Year in review, pt. 2

In part 1, I reviewed the year in U.S. religion. In this second part, I’ll review they year in Unitarian Universalism.

How non-UUs viewed us

Let’s start with how others perceived us this past year. Unitarian Universalists are a tiny, tiny group, but we made the news with four stories this year. I’ll start with the lesser stories, and save the big one for the end.

1. Religion News Service (RNS) covered the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) back in June, and wrote about two main stories. One story, with the headline “Unitarian Universalism revisits identity, values at 2023 gathering,” talked about the proposed revision to ARticle II of the UUA bylaws. It was the kind of article where you felt the reporter was working pretty hard to make it sound newsworthy. Revising bylaws isn’t going to be of much interest to non-Unitarian Universalists.

2. RNS was much more interested in the fact that the “Unitarian Universalists elect first woman of color, openly queer president,” especially considering the fact that this new president was taking over from the first woman who served as president. They wrote (by my count) four separate articles on this basic story.

Continue reading “Year in review, pt. 2”

Year in review, pt. 1

It’s been an eventful year, both for U.S. organized religion generally, and for Unitarian Universalism in particular. In this post, I’ll start by reviewing some of the key developments in organized religion in the U.S. In a second post, I’ll review some of the explosive developments within Unitarian Universalism.

1. Culture wars and religion

Religion is right at the center of the ongoing escalation of the culture wars in the United States. And the role of religion in the culture wars has gotten more complex than ever. To try to make sense out of it all, I’ll consider some of the culture wars battlegrounds separately.

Continue reading “Year in review, pt. 1”

Police departments vs. labor

Starting with the George Floyd protests in 2020, we began hearing calls to defund police. Police departments, so the thinking went, mostly served White interests, and thus tended to support White supremacy. This argument may have been valid, but it ignored other interests that have controlled police departments in the U.S.

“On May 28, 1937, a strike of seventy-eight thousand steelworkers spanned seven states in the Steel Belt from Homestead to Chicago. The Little Steel Strike of 1937 showed that business would not accommodate unionization even in the face of federal directives. Little Steel companies came prepared. They each bought tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of tear gas, gas grenades, pistols, and rifles to supply to local police and corporate guards to stop a strike. A congressional investigation found that the companies together had purchased $178,000 worth of such armaments. Bethlehem Steel had directly paid the policemen’s salaries. In Chicago, on Memorial Day, came the climax of the strike, when a thousand strikers took American flags and began to walk toward the steel mill. When told to disperse by police, they refused. The police fired on the crowd in what was reported as the Memorial Day massacre, killing seven and wounding ninety. Most of the injured were shot in the back. The strike fell apart soon after….” (Louis Hyman, Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary [Viking, 2018], p. 35)

That’s just one small example of how police have always served the interests of corporate employers over the interests of working people. Police departments are still serving corporate interests over worker interests. I’ve never heard of a police department protecting striking union members from corporate security. I’ve never heard of a police department raiding a company’s premises to stop unsafe and exploitative work practices. You will never, ever hear of a police department shooting and killing CEOs. Police departments get paid to support bosses, not workers. (And please notice that I’m referring to “police departments” and not “police” — many police officers are ethical people working a tough job; but, like other workers, they have to do what their bosses tell them.)

The key point is that police departments serve the existing power structure. If the existing power structure includes systemic racism, then the police departments will support that systemic racism. If the existing power structure wants cheap labor to maximize corporate profits, then the police departments will suppress workers who go on strike.

Which raises an interesting point: It might be that the interests of Black and other non-White people, and the interests of working class people of whatever race, have some significant overlap.

An unusual Christmas carol

Back in 1845, Thomas Commuck published a book of sacred songs titled “Indian Melodies.” Commuck called his book that because he was a member of the Brothertown Indian Nation. In the introduction, referring to himself in the third person, he tells why his published his book: “his object is to make a little money.” To increase sales, he managed to convince Thomas Hastings, then a well-known composer of sacred music, to harmonize Commuck’s melodies. Commuck then named most of the tunes after Indian tribes.

Most of Commuck’s tunes are delightful, and Hastings’s harmonizations tastefully support the melodies without overwhelming them. The tune “Uncas” is simple but very singable, with a fun arrangement by Hastings. And the words are a classic Christmas text, “Shepherds rejoice, lift up your eyes….”

So here, for your Christmas pleasure, is Thomas Commuck’s Uncas. Commuck and Hastings put the melody in the tenor line (as was common in early American sacred song); I’ve switched their soprano and tenor lines, so that the melody is now in the soprano.

Sheet music for Uncas.
Click the image above for a PDF of the sheet music.

More problems with captchas

A reader emailed me saying that he had been prevented from entering a comment by my captcha plugin (Simple Cloudflare Turnstile); he got a message saying he had to verify he was human but was not given a problem to solve. Reading the online forum for this plugin on reveals that others have had this problem, too. Then today I got shut out of logging in by exactly the same problem. That did it. I logged in from another computer, and disabled the Simple Cloudflare Turnstile plugin.

Most captcha plugins for Wordress use Google’s recaptcha service. I refuse to use Google products because of their evil practice of stealing user data. However, there are now WordPress captcha plugins using the hCaptcha service, which has a much better privacy policy: “Our systems are designed from the ground up to minimize data collection and retention while maintaining class-leading security. The best way to protect user data is not to store it at all.”

It’s too bad I had to do this. Simple Cloudflare Turnstile has a lot of potential — keeping bots at bay without making everyone solve a stupid captcha puzzle. But when it blocks me from logging into my own blog — well, that’s something I just can’t accept.

I apologize in advance for making you (and making myself) solve a stupid captcha puzzle.

What exvangelicals do instead of church

Exvangelicals are forming “spiritual collectives” — which have superficial resemblance to Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations, because they’re LGBTQ+ friendly, open to non-Christian sources of wisdom, and don’t have doctrines or dogmas.

There are also big differences. Exvangelical spiritual collectives have a different worship style. Their preachers are more likely to do their preaching (which they may call teaching) wearing a dark polo shirt and khakis — while most UU ministers wear stoles and robes while preaching. Exvangelical spiritual collectives are still evolving rapidly. They describe themselves as “experimental” — while I don’t hear many UU congregations talking about being experimental. Exvangelical worship services remain close to their evangelical roots. Their liturgies and governance still look like low-church evanglicalism— while most UU liturgies and governance practices are much closer to mainline Protestantism. As for age demographics, there are a lot more young adults in photos of these exvangelical groups.

In spite of the obvious differences, I’d love to sit down with people from these spiritual collectives and learn more about them. How are we UUs different from them? How are we the same?

Youth safety

Some people are living in the past. Specifically, some people apparently think it’s still the 1970s.

So I’m volunteering on a task force for a UU nonprofit that is trying to figure out how to offer safe youth programming. As part of the research we’ve been doing on youth safety, I’ve been looking at some sample youth safety policies from other nonprofits, as well as licensing requirements, recommendations from insurers, and other legal issues around non-school youth programming.

I already knew that sexual and emotional abuse of teens has been widespread in pretty much all youth programming. The Catholic church and the Boy Scouts get all the press, but from what I can tell all youth programs had similar issues. The Boy Scouts, the Catholics, along with other nonprofit youth programs, other religious groups, youth sports programs, after school programs, etc. — none has adequately protected youth. This is well-known, and I was expecting it.

What I wasn’t expecting was how bad some of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) youth programs still are.

Back in the 1970s, youth programming throughout society was influenced by a notion that subjecting people to intense situations in a very compressed time-frame would lead to personal growth. So, for example, “est” (Erhard Seminars Training) reportedly required participants to be present for an emotionally intense training from 9 a.m. to midnight with only one meal break. This is the era when ropes courses were popularized, subjecting people to physically demanind and physically frightening experiences to promote personal growth.

Back in 1995, when I started helping to lead UU youth programs, many of these techniques still reigned supreme. Sleep deprivation was seen as a positive force for personal growth, and teens were tacitly encouraged to stay up all night. Emotional intensity was used in many situations — there were “touch groups,” small groups where you were encouraged to bare your soul; there were activities designed to encourage people to reveal intimate personal details; and once you arrived at a “con” (youth conference) on Friday afternoon, you were pretty much stuck in this emotional cauldron for the next 36 hours.

Some teens did benefit from this kind of emotional intensity. Some White, upper-middle class teens who already had good emotional skills found the con experience to be highly beneficial.

On the other hand, over time I became aware that sexual assault and racism thrived in the con setting. I still remember being at the same conference center with a conference of non-White UU youth. Some of them spoke to me of how they experienced con culture as racist. I also heard about sexual assault at cons, ranging from unwanted touching to statutory rape. Most of my knowledge was second hand, but I’ve also heard from some women who experienced sexual assault at UU youth cons when they were teens.

And no wonder. The sleep deprivation and the emotional intensity led to poor impulse control, both on the part of youth and of adults. The organizational chaos resulting from all that emotional intensity mean adequate supervision was impossible. The chaos was amplified because there was no real curriculum, no real programming. So I stopped volunteering at cons and UU summer camps about twenty years ago. It just felt too dangerous.

What blows my mind is that there are still UU groups doing youth programming based on that old 1970s-era personal growth model. I guess these UU groups don’t seem to realize that standards of care have changed a great deal in the past decade — heck, they’ve changed a great deal in the past five years. These days, you have to have constant adult supervision and no chaos.

Equally troubling, we UUs don’t seem to have much else to offer. Too many UU programs for teens still focus on “personal growth.” Or the programming has the goal of “radicalizing” teens, which mostly seems to involve encouraging teens to go to protest rallies. By contrast, we’re not taking teens to speak at city council meetings, or to participate in labor union events, or to observe courtroom proceedings. Pretty much what you’d expect from upper middle class White folk.

Maybe we’re so backward on standards of care for youth programming precisely because we have so little to offer. Why invest in youth safety if you don’t really have a meaningful program?

I’ll end on a hopeful note. I’ve helped create UU programming for teens that’s not based on “personal growth,” that’s safe, and that’s also compelling. Once you let go of personal growth (and sleep deprivation) as the highest goals, lots of possibilities open up. But the first step towards meaningful and safe teen programming is to let go of that old 1970s-era personal growth model.

Happy Tea Party Day

Today is the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. There’s a big re-enactment going on in Boston today, but who wants to fight the crowds who will show up to watch (not me). As a replacement for fighting the crowds, here’s a little history about our town’s connection to the Tea Party. This is from E. Victor Bigelow’s 1898 book A Narrative History of Cohasset (p.284):

“It is no small honor that three of our young men [from Cohasset] were among those who boarded the vessels in that last manly endeavor to maintain the bulwarks of fundamental human justice.

“The oldest was Jared Joy, of Beechwood, then twenty-four years of age and afterwards a soldier of the Revolution. His tombstone is in the Beechwood Cemetery, where he was buried in his forty-third year, receives annual decoration at the hands of the grand Army.

“The second was Abraham Tower, twenty years of age, the grandfather of our current town treasurer, and after the Revolution owner of a large commerce at the Cove.

“The third was James Stoddard, a lad of seventeen, afterwards ‘major’ in the local militia. The bits of tea which lodged in his clothing and shoes were scattered upon the floor at his boarding house in Boston the next morning, and caused him no little alarm lest he might be discovered and punished. But honor and not punishment is now measured to all three of these Cohasset boys….”

I especially like the anecdote about James Stoddard. It gives insight both into Stoddard’s emotional state, and insight into the real possibility of punishment for those who participated in the Tea Party.

I knew you were going to say that

Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist based at Stanford University, has published a new book in which he upholds the doctrine of hard determinism, asserting there’s no such thing as free will. Which makes me want to say: “I knew you were going to write that book.” To which he could respond, “I knew you were going to make that bad joke.”

In any case, Adam Plovarchy has written a response to Sapolsky for The Conversation, “A Stanford professor says science shows free will doesn’t exist. Here’s why he’s mistaken.” Plovarchy, a philosopher, concludes:

“Showing nobody is responsible for what they do requires understanding and engaging with all the positions on offer. Sapolsky doesn’t do this…. Interdisciplinary work is valuable and scientists are welcome to contribute to age-old philosophical questions. But unless they engage with existing arguments first, rather than picking a definition they like and attacking others for not meeting it, their claims will simply be confused.”

I have a different, but related, observation regarding Sapolsky’s book. The question of free will vs. determinism gets so much traction in Western culture because of our intellectual history. Western thought has been dominated by Western concepts of a transcendent powerful deity (concepts which predate Christianity, going back at least to Aristotle). During the Enlightenment, John Calvin and others came up with the notion of predestination, a species of hard determinism that has had a major influence on thought in the United States. Given our Calvinist past, Sapolsky’s arguments are likely to have a great deal of emotional resonance for people in the U.S. — arguments for hard determinism are an integral part of Calvinism. No wonder, then, that his book is getting so much press.

This is actually unfortunate, because Sapolsky’s arguments play right into the arguments of the worst of popular Calvinism in the U.S. Our popular understanding of Calvinism has us believing that if you are prosperous and happy, that’s a sign that God has predestined you for heaven; if your life sucks, that’s a sign that God has destined you for hell. And there’s nothing to you can do about it, although those who are prosperous and happy are obviously the ones whom God has chosen to rule over all the others. Indeed, in a 2021 interview with Psychiatric News, Saplosky even says something quite similar to these pop-Calvinist notions:

“[Sapolsky] suggests that those of us who have received a lucky roll of the evolutionary, genetic, and psychosocial roll of the dice have little choice but to take up the task of repairing the world. ‘Eventually it can seem hopeless that you can fix something, make things better. But we have no choice but to try. If you are reading this, you are probably ideally suited to do so. You have amply proven you have intellectual tenacity, you probably also have running water, a home, adequate calories, and low odds of festering with a bad parasitic disease. You probably don’t have to worry about … warlords or being invisible in your own world. And you’ve been educated. In other words, you’re one of the lucky humans. So try.’”

Instead of the Calvinist God, Sapolsky substitutes an evolutionary, genetic, and psychosocial roll of the dice. Aside from that substitution, this sounds similar to popular U.S. Calvinism. If you wind up as a Stanford professor, you’re one of the lucky humans who gets to try to show others how to live. I guess you could argue that Sapolsky is, in fact, correct — he has been shaped by a psychosocial roll of the dice, so no wonder he winds up sounding like a pop-Calvinist. I just wish he would try a little harder to learn more about the intellectual heritage which has shaped him, apparently without much awareness on his part. Which is the point that Plovarchy is making — at least try not to be ignorant.

Media portrayals

I’m always interested to read a news story on a topic that I know something about. Do the news media get it right? Do they show their bias? What do they miss? What do they show me that I’ve missed by being too close to the subject?

No wonder, then, that I was interested to read Jemima Kelly’s Dec. 9 story from the Financial Times weekend edition, “The culture wars dividing America’s most liberal church: Long a beacon of progressive values, Unitarian Universalism has been convulsed by pulpit politics.”

It’s obvious where Kelly is starting from. Battles of the culture wars represent a major ongoing story in the U.S. today. While the battles between the liberals and the conservatives have been most prominent, increasingly we’ve been hearing about the battles within the two camps, e.g., the fault lines among conservatives, and the fault lines among liberals. Kelly says that recent conflicts within Unitarian Universalism serve “as a kind of microcosm of the way the culture wars can divide even the most politically liberal members of American society.”

Kelly begins her story with a report on the controversy about Todd Eklof’s “The Gadfly Papers” (I wrote about that controversy back in 2019). From what I can tell, Kelly’s reporting on the Gadfly controversy gets the facts right. However, I feel she comes across as being biased in favor of Eklof. She gives a lot of space to Eklof and his supporters, while only interviewing one outright opponent of Eklof.

On the other hand, I give Kelly credit for giving space to Vanessa Southern, who expresses a distinct lack of interest in the whole Gadfly controversy. :Southern said, “There are people who are just letting The Jerry Springer Show play out, are like, ‘Yes and?’” This forces me to admit that I’m a cultural illiterate who has never watched the Jerry Springer Show. According the BBC obituary of Jerry Springer: “Expletives, fists, and chairs were flung across the show’s set over 27 seasons between 1991 and 2018. In the process, it became equal parts ratings juggernaut and cultural reject.” I don’t think there were any fistfights or air-born chairs during the Gadfly controversy. Nonetheless, it’s not a bad analogy.

Kelly frames the Gadfly controversy as a wider controversy engulfing Unitarian Universalism — how to deal with racism. Kelly touches on the resignation of Peter Morales as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, then dives into the current controversies concerning the revision of Article II of the Unitarian Universalist bylaws. I’ll quibble with some details of her reporting, e.g., she claims, “In the 59 years between the formation of the UU church [sic] in 1961 and 2020, nine ministers were permanently disfellowshipped….” — while I count ten. And calling Ralph Waldo Emerson an “abolitionist” is a stretch — “a reluctant opponent of slavery” comes a lot closer. Mostly, though, it seems to me she gets the facts straight.

As I say, I do feel that her story has a slight but definite bias in favor of people who disagree with the Unitarian Universalist party line. Those who disagree with the party line — Eklof, Peter Morales, Thandeka, Sandra Diaz — get the most coverage. Those who support the party line — Sarah Skochko, Carey McDonald — get less coverage. Kelly gives McDonald some fairly hardball questions, where Eklof doesn’t.

Does Kelly’s bias get in the way of the story? Well, the people who get almost no coverage are those of us who don’t, as a rule, pay much attention to denominational politics — people who are just trying to deal with the problems we face in our own communities. And why should we get much coverage? We’re boring. This is a news story in an international newspaper, and grassroots local efforts are of little interest to international news consumers.

However, Kelly may be missing something by catering to the needs of the international news consumer. In Seth Kaplan’s new book Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One ZIP Code at a Time, he argues that the place to rebuild democracy is in hyper-local efforts. Kaplan even says that in his own neighborhood people don’t spend much time talking politics because they’re too busy dealing with the tasks right in front of them. To her credit, Kelly does touch on this possibility when she quotes Vanessa Southern saying:

“I’m not going to be in a conversation that’s about tearing one another apart for the sake of drama. We are wrestling with how to be in the world and to whom we need to be most accountable. Change is messy. And, meanwhile, I have a city to minister to.”

For me, that last sentence was the best part of the article, because it helped me articulate my own feelings on these ongoing UU controversies. Why should I spend my time on the Gadfly controversy when the local food pantry needs more food, there are homeless people in town, domestic violence continues, the Neo-Nazis are recruiting in our area? To say nothing of other local problems: the teen mental health crisis, the opioid crisis, global climate change in coastal communities, the ongoing effects of the pandemic on children and teens, and on, and on. (I haven’t even gotten to the ordinary problems all human beings face: stresses on families with kids, deaths of people close to us, caring for people with chronic illness….) Come to think of it, this may help explain why young people are feeling disillusioned with organized religion — many of them probably perceive us as focused on abstract issues, rather than on local problems.

Oh well. I already know these kinds of local problems don’t make good news stories. So I give Kelly and the Financial Times credit for bringing them up at all, however tangentially. And thank you to Vanessa Southern for giving the reporter such a good quote.

Update 12/18: Par. 8 rewritten for clarity.