Reviewing “The Gadfly Papers”: part 2

I don’t want to make this controversy my full-time job, so this post and done (if I can help it.) Here are my earlier articles the subject: introduction and part one.

My first instinct was correct; this is a work of controversy and while there are parts I do agree with, its style and form wouldn’t have convinced me.  That and it’s so blisteringly Unitarian, which is a pet complaint. The biggest plus is directing me to the work of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, whom I’ll add to my reading list.

I’m imagining where the harm claims are coming from. I see forms of argument that could remind people of other arguments that were abusive. Some terms Eklof uses, such as political correctness  and safetyism, are used by other authors to dismiss or belittle critics, and the fact they show up in the title of the first essay (“The Coddling of the Unitarian Universalist Mind: How the Emerging Culture of Safetyism, Identitarianism, and Political Correctness is Reshaping America’s Most Liberal Religion”) surely put examiners into high alert. I also see discussions of controversy — in particular, the district executive hiring crisis of 2017 ― that could be embarrassing to those who had thought the narrative was conclusively set. The tension around the publication itself (General Assembly is a strange time) could inflame old trauma. I still don’t see the viciousness (“vitriolic rhetoric” introduction to reposted white ministers letter;”aligned with alt-right ideology” Allies for Racial Equity letter; “dissemination of racism, ableism, and the affirmation of other forms of oppression, including classism and homo- and transphobia” UUMA POCI chapter letter; “toxic history and theologies” DRUUMM letter) its denouncers claim.  And fiat isn’t good enough; you have to show your work, if not to me, then to the laity commenting online, who seem to be at a different place.

Some writers, mainly on Facebook, speak of portions floating around, or selections that confirm their decision to condemn. I think this is a mistake, not only because that’s the oldest rhetorical trick in the book, but because Eklof has a theme that’s woven through his book that gets lost with excerpting: an ecclesiology of the free church based on universal human experience. That’s important because he doesn’t condemn those who would condemn him, but tries to re-direct the discussion to what we might have together.  It’s a basis for unity because we need one, and this necessity is what the rest of the book relies on. (His ecclesiology leave me cold, but that’s besides the point.)

The less said about the second essay the better. The “divorce” in the title is a call to redivide the Unitarians and Universalists so they could be their true selves. I’m not sure if that’s Swiftian fancy, or simply romantic misreading. But his examples ignored the economic reasons, not to mention the social realities, that lead to consolidation.  I think you can make a good case for breaking up or restructuring the UUA. For one, it’s too small to be efficient but too big to be nimble. Also, without another similar peer organization, when people leave, they’re gone. UUA1 and UUA2 could specialize, develop their own styles and volley ministers and churches back and forth, and I bet it would be bigger in aggregate than the UUA today. A little competition is good, too. But that’s not what Eklof suggests.

Yet I think both Eklof and his accusers suffer that common affliction of wanting to be right more than being successful. It might surprise non-readers that he has ideas for dismantling racism, and to continue to work on not being racist, and talks about his bona-fides at in the epilogue.  You might think them hogwash (or wonderful) but they’re there. That is, if you can make it through his argumentation, especially the extended section on logic. God help me, but he might have been a graduate of the Vulcan School for Exquisite Logic and that still would have been the wrong approach. An appeal to rhetoric (a personal favorite) wouldn’t have been any better. Where he’s sermonic, he’s stronger. So third and largest essay was a convoluted slog, and if I had been anxious or angry or good ol’ loaded-for-bear going into the book, it would have amplified my feelings greatly.

I finally finished the book, but half-way through started taking notes in earnest, and so details from the front third aren’t as fresh in mind. Plus my blasted Kindle copy resists cutting-and-pasting. But I have to put this down. I’ll keep the comments open for a while; so far everyone has been civil, which makes me happy.

If you are interested in reading the book to understand Eklof’s points, read the epilogue first, the beginning and end of the third essay and then the first. You can skim the second essay for the ecclesiological themes.

Reviewing “The Gadfly Papers”: part 1

I am a slow reader with a day job. So I am less than a third of the way done reading The Gadfly Papers, but do have some general observations both of the book and the three letters denouncing it.

First, I never intended to read it. My very first instinct was “not again.” Itchy political analysis of the UUA was common fifteen to twenty years ago, created “more heat than light” and inspired me to be more strategic and analytic whenever I met something in the UUA that seemed like a bad idea. I spiked a lot of my own stories. The table of contents reminded me of the old days. It was the denouncing letters that prompted me to buy and read the book.

Why? The letters were sure of their reasons, were very confident but gave no examples. (The UUMA POCI letter cited an Christina Rivera as an injured party, but not what in the book caused the injury.)  And the lists grew so fast, that I thought “surely they didn’t read it yet,” which raised a red flag. So whatever the motives of the signatories — which I trust as a matter of principle was based on conscience, duty or both — the letters read to me as a pile-on. For example, does being “intentionally provocative” (white ministers letter) merit hundreds of signatures against a single colleague?

I took it both as a matter of conscience and duty to not be swayed by numbers and see for myself. And for this I was criticized and chided for buying the book. By ministers. It is currently the #1 and #2 books (Kindle and paperback respectively) about Unitarian Universalism on Amazon, despite an attempt to displace it by strategic purchasing of another book. Clearly, others want to read it, too.

You can quietly ask someone to stop writing. You can make a reasoned, convincing argument why someone is wrong. You cannot make forceful, public demands, and then expect people to not start Google-ing.

As for the book, so far it’s not great literature. It could use a copy editor and is a bit self-conscious of its place in history and the weight of criticism that did, in fact, come. Even the “white ministers letter” calls it a treatise, and I think that’s the right genre. The interpretation of Unitarian history, in my opinion, is not good. But it is exactly the kind of folk-history, transmitted through sermons and pamphlets, that built the long dominant idea that Unitarianism is the “faith of the free.”

I will provide examples of some recent embarrassing Unitarian Universalist episodes  later, but again I’m a slow reader trying to read for comprehension and the meaning of the controversy. So far, I do not see in Eklof’s book a narrative equal to the outrage.

“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.


One thing I didn’t get into today was Zamenhof’s ideas about an neutral auxiliary religion, which he first called Hilelismo (after the Jewish sage, Hillel) and later called Homaranismo: a philosophy of humanity. I mentioned this to a minister friend this afternoon and regretted that there’s so little about it in English. Now that my Esperanto reading is getting better, I can at least survey what’s available.

Easier to find images for reuse

The BoingBoing-noted launch of a Google image search feature makes finding images sorted by Create Commons license much easier.

Take, for example this search for images labled unitarian or universalist that are available for reuse and modification, but not in commercial applications.

Useful, too: found this nineteenth-century picture of old First Universalist, Minneapolis, which looks like the spitting image of (still) First Universalist, Providence. Who knew? Makes me wonder if there was a relationship or influence, like through its ministers or through Tufts. (One of Tufts’s presidents of the period was a former minister at Providence.)

On Sinkford and Ahmadinejad

When I saw the news at that Unitarian Universalist Association president Bill Sinkford had met, in a delegation, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, I groaned. I did not, however, write about it because

  1. Jonathan and I were up to our eyeballs in boxes, and
  2. I try not to get worked up about lame-duck presidents.

But it’s clear there’s a lot of warm and righteous anger about this meeting. And I share it.

The one thing I haven’t seen is a comparison of this meeting with the dust-up at the first presidential debate of whether the United States president should or should not meet with leadership like Ahmadinejad “without preconditions.”

For the record, I think that American diplomats and presidents should be able to meet with anyone without preconditions. You don’t conduct hard and vital diplomacy only with your best friends, and I’m not willing to tie anyone’s hands if there can be a peaceful and successful diplomatic solution that prevents an economic or military action. And Senator McCain would have my backing thus should he end up president.

But I can imagine the fear behind the “meetings without preconditions” rhetoric. Wouldn’t we just be Iran or North Korea or whomever’s patsy? Wouldn’t the full faith and credit of the American people and republic be flushed down the crapper to satisfy some impossible tyrant?

Well, no, but that level of trust doesn’t devolve to private citizens. There’s a difference between a diplomat and a dilettante.

For Sinkford, there came the opportunity to something relevant, that most intoxicating of mod-churchly ideals.

For Ahmadinejad, he gets Americans who seem to support him. Sinkford’s unflattering (and unnecessary) comparison of Ahmadinejad with President Bush — for whom I hold no love or esteem — only reinforced the point. Propaganda gold that’s as useful as the delegation’s message is forgetful.

For Unitarian Universalists? Well, I can imagine the finger-shaking we’ll get from Bahais and — as others have mentioned — Jews in days to come.

In a word, while diplomats play hardball, Sinkford — and by extension, us — just got played.

The bull and the jackass

Because of its coverage on BBC World, I’ve followed the unhappy story of Shambo the temple bull at Skanda Vale in Wales. The bull had — as it has since been demonstrated — bovine tuberculosis and was taken from the temple under orders of the public authorities (but amid protest) and was slaughtered yesterday.  This much is known and a matter of public record. I would have done differently, but I’m sure that’s my American sense of deference to religious practice and faith in (veternary) medicine speaking. And a soft spot for cattle and the pious Welsh (whether Christian, Hindu or otherwise.) That’s not the point.

Enter the National Secular Society (UK) from which we get this:

Shambo the supposedly “sacred” bull has been disposed of at last. The face-off between the intransigent Hindus in Wales (who seemed hell-bent on creating a confrontation) was one of the more pathetic examples of recent attempts by religions to exempt themselves from the law.

The message of equality before the law tightly wrapped in smug and nasty rhetoric and there’s more at their site if you want to induge. Of course, Christians very often get tied up in this kind of haughtiness and I won’t excuse that either. Other groups do to. But why? The origin’s the same the world around: an assertion that I have more power than you. Which I doubt the UK secularists or even the fringier kind of Christian do. One can bray and bray yet have no kick.

Words matter. Sensibilities matter. And if the British secularists think this is a suitable tactic to convince and attract people then God help them.

With this post, I open the category Religious pluralism.