How the Unitarian Universalist Association Works to Dismantle Democracy

by David Cycleback (ברוך בן אברהם ושרה) PhD

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“As people of faith committed to ‘the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large,’ we must continuously strive toward uncorrupted democracy. As a means to an end, democracy organizes decision-making among diverse people and preserves stability while balancing competing interests. But democracy is not merely a means. It is an end in itself, an ethical ideal, a moral and spiritual way of relating to one another. Sadly, many of our democratic institutions have been corrupted into being merely a means for giving powerful interests the appearance of legitimacy.”– UUA’s Our Democracy Uncorrupted: 2019 Statement of Conscience (UUA 2019)

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In its very principles, Unitarian Universalism is premised on the right of conscience and democracy. In 2020, the national organization, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), had a well-promoted ‘UU the Vote’ campaign to promote democracy and get out the vote in the elections across the country. However, the UUA hypocritically works to dismantle the pillars of democracy and create an anti-democracy culture and theology within UU. (Beyer 2019)

Many of the democratic deficiencies in the UUA, national UU and General Assembly (GA) are well-documented elsewhere so don’t need much detail here. The 2009 Fifth Principle Task Force Report to the UUA said that General Assembly is “dramatically broken” and “The future of our UU movement can ill-afford to continue the ways of faux democracy and unaccountable representation that have characterized associational governance, including the content and process of the General Assembly.” (Fifth Principle Task Report 2009)

These problems have been acknowledged by the UUA and the Commission on Institutional Change (COIC). Yet, twelve years after the report, only two of the UUA Board of Trustees are elected and only 1.6 percent of the UU members voted for the current UUA President. The loss of representational districts gutted UU representational democracy, and the report says it is “questionable how well the delegate body represents and is accountable to member congregations.” (Fifth Principle Task Report 2009) (UUA 2020)

However, beyond these acknowledged problems, the national UU leadership does more fundamental things to undermine and dismantle the very culture and practice of democracy. In an attempt to preserve a proverbial one-party system, have top-down control of UU and transform UU into a radical political organization, the UUA and other national UU groups do basic anti-democratic practices that are associated with authoritarian movements and totalitarian regimes. The following are just a few.

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CENSORSHIP AND CONTROL OF INFORMATION

Democracy requires a well-informed voting public that is exposed to the diversity of views and information in society.

In his essay Censorship Is the Way that Any Dictatorship — and NO Democracy — Functions, historian Eric Zuesse writes, “If there is censorship, then each individual cannot make his/her own decisions (voting decisions or otherwise) on the basis of truth but only on the basis of whatever passes through the censor’s filter, which is always whatever supports the censoring regime and implants it evermore deeply into the public’s mind — regardless of its actual truthfulness.” (Zuesse 2020)

The censorship and attempts at information control by the national UU are well documented. Under the direction of the UUA, UU World removed letters to the editor and has stated it won’t platform the diversity of views of UUs. (Walton 2019). One longtime minister called UU World “an ideological propaganda organ,” and another called it “Pravda.” UU leaders and ministers have told other ministers and congregants not to read books of which it does not approve, and ministers themselves have said they refuse to read certain books. Dissenting views have been censored and dissenters removed from public forums at General Assembly. (Wells 2019) (5th Principle Project 2020) (Trudeau 2019) (Pine 2019) (Aiken 2019) (Cain 2019) (Aikin 2021)

Dissident Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who was expelled from the Soviet Union in the 1960s for being an “anti-Soviet”, once wrote, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

Wrote one longtime UU, “This is a serious problem. There are thousands of UUs who have no idea that there is a controversy. Of course, the main way that UUs are contacted is through institutional communications. These channels are completely unwilling to host discussions of the problems.”

Another wrote: “The True Believers control the content of all the articles published in UU World and on the UUA Website and without access to broadcast media, opposing viewpoints will never be heard. Members of the UUA and the Board will continue to cast a blind eye and deaf ear to anyone who disagrees.”

Many ministers coming out of the UU seminaries work to create groupthink, suppress the diversity of views of congregants within the congregations and do not educate laity on national UU issues. A longtime UU minister wrote, “I think the biggest danger to local congregations is the takeover of seminaries and the credentialing of clergy. Newly minted clergy are overwhelmingly indoctrinated and, if they aren’t, they will have a hard time being accepted as UU clergy.”

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SUPPRESSING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION, DEBATE AND CRITICAL THINKING

Freedom of speech and expression and the free exchange of ideas are requirements for democracy.

Cornell Law Professor Faust Rossi said “Freedom of speech is the most cherished of our constitutional rights. It is the essence of our democracy.”

The democracy advocacy organization Freedom House states, “Free speech and expression is the lifeblood of democracy, facilitating open debate, the proper consideration of diverse interests and perspectives, and the negotiation and compromise necessary for consensual policy decisions. Efforts to suppress nonviolent expression, far from ensuring peace and stability, can allow unseen problems to fester and erupt in far more dangerous forms.”

The promotion and use of critical thinking are essential to a functioning democracy and free society.

The critical thinking advocacy group Insight Assessment states: “Critical thinking promotes democracy. Like free and fair elections, critical thinking is essential for a healthy democracy. If voters are to make wise decisions, they must be both willing and able to think critically. We celebrate all who teach thinking. Teaching students how to examine issues, fair-mindedly, and how to analyze and evaluate diverging claims, thoughtfully, is vital to succeed as a free and informed democracy.”

In her column Democracy Needs Critical Thinking, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Cynthia Tucker writes, “There is little hope for this nation’s democratic experiment if so many of our citizens cannot bear to hear fact-based beliefs that are different from their own. Shouldn’t each of us be able to inspect our views to see if they hold up to the scrutiny of reason? If you can’t bear to do that, there might be something suspect at the core of your beliefs.” (Tucker 2021)

For anyone who follows the current UU, the suppression and demeaning of freedom of expression, debate and critical thinking by UU leaders, the UUMA and other national organizations is well documented. (Coyne 2019) (Gallagher 2019) (Disaffected Colleages 2020) (Aikin 2019)

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PUNISHMENT AND EXPULSION OF DISSENTERS

Democracy requires dissent and the platforming of a diversity of views. This should be obvious. Expulsion and punishment of dissenters are what totalitarian governments and fundamentalist religions do. Aung San Suu Kyi wrote, “To view the opposition as dangerous is to misunderstand the basic concepts of democracy. To oppress the opposition is to assault the very foundation of democracy.”

One does not have to detail here the treatment of dissenters in UU. Dissenting ministers have been censored, censured and expelled. Dissenting congregants have been removed from membership. Some ministers have said dissenters should be asked to leave their congregations. (Wells 2019)

Wrote one person: “We are at a point in our discourse that any disagreement with progressive positions is met with accusations of bias and racism. This is not discourse but ideological autocracy.”

Another wrote: “If you don’t think a certain way and conform in belief and speech, you must be ostracized and shut down. It is nascent authoritarianism and a symptom of social and political infection. It is as much a threat to democracy as rightwing extremism.”

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IT IS NOT ALL THE UUA’S FAULT

While the UUA and other national groups have become authoritarian, anti-democracy movements, the fault in part also lies with UUs and congregations at large. If congregations do not send delegates to General Assembly or do not select delegates that are representative of the laity, that is not the UUA’s fault. If congregations do not engage in and debate large issues, or are not themselves truly democratic, that is not the UUA’s fault.

Creating and maintaining a healthy democracy is the work of all citizens and UUs. It is the responsibility of all to educate themselves and others, actively and overtly engage in critical thinking, and push back and speak out against the illiberalism, intolerance, dogmatism and authoritarianism that the UUA is working to institutionalize in UU.

“Either we are all free, or we fail. Democracy must belong to all of us.”– Dennis Chavez

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REFERENCES

5th Principle Project (2021), “Article II Study Commission Survey”, https://fifthprincipleproject.org/2021/12/23/article-ii-study-commission-survey/

5th Principle Project (2021),  “The Gadfly Affair”, www.fifthprincipleproject.org/2021/04/30/the-gadfly-affair/

Aikin J (2019), “Shut Up! You’re Not Liberal Enough!”, https://midiguru.wordpress.com/2019/06/24/shut-up-youre-not-liberal-enough/

Aikin J (2021), “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, https://midiguru.wordpress.com/2021/03/24/something-wicked-this-way-comes-2/

Beyer C (2019), “A Look at the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism: The Foundation of the Unitarian Universalist Association”, https://www.learnreligions.com/seven-principles-of-unitarian-universalism-95786

Cain C (2019), “Why You Should Read the Gadfly Papers”, www.ajerseygirlinkentucky.blogspot.com/2019/06/why-you-should-read-gadfly-papers.html

Coyne J (2019), “Unitarian Universalist ministers flagellate themselves and the church for one bad apple, assert that logic and reason are tools of white supremacy”, https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2019/09/07/unitarian-universalist-ministers-flagellate-themselves-and-the-church-for-one-bad-apple-assert-that-logic-and-reason-are-tools-of-white-supremacy/

Disaffeccted Colleages (2020), “We Quit Letter”, https://uusalem.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/We-Quit-UUMA-letter-as-delivered.pdf

Fifth Principle Task Report 2009, “Fifth Principle Task Force Report to the UUA Board of Trustees”, https://www.uua.org/files/documents/boardtrustees/5thprinciple/0912_report.pdf

Gallager M (2019), “DOGMATISM AND FANATICISM IN UU”, https://trulyopenmindsandhearts.blog/2019/10/28/dogmatism-and-fanaticism-in-uu/

Pine M (2019), “The UU Crisis Explained,” www.trulyopenmindsandhearts.blog/2019/10/01/the-uu-crisis-explained/

Tucker C (2021), “Democracy needs critical thinking”, timesunion.com/opinion/article/Cynthia-Tucker-Democracy-needs-critical-thinking-16603965.php

Trudeau R (2019), “UUMA BOARD TO MINISTERS: SHUT UP!”, www.trulyopenmindsandhearts.blog/2019/12/21/uuma-board-to-ministers-shut-up/

UUA (2019), “Our Democracy Uncorrupted 2019 Statement of Conscience”, uua.org/action/statements/our-democracy-uncorrupted

UUA (2020), “Call for Reflection on the Fifth Principle Task Force Report”, uua.org/uuagovernance/committees/cic/blog/call-reflection-fifth-principle-task

Walton C (2019), “Mission priorities,” uuworld.org/articles/editor-winter-2019

Wells S (2019), “The UUMA is dead to me”, www.revscottwells.com/2019/08/17/the-uuma-is-dead-to-me/

Wells S (2019), “The Gadfly Papers,” https://www.revscottwells.com/2019/06/23/the-gadfly-papers/

Zuesse E (2020), “Censorship Is the Way that Any Dictatorship — and NO Democracy — Functions”, strategic-culture.org/news/2020/02/15/censorship-is-way-that-any-dictatorship-no-democracy-functions/