The Ideological Takeover of the Church I loved
How the Unitarian Universalist Church lost its way.
The Unitarian Universalist Church was once my home. Now, after the church stripped me of my ministerial credentials and defamed me for expressing what it now deems heretical views, I am suing.
Since its founding more than 400 years ago in Europe, the religion of Unitarianism has had the principles of freedom, reason, and tolerance at its core. These three principles are also central to the foundational philosophy of the United States, which made this country particularly well-suited for Unitarianism when it arrived here in the early nineteenth century and has helped it thrive ever since.
Unitarianism was a natural fit for me. I grew up a liberal—both politically and philosophically. Politically my family supported MLK, was concerned about the nuclear arms race, wanted a foreign policy that favored democracies, and desired all citizens to have access to a decent life. Philosophically, we believed in the liberal values of reason, tolerance, equality, and freedom of speech, thought, and religion. We believed in democracy and due process. Attracted by its promise of intellectual freedom, I was part of a wave of women who entered the Unitarian Universalist ministry in 1980.
Things began to change dramatically six years ago, when a latina Sunday school director complained of discrimination after a white minister was chosen for a job that she wanted. The Unitarian Universalists’ first latino president resigned in the midst of an internet storm and accusations of racism against his administration. No concrete proof was offered for any of the accusations. In a closed-door meeting, the national Board of Trustees declared that Unitarian Universalism harbored “structures and patterns that foster racism, oppression, and white supremacy.” No evidence was given for this assertion. This was a surprising self-evaluation for a group with a strong civil rights record, including the highest percentage of clergy to participate in the Selma Civil Rights March.
A program of instruction in postmodern anti-racism was directed at ministers and laity. It allowed no modification or questioning of its precepts. Enlightenment values like reason, free speech, and diversity of opinion were characterized as part of the white supremacy culture. Any attempt to challenge someone else’s ideas is now frequently met not with evidence or reasoned defense, but by labeling the challenge (and often the challenger) as racist, ableist, transphobic, and the like. For example, at a national meeting of clergy in 2020 I argued in favor of allowing ministers to keep the right to legal representation in disciplinary matters, but my position was attacked as racist by a minister who more recently has become the leader of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The successful slogan “Standing on the Side of Love” was junked because a few people complained that the word “standing” was offensive to those who couldn’t stand. In discussion groups at our national assembly, people were arbitrarily removed by facilitators because some person or persons objected to their opinions.
The ideological purge ramped up in 2019 when the new leadership condemned, defamed, persecuted, and ultimately removed from the ministry the Reverend Todd Eklof after he published three essays criticizing the UU’s rejection of liberal values. I joined with others to defend him. Then they came for me too—ultimately removing me from ministry for comments I made criticizing those who were enforcing ideological uniformity in UU spaces. They accused me of “gaslighting,” and making people feel “unsafe” with my words. Ironically, one of the accusations they made against me was that I had complained about “retaliation” and “persecution” within the church. They also came after me for my political opinions—claiming, for example, that because I had the audacity to question whether individuals with male genitalia could be lesbians, I had “caused UU spaces to actually be unsafe” for “trans congregants.”
Until 2019, removal from ministry was an extreme measure typically reserved for ministers who had been found guilty of felonies or serious sexual misconduct. Now, church officials regularly and without compunction defame someone and destroy their life’s work over ideological or political disagreements. When queried by lawyers about the UU’s violation of their own bylaws promising freedom of conscience and their lack of normal due process, the UUA replied that as a religious organization, they are legally entitled to contravene their own rules if they choose to do so.
I have dedicated my life to service in the Unitarian Universalist Church, to the values of freedom, reason, tolerance, and justice. Six years after I retired, ministers whose only knowledge of me was online, with the help of the UU establishment, targeted me, defamed me, and stripped me of my service gratuity, and my credentials as a Unitarian minister. It is difficult for me to comprehend the maliciousness, self-righteousness, and intolerance fueling the UU’s actions. I am profoundly disappointed by the lack of resistance from those who should know better.
At its best, the Unitarian Universalist Church was a place where people explored ideas and spirituality, and started innovative projects for their communities. There was joy in the exploration and debate. Thinking outside the box was welcomed. These are the kinds of communities I spent my life building. The major reason people became Unitarian Universalists was for the freedom to be unorthodox in their opinions and spiritual quest. Now the leadership of the UUA and its ministry are filled with people who never truly loved the Unitarian Universalist Church or subscribed to the deepest principles of the faith.
This year, they propose to scrap from our bylaws the nurturing of our congregations as their primary mission and to erase the principles and Enlightenment values under which we have always operated. Thousands of Unitarians Universalists have left the faith over the past several years: some noisily, others quietly, and a few have been thrown out. Like me, many gave long years of service to our churches and faith. I looked forward in my later years to the comfort of being a part of that community, even to the grave. Now, I am left to restart amongst the ashes or push back on a takeover I fear is too late to stop. It hurt when the people I have worked for all my life turned on me and reviled me. I have received support from people I have not seen in decades or never met. The lack of support or the belief that I got what I deserved coming from people I have known or loved for decades, has wounded me deeply.
Now, it will be up to a court to decide whether the UU establishment truly has the legal right to ignore their own bylaws, deny me freedom of conscience, and defame me to all the UU clergy in the country.
I have fought for justice against those who denied women equal rights, denied rights for African Americans, denied rights to gays and lesbians, against those who led death squads in El Salvador, and against those who bled the poor in Mexico. I’m old. I’m tired. I am fighting one last time for my faith, liberalism defined by freedom, reason, tolerance, and justice.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
In keeping with our mission to promote a common culture of fairness, understanding, and humanity, we are committed to including a diversity of voices and encouraging compassionate and good-faith discourse.
We are actively seeking other perspectives on this topic and others. If you’d like to join the conversation, please send drafts to firstname.lastname@example.org.