A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right? III: Fragmentation and Space

Building off of my first two posts in this series (Part I and Part II: Feedback and Insight), I will now explore a phenomenon that either is very recent (if you’re of a certain, younger age) or quite old- the unity and fragmentation of UU spaces.

Unitarian Universalism is very congregation-focused. The question I get all the times by people who are curious is “what is a UU service like?” And any long-time UU knows that’s an impossible question to answer before the service. Congregations vary widely between themselves and week-to-week, as guest ministers and special speakers may deviate sharply from routine. The Unitarian Universalist Association gets a lot of focus put on it, both by external parties and individual congregants, but it comes from a very historically weak legacy. David Robinson, in The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985), says that for many decades in the 19th century, the very idea of a national Unitarian organizing force was viewed with profound suspicion. Obviously, things have changed a great deal since then, but congregations are both very idiosyncratic and hold a lot of authority, both day-to-day and in sending delegates to the General Assembly.

Speaking of General Assembly, it serves as one of the few (some may argue, the only) national-scale space for UUs to gather and cross-pollinate. But even it is restricted- most people don’t attend General Assembly in a given year, many never will. And the space, while national in composition, is also a bubble of sorts. The fallout of Rev. Eklof distributing The Gadfly Papers at this year’s Assembly was confused and chaotic to outside observers. Even myself, someone who considers themselves up-to-date on UU matters, who has a call tomorrow with the Boston University School of Theology to explore a divinity degree, could hardly follow what happened. There were notable statements issued, a wide variety of individual reactions spread over social media, but a lot was lost between GA and the larger whole. Answers like whether the minister was disciplined, on what grounds, by whom, and when, were difficult to come across.

So if General Assembly is not a national space in a true sense, let alone for Unitarians, both ex-pats from North America and indigenous Unitarian traditions, that span the Earth, does such a space exist?

cubicles

The evolution of the Internet has made large spaces both easier and more difficult to create. In the early Internet, UU and UU-adjacent listservs and Usenet groups were comparatively universal in reach among those online- there was little in the way of competing platforms. Though the reach of the Internet has grown spectacularly in essentially a quarter-century, the rise of competing, proprietary corporate-created social media platforms has fragmented the spaces where Unitarian Universalists discuss the faith. Much of the online population remains on Facebook, where privacy settings tend to keep discussion within certain boundaries. I have very few UU Facebook friends, so most discussion of the religion, for me, comes from public pages like DRUUMM and Black Lives of UU. And even then, like many millennials I spend little time on Facebook compared to other platforms like Twitter, Discord, and Instagram. A lot is being said, but it replicates the congregational structure rather than breaks through it, with the exception of certain individuals whose contacts span multiple areas and churches.

Spaces that could be more inclusive, like Reddit, are now breaking apart rather than coming together. A splinter of the /r/UUReddit community formed this week, in reaction to more stringent rules about hateful conduct and bad faith arguments tactics like sea lioning and ‘just asking questions’. This is not the only splintering of UU space there has been, just the most recent. Fragmentation is born of fragility, especially white fragility. Certain groups are unwilling to move forward and instead retreat backwards towards a mythical, pre-political, pre-anti-racist church.

An attempt is being made by myself and others to reach out, find both old allies and new potential Unitarian Universalists. The UU Discord chat server (join by clicking the invite link here) started from a suggestion on Reddit, but has matured into an autonomous community including ministers, divinity students, lay leaders, congregants, and people who just found out about UUism fifteen minutes ago and have all kinds of questions.  It skews young, as existing Discord users are likely to be podcast listeners or gamers. Recently the Discord launched a Twitch stream, which besides the usual game playthroughs has great potential as a source of new UU content- book clubs, worship services, discussions, and much else can be done streaming for a live audience all over the world.

There are efforts made to make a larger, distinctly UU space. A recurring motif in welcoming new users to the Discord is “why didn’t I know about Unitarian Universalism ten years ago”. There is a need for more visibility, even if UUs will forever shun the kind of door-to-door evangelizing that other faiths practice. People find the faith when they find it, but it could have been a great source of affirmation, comfort, and support had they known about it during prior crisis moments in their lives. This means reaching out, both within and beyond the UU community.

Unitarian Universalism, if active in online spaces, can also be a counter to alt-right radicalization with a voice encouraging principles of equality, inherent worth, and love in our living tradition. If there is no UU content on a platform, that is just more space for the reactionaries- we cannot expect billion-dollar profit-seeking corporations to keep the alt-right in check. We must be active directly.

As Mario Savio implored to humankind, both then and now, on the steps of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley in 1964:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all! (Source)

It is unlikely that a vote or a petition will shut down the alt-right pipeline.

It’s up to us.

A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right? II: Feedback and Insight

Five days ago, I released my first blog post in a long time (a very long time if we’re talking about UU-related content), “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?”. I’ve had one other UU post be as popular as this prior, 2014’s “Remaking Unitarian Universalism: Go big, or go home”. So it’s interesting five years later to see the same viral-like spreading of my post throughout social media. Like before, people I know tell me they’ve read it without me showing it to them. It’s already in their circles.

I could tell that people were reading, based on the slight uptick in blog views in the past few days:

Screen Shot 2019-07-15 at 1.27.47 AM

Unfortuately, since UUs predominately use Facebook, most of the shares (and thus comments) of this piece, 37 shares in all, are private and I can’t learn from them or give you any sort of meaningful response to them. I’ve had some listserv messages, blog comments, Facebook messenger contacts, and the UU Discord server. But a lot of what’s been said, I can’t see. I respect their privacy if these conversations wanted to remain hidden, but also if they’re critical comments in particular, I can’t give any sort of apology or explanation here.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • I’m not crazy. People generally agree that a) alt-right language appears in conversations in UU circles, both in real life and online, and b) this is not confined to a few very loud cranks. What I see is the surface of something that happens in many congregations. Since we’re a strongly local-power faith, what the UUA leadership says and the congregational leadership do can be very different.
  • People are fed up. The alt-right language and citing of people like Jordan Peterson or alt-right pipeline people makes some people really ticked off. The current state of things is not sustainable- I’m reminded of the opening to W.B Yeats’ “The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

  • This kind of language and conduct cuts across demographics. Seminary students are reading Peterson, older congregants talk down about identity politics, people of all gender identities and sexual orientations are possibly drawn to these arguments. It’s not just about dialogue of a certain group- solutions need to be much more nationally-scaled.

Let me respond to what I think is the one critique I was sent that I think was made in good faith and is not just white fragility manifesting itself. My post was not meant to be ageist, if you felt it was, I’m sincerely sorry. Let me quote myself to show how I think I argue specifically against the ageist explanation:

I think a simple generational model isn’t sufficient. It’s not that older congregants are stuck in the past, and younger congregants have a clearer understanding of anti-racism in 2019. People can learn and evolve, and younger people can inherit older ideas of thinking about anti-racist action from their families or the mainstream narratives in schools and society at large. There’s also a large group of people who are too young to have been socialized in the 1960s, but aren’t millennials and aren’t being socialized now. The end result is a jumble. Pretty much everyone knows that, this isn’t new.

I think a good-faith reading of that indicates a lack of age prejudice. The people specifically calling it ‘ageist’ have bones to pick with me on both religion and politics, so I think it may be more a weapon to win a debate than a substantial critique.

Here are some more solutions that I came up with talking with people about the piece:

  • Establish covenants of right relations. These covenants establish standards of behavior within a congregation and open opportunities for dialogue, and calling us back to shared values. It also sets definitions and consequences of disruptive behavior. Setting these covenants up before people bring in alt-right rhetoric and its associated harmful actions is preferable to dealing with disruptive congregants ad-hoc, which can lead to the appearance of, or reality of, unfairness.
  • Establish a more robust UU social media presence. Many congregations record services, either audio or video. Every congregation that records material should publish it, edited well, each week on YouTube and link to it on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The Church of the Larger Fellowship, the UU Discord, or another group could also use the streaming service Twitch to hold virtual services and religious education. The robust chat service in Twitch rooms allows for people all over the country to join in worship, conversation, and education. It’s also an excellent fundraising platform- a leftist YouTuber named HBomberguy raised $340,000 recently for a trans charity by playing Donkey Kong 64 for over two days.
  • Decide how to deal with provocative speech that seems to have some sort of right-wing or alt-right definition or nature to it. The Gadfly papers hurricane at General Assembly this year indicates that there are good and bad ways to try to start a conversation about controversial ideas. Had it been written in a different tone, with different vocabulary, and introduced and distributed earlier with more forewarning, I bet it would have been more fully engaged with- rather than the intolerant gunk it turned out to be.

    Decide as a congregation, if someone comes up using alt-right language, what is the protocol? Is there a committee of communications set up? Is there a person to report to that’s not a minister? How does a congregation determine a) whether such language is alt-right in nature, b) how disruptive it really is, and c) if it could lead to unhealthy action.

These are only a few ideas. If people have further feelings, feel free to tweet at me or DM me on my Twitter (@MackayUnspoken), or join the UU Discord where I’m user “LeftistUU’. I feel that there is a need to have a dialogue that doesn’t concede to the right, and in the process jeopardize our Principles, but also recognizes that people whose language and behavior has negative impacts on communities of color may have good intentions. We have to move beyond intentions, to impact. Because unless the impact is positive, an action cannot be morally defended in a complete way.

 

 

Go big, or go home: where do the answers lie?

My earlier post about the state of Unitarian Universalism in 2014 has found an audience I didn’t expect, getting shared by UU PlanetI Am UU, and ministers and congregations all over the country. Typically, my blog gets a couple dozen hits a day. It’s spiked like never before. The best moment for me was when my congregation shared the story, even though I hadn’t told anyone there about it.

The fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association
The fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association

The one recurring bit of response: yeah, but what should we do? It’s a valid critique, as my piece focuses mostly on the nature and structure of the problem, rather than what solution could be. If I had easy solutions I would have written the Unitarian Universalist Association a letter with them spread out. Instead I cast some thoughts into the void of the Internet and found many people with the same concerns.

While the cliché is that youth will save us, that’s not true. Youth are the vessel by which the faith survives in the 21st century. But the people with the lived experience are the grey-haired generation. They have seen UUism go through its previous evolutions, and their perspective will inform the next evolution. Also, the struggles of the faith predate my involvement with it. A dialogue must mix youth voices with those that sat in pews in 2004, 1994, 1984, and 1974. UUism, as a decentralized institution, changes slowly and deliberately. Those that have seen the long arc have much experience that is needed, though they may be too entrenched to fully use it. That’s why growth is an exchange between the new, the old, and those in the middle.

One thing I floated, and some congregations may already do this, is the concept of exit interviews. People arriving for the first time fill out information about themselves and how they came to know about the local church. But those that stop going, or go rarely, aren’t asked why their habits changed. UUism has low social pressure- members don’t try to shame others into attending. That openness should allow us to ask departing members frankly about why the faith wasn’t working for them anymore. Only though data can we understand the problem of retention. If you’re an active UU member and absolutely love it, it’s hard to understand why others don’t. There isn’t the luxury of perspective.

The options for freethinkers, humanists, and unorthodox believers are growing rapidly. I can’t stress how quickly this process is picking up. Sunday Assembly, the new option for ‘churchgoing atheists’, isn’t even a year-and-a-half old. It has three assemblies in the Bay Area where I live. Once upon a time UUism was an oddball, clearly distinct from other gatherings. It was the political and spiritual renegade- endorsing gay equality decades before the issue broached the mainstream. It put scripture, literature, and science on equal footing and used them in conjunction rather than having Sunday service be purely religious.

It’s not an oddball anymore. The demographics are shifting. The traditional UU political stances are more mainstream, and humanists and atheists are starting their own alternatives to religious practice. On one hand, the country is moving in a direction where the Seven Principles and Six Sources sounds more reasonable. On the other hand, that movement is spawning other institutions. The political and social sands are shifting, but that doesn’t mean thousands of people are falling right into UU congregations.

I don’t want to paint Sunday Assembly and its kin as some kind of foe. It looks hella fun, and I hope to get there in the next couple months. But its existence presses Unitarian Universalists to answer key questions: what makes us different? why does UUism need to exist today and in the future? in a 2014 where the church’s signature stance on marriage equality is being accepted socially and in the legal system, how do we capitalize when we are on the right side of history? All of these ‘competitors’ allow for self-reflection. If questions like these can’t be answered with conviction and power, then we may be on the path from concern to crisis.

These discussions have electrified me, and many others have been part of this ongoing path towards finding the place of Unitarian Universalism in the second decade of the 21st century. Every congregation is full of incredibly bright and dynamic individuals; in conjunction, they are capable of incredible things.

As I transfer to a campus UU group this fall, and see how young UUs like myself are organizing their action and their thoughts, I hope to gain more of that perspective. Since the church is so diverse, every new UU (or potential UU) can help us answer the key questions: why are you here? why do you stay here?

Remaking Unitarian Universalism: Go big, or go home.

A recent feature in Boston Magazine addresses the core crisis of Unitarian Universalism – how does the movement keep from dying out? As Alyssa Giacobbe points out, UUism is not a fan of zealous self-promotion:

Yet a marketing endeavor risked alienating members. As part of their ethos of acceptance and “finding your own path,” UUs are very averse to evangelism, or anything that looks like it. “One church’s marketing is another church’s proselytism”

I am part of the problem- the young members who come to the movement yet don’t regularly attend. And it is true- there is a lot of competition on Sundays if you’re a young activist looking to help society out a little bit. Perhaps this is why Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto’s alternative Thursday evening service was so attractive. Most of the regular Sunday attendees are my parent’s age or older. Getting up in the morning is not a huge issue. For twentysomethings, it can be.

The fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association
The fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association

The ongoing marketing shift by the UUA is needed, and I do like the new logo and the work on the website. There’s a difference between trying to be hip and trying to be modern. All religion is an interplay between past traditions (going back, at the very least, decades if not centuries, or millennia) and the expectations of modern society. Both sides of UUism date from around the birth of the American republic, and ever since the Constitution was signed there has been a split between the originalists who see things frozen in time, and pragmatists who see ideas and concepts that come to us from the past as alive. Life means change. The rules of evolution apply to institutions as well as living things: adapt or die.

Thankfully, this feature was long enough to deal with the complex nature of UUism. I’m sometimes asked to provide a brief explanation of what the faith is and what its structure is. There are some parts that can be boiled down to the core. Though on the contrary, there exists the need to tack on ‘it’s complicated’ or ‘I can’t really speak for everyone.’ I enjoy that freedom to choose my own spiritual path, and not have the weight of representing a whole faith. Anyone with a marketer’s mind hates that.

Each and every year, another one percent of Americans ditch organized religion and enter the nebulous rank of atheists, agnostics, and none of the aboves. Those that identify with a church may be less active participants than in the past. Only ten percent of that group are actually looking for a replacement. Though the rise of hard-line evangelical Protestantism gets all the press, the trend seems consistent. Members of any faith should assume it to be a given, and know that this one percent a year is coming from somewhere.

In some ways, UUism does not have as much work to do. To get an irreligious or agonistic person to care about all the dogma and rigid rituals of some organized faiths requires a lot of legwork. If I go to a Baptist congregation, the membership will have a lot of convincing to get me on board. That was a beauty when I walked into a Unitarian Universalist church: I didn’t need to change myself to fit in. I slid right in, and my spiritual evolution could start from a natural beginning.

Dave Ruffin, who is the focus of the feature, makes some statements that are both sensible and divisive. I do understand what he means here:

What UU needs to survive, he believes, is a radical rethinking: It needs to stop defending its liberalism and embrace being a religion. “We need permission to be the people of faith that we are,” he says. “We need to actually get religious.”

Having done some Q&As with mainline Christians and the non-religious, the main confusion is why Unitarian Universalism calls itself a religion and not a political or social club. At first I found this belittling and a tad offensive. With perspective it’s not hard to see why the two are hard to distinguish.

What is UUism’s “secret sauce”? Why do you need to get down to the church on Sundays and participate?

What sustains me and my religious community? Social justice and egalitarian mores, yes, but the Human Rights Campaign can say the same thing. A large chunk of congregants came from another faith, sometimes a very aggressive and zealous one. There’s a certain fear of religion built into UU communities, even if it’s not admitted.

Ruffin is right. Quite simply, in the 21st century Unitarian Universalism needs to go big or go home. There are plenty of other Sunday morning activities that can engage people. UUism doesn’t have a monopoly.

Not even close.