators. This breach of covenant highlights the need of the UUMA’s ongoing work to address accountability in ministerial misconduct. As we grapple with the findings of the Commission on Institutional Change this week, we ask what will Unitarian Universalism do with the truth that things are worse than we realize?
    We are called to go deeper and to stay in community. The great prophetic vision of our shared faith is one in which we know Heaven on earth and the reality of interconnectedness is fully realized. We do this work because our fate, and faith, are connected. While our community creates space to address the harm caused by this book and center its own people. We, people of color, Queer and Trans* people of color, DRUUMM leaders, need for white Unitarian Universalists to do the work you are being called to do to dismantle white supremacy in our communities and to hold accountable the ministers who weaponize white supremacy in this faith.

    The white UU Ministers letter indicated that “Rev. Todd Eklof distributed a self-published treatise that included vitriolic rhetoric about several marginalized groups within UU.”
    As a member of UUCS I know these charges are not fair or true. This is what makes me sad and mad.
    Most of the ministers or lay persons who signed the letter from white UU Ministers had not read the book at that time.
    As those in his congregation know, Todd has done more in this NW region to support gay, transgender rights, and black causes than any other local minister I am aware of.
    The ministers quick to convict reaction, most of which had not read the book, is unfair and does not represent the UU principles listed above.
    Todd’s book depicts exactly the current push for conformity in the current UU hierarchy relative to what a proper UU must believe and what words to use nowdays. DRUUMM’s, MUUSJA’s and the minister’s reaction to criticism prove Rev. Eklof’s point in the book.
    A search for truth and logic are apparently out of fashion also: (From the minister’s statement): “We recognize that a zealous commitment to “logic” and reason” over all other forms of knowing is one of the foundation stones of White Supremacy Culture”. In my mind, a search for truth, honesty and compassion thru the use of “logic” and “reason are the only valid processes for accomplishing those seven principles. Being called a white supremacist for using logic and reason blows my mind!
    Also, what is “other knowledge”? Personally, I think it is a source for Trump’s tweets.
    Todd’s book is the number 1 bestselling UU book on Amazon. (kindle version) Many in the UU faith are taking the time to read it with an open mind. It will be interesting to see how this book may stimulate open, honest and thoughtful dialogues about our faith’s direction and focus in the future.

  30. I approved one of two comments. The second seems to be a duplicate of the first.

  31. Someone asked above how we get more information. I’ve been calling and interviewing people at UUMA and ARE and have been getting a lot of “We disavow…” type messages, but not a lot of detail. Most of what I’m getting confirms Rev. Eklof’s account. I’m not the best writer in the world, but I can put my notes into something that vaguely represents a narrative and share it.

  32. Thank you to Scott Wells and the bloggers for the opportunity to discuss what is happening re anti-racism policies in the UUA and congregations. As one of the more integrated congregations in the UUA (First U, Chicago), we are engaged in our own conversations. Some of our members and friends have been vilified by the current leaders of the UUA. The article by Tandeka from 1999 was especially eye-opening. We read her book long ago and I have given her book to a church library we are developing. Many of us at First U Chicago may have differences with some of those critical of the UUA current programs, but we believe that UU’s should have the right to openly discuss the effectiveness of anti-racism policies. Thoughts of identifying heresies and belittling and banning differing opinions moks the seven principles of UU’s

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