Whose Unitarian Universalism Is It: A Reply to Beverly Seese

Update at bottom.

A few days ago, I wrote a response to some of UUA Board petition candidate Rebecca Mattis’s main accusations about the UUA and many Unitarian Universalists. As bad as many of Mattis’s accusations are, they pale in comparison to her fellow candidate, Beverly Seese. Many have already reacted to her post, and I will quote some of it here, but, suffice it to say, there is some utter shock going around Unitarian Unviersalist circles over her statements.

Seese’s rhetoric centers over who has the right to have their voices heard. She and others who support her seem to believe that their beliefs are purer than those they don’t like and more in line with the future of Unitarian Universalism. But are they?

Seese starts out her candidate statement quite predictably: by claiming that Unitarian Universalist principles are being undermined:

Unitarian Universalism should be allowed to maintain its historic integrity and proceed to its profound future. A growing number of members are concerned that our Unitarian Universalist principles and practices are being undermined.

I wrote in my response to Rebeca Mattis that this historic integrity she speaks about is a fabrication, but Seese gives me an opportunity to address this accusation in more detail.

Seese is no doubt referring to a number of books and articles that have been written over the last three years complaining about actions they perceive as being in violation of Unitarian Universalist principles. The problem is that, over and over again, not only have responses to these writings shown them each to be very flawed, prejudiced, and one-sided, but they often misunderstand the entire issue at hand by cherry-picking a few right wing-leaning books and articles they agree with to support their assertions.

What blows my mind is that not a single one of them has admitted that any of their writings are flawed or one-sided in any way, even as they write about events and incidents they have no direct knowledge of! There’s not the least bit of humility that they could be wrong in any way.

The gadflies have consistently pushed a narrative eerily similar to that of Jerry Fallwell’s Moral Majority, asserting that they are representing the bulk of Unitarian Universalists and that there is a hidden majority that supports them. The only evidence they ever present for this are anecdotal accounts from unnamed ministers who claim they’re scared to contradict the UUA, as well as claims that actions taken by people they like were because of their beliefs.

As I said in my response to Mattis, no minister has been disciplined for their beliefs, but for their behavior. Todd Eklof, for example, was removed from fellowship for refusing to cooperate with an investigation of charges against him. (And his book The Gadfly Affair does not clear him in the way he thinks it does.

Even as the gadflies’ agenda is voted down time and time again by delegates at General Assembly, they continue to push the narrative that, if they could only get more delegates, they could succeed.

And what is the gadflies’ explicit agenda? Seese does not say directly other than to complain about uncivil discourse, but much gadfly discourse has centered around antiracism and anti-oppression and how they make white Unitarian Universalists uncomfortable.

She asserts they want alternative viewpoints to be heard. The problem is these views have been heard over and over again, and rejected. The mere rejection of a view does not indicate alternatives have not been considered unless you believe all beliefs have inherent worth and dignity, which I do not.

None of this is new; this is, more or less, standard gadfly rhetoric that has been passed around for nearly three years. What is new is Seese’s arrogance in assuming that anyone who disagrees with her is welcome to create their own denomination, and her gall in naming marginalized people and young Unitarian Universalists as the people who may need to leave:

I acknowledge the desire of many, especially younger and/or marginalized-identifying members, to take our religion in a profoundly different direction. I believe this is the wrong approach. But we do not need to be antagonistic toward one another. UUs have always been welcoming of other perspectives and opinions. I would wholeheartedly support helping another branch of UUism to be formed, that is more attractive to the aforementioned folks, (Maybe named 21st Century UUs) if attempts to respectfully discuss differing positions continue to be thwarted.

If you would have asked me three years ago, I wouldn’t have believed a gadfly running for UUA Board would resort to outright prejudice and ageism in their rhetoric; I thought they understood optics better than that. Yet here we are, a blunt suggestion that hers is the correct interpretation of Unitarian Universalism and everyone else is welcome to form their own denomination if they don’t like it.

Why does she believe it is the marginalized and young who need to leave? Why does she not believe they have just as much right to tell them to leave is a question that is worth asking.

As much pearl clutching as the gadflies have done about the term white supremacy, this is just that, in about as pure a form as it could be. Sesse literally told marginalized people to leave if they do not agree with her, with no sense of irony that she, a white woman, is asserting to BIPOC, among others, that her views are superior to theirs.

Sesse believes she has more of a right to assert what is the right direction for Unitarian Universalism than anyone else.

Sesse has the right to believe what she wants, but that doesn’t mean her views will prevail. I have no doubt she would point to a few BIPOC who agree with her, but, you know what? I can play that game, too.

In the wake of the release of Sesse’s candidate statement, many Unitarian Universalists have spoken out. One comment on the Fifth Principle Project’s blog illustrates this well:

For those with screen readers, a commenter named Greg writes:

Hi, I’m trying to learn more about this group. I am a younger queer UU who has been UU their entire lives and been in denominational leadership since middle school.

I am connected to many UU folks who are younger and/or have marginalized identities. It was painful and confusing to read these words from one of your candidates:

“I acknowledge the desire of many, especially younger and/or marginalized-identifying members, to take our religion in a profoundly different direction. I believe this is the wrong approach.” The Rev Beverly Seese

This “wrong approach”, for example anti racist anti oppressive transformation efforts, have been part of many young UUs faith for many years. It was back in the 1990s that UU young people started officially organizing this work. We have been mentored by elders who, among else, were youth leaders during the Black Empowerment movement in the 1960s which tore our movement apart and prompted countless Black UUs to feel pushed out of our faith. That pain is still there and the losses are many, but the work for transformation and building a just and inclusive community continues.

“I would wholeheartedly support helping another branch of UUism to be formed, that is more attractive to the aforementioned folks.” The Rev Beverly Seese

So That leaves me wondering, is this a Multigenerational organization? Do you have Gen Z and millennials In your leadership? If not, what relationships does this group have to UU youth and young adults? What is your vision of a multigenerational denomination? How would you go about building that? If you are not interested in working with youth and young adults, why?

And. How would you relate to the marginalized groups, which this candidate singles out as having a “wrong approach” and suggests leaving our denomination?

Greg makes a valid point: many of those whom Sesse suggests should leave our denomination have been Unitarian Universalists longer than she has. Given that many of these Unitarian Universalists have been working on antiracism and antioppression initiatives dating back to the 1960s. Why are those efforts less valid simply because Sesse disagrees with them?

As Liz Roper puts it:

Beverly, many of us “21st Century UUs” have been Unitarian, Universalist, and/or Unitarian Universalists for longer than you have. Why you think that it would be US to create a “new” denomination and let you take ours- is beyond logic completely. It is utterly disgusting that you think it appropriate to explicitly state that marginalised folk should exclude themselves from our denomination, and pretty poor form for UU campaigning too. (I don’t imagine you will get great success — delegates have to be representing their congregations, which means they have to be on good terms with their congregations and vote for their community not their individual concerns.)

I don’t know who you think you are, but you can stop trying to co-opt the faith we were born and raised in, and have served longer than yourself. It would be laughable if it were not so hurtful to those in our denomination that you are a serving minister, that you have put this filth out to the entire denomination to read, and that you have been encouraged to do so. Disgraceful.

What history does Sesse want to maintain? As I wrote in my response to Mattis, the gadflies have constructed a mythical Eden in the past that has been sullied by things they don’t like. As Steve LaBonne writes on the UUA’s Facebook page:

Maintain our historic integrity? This is a comment I left on my church’s Facebook page on a post asking our delegates to support the Nominating Committee’s candidates (as I am quite confident they will): What “history” are the other candidates so enamored of? The history of Unitarians soft-pedaling opposition to slavery and ostracizing abolitionists like Theodore Parker? The history of both Unitarians and Universalists sidelining their very few clergy of color and making sure they weren’t called to white congregations? The blatant racism displayed by many white UUs during the so-called Black Empowerment Controversy? The blatant homophobia that caused the board of my old congregation in [redacted] to advise our gay minister to stay in the closet when he was called (he came out only when he became ill with AIDS)? The ableism that led to buildings like ours being constructed with no regard whatever for accessibility? If people like those other two candidates ever succeed in dragging Unitarian Universalism back to that “glorious” history, I’m out of here. Fortunately, I am confident that they will fail.

LaBonne is correct: doing things the way we always have can only lead to this sort of prejudice to continue. The truth is that we, as a movement, often only supported antiracism and antioppression inasmuch as they make white Unitarian Universalists comfortable. In fact, during the 1950s and 1960s, many Unitarian Universalists opposed ending segregation in congregations because they did not believe the AUA and UUA should be able to tell congregations what to do. Sound familiar?

I don’t believe our past is to be romanticized, but to be learned from. Even figures who we now see as integral to the history of our faith movement, such as William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker, were very mixed in their opposition to slavery, working to free the slaves but stopping short of full equality and equity.

This is the real past of Unitarian Universalism, not one where we were hundreds of years ahead of a time but, rather, where we were products of our time.

There is no static Unitarian Universalist past. All the way back to our beginnings, we have been evolving, learning, and responding, becoming, I think, better. Every step of the way, there have been those who have suggested it was a step too far. And every time, they were wrong.

The undertone throughout Beverly Seese’s campaign has been that these marginalized and young Unitarian Universalists somehow aren’t “real” Unitarian Universalists. They don’t represent the majority she feels, and she has a greater claim to that.

Indeed, Seese did not grow up a UU. Though she attended seminary and was ordained by her small, twenty member congregation, she was never granted fellowship and is not in relationship with the bulk of Unitarian Universalist ministers. In essence, a person who has refused to be in accountable relationship with the UUA or with people she would like to call colleagues wants to direct the course of our religious movement.

The truth is that those young and marginalized Unitarian Universalists are members of our congregations. They are integral to our faith movement. We are better for them being a part of it.

Beverly Seese has no right to claim that her vision of Unitarian Universalism is more valid than those she disagrees with. They are our members, our friends, our ministers, our UUA staff, and important voices who need to be listened to in the current political climate now more than ever. In a time when an entire political party seems fixated on reversing a century of civil rights advances, our progressive movement needs to embrace and advance the leadership of those on the margins, not stifle it.

I close with a curious statement from Seese’s candidate site. After suggesting that marginalized and young Unitarian Universalists can leave the denomination if they don’t like her vision, she writes:

Since the national divisions highlighted by the 2020 campaign and elections, I have had as my personal mission, to work at bringing people back together. This is needed throughout our communities and within our congregations.

I am curious what on Earth would make Seese believe that the way to bring people back together is to request that a large portion exit our faith. In fact, if her goal is to bring people back together, this seems to be the total opposite. For a group that complains about uncivil language a lot, there is little more uncivil than trying to show the door to large groups of people in our movement.

Over and over again, Seese and other gadflies have refused to admit that they could be wrong in any way or that there could be truth in other people’s perspectives. This is the culmination of it: their ultimatum to shut up and let us have our way or leave.

I would suggest to Beverly Seese, and anyone who shares HER views, that there is little reason to a believe that a denominational split would lead to those with her view taking control of the UUA. And, if marginalized and young UUs are pushed out, I’m not sure Seese and followers would like the result: the majority of UUs will follow those marginalized and young UUs out.

Update, June 3, 2022: On the same day this article was published, it came to my attention that, six minutes into the forum last evening sponsored by the Fifth Principle Project, Beverly Seese clarified that she does, indeed, mean to show younger and marginalized people the door.

So my position and the reason I am running for the UU Board of Trustees, position number 11, is all about wanting to continue to recognize the religious practice that I joined 22 years ago. The people, the principles, the dedication to actions for social justice, impressed me then. And so I wholeheartedly joined in to the local congregation. But now I am seeing a very illiberal brand of communication, eroding of our principles, and eroding of the democratic process in all of our Association organizations.

My position is all about preserving freedom of thought, and tolerance or openness to others’ perspectives. The heart of our liberal religion is about bringing people back to our congregations that have left in the last few years, bringing them back to the work of welcoming all and welcoming many different perspectives. It’s about giving everyone a voice, a vote, an opportunity to contribute and be heard. It’s s about the preserving a congregational self-determination. congregational polity. It needs to be remembered that the UUA is the servant. They are there to assist all of the member congregations.

I am questioning, the reason I am wanting to get on the board is because I don’t see [video stream broke/inaudible-possibly “it”] happening. I think we need to be questioning the excesses and the corruption is starting to happen in the UUA leadership, protesting the censorship of voices in books and ministers. Somebody has questioned why I have said that I would be willing to help create another branch of Unitarian Universalism. And my response to that is there is so much infighting right now that that just cannot continue. In effect, a second leadership has already been initiated. And this was done when five, over $5 million was transferred to an associated organization without any accountability for its expenditure. This is another leadership structure with its already guiding that other association or that other organization. I believe we need to focus on pulling together for Unitarian Universalism and that if there are members or if there are groups that feel like they need a different approach to religion, and want, feel like the bylaws need to be rewritten, the principles need to be taken away or rewritten completely, then I am willing to help that other organization establish their own practice. But don’t change Unitarian Universalism, as so many of us have devoted our lives to.

Thank you.

So, from her mouth, she does mean to say she wants to push people she disagrees with out of our movement.

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Unitarian Universalist minister, public theologian, radical leftist thinker, unapologetic geek, and beagle mommy. 🌹 🏳️‍🌈 they/them

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Chris Rothbauer

Chris Rothbauer

Unitarian Universalist minister, public theologian, radical leftist thinker, unapologetic geek, and beagle mommy. 🌹 🏳️‍🌈 they/them

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