An Expected Opportunity — If We Can See It

There was never much doubt that the Supreme Court would take the side of Hobby Lobby’s owners, in favor of their “religious freedom” to refuse to pay the birth control portion of their employees’ mandatory health care. I am not a lawyer and have not read the decision, but the headline summary on Al Jazeera America makes clear that there are limits to what an employer can refuse to provide. Blood transfusions and vaccinations — procedures where life and death stand more immediately at risk — fall outside religious liberty. (If only this latter applied also to parents…)

Why would this case divide the for-profit business community, as it has done? On the surface, the Court has made a decision which increases capital’s arbitrary powers. But look again. The logic advocated by Hobby Lobby is that even for-profit corporations have moral obligations. And since moral obligations can only apply to beings with the capacity to make moral decisions, this decision can be used to vitiate the most killing assertion of the twentieth century’s drive for corporate power: that corporate management’s highest and single duty is to make the most possible money for its shareholders.

Let me say that again: the Supreme Court has articulated that because corporations are legally persons, they have the right to exercise their consciences. 

“What consciences?” you’re asking. And that’s just it: in matters of employee treatment and environmental depredation, our whole experience has taught us to believe that corporations have no consciences. They tell us that all the time. It’s at the heart of what Mary Barra asserts when she says that she (or, more accurately, her predecessors) has no personal accountability for the deaths caused by the General Motors “culture” of “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.”  It’s also at the heart of her strategy to fire particular individuals in order to avoid incurring a trial and penalty against her corporation, based on its culture — i.e, its moral code.

Corporations suffer these trials all the time, in civil suits. But if corporations are moral actors –as this decision dictates — voters can also require corporations to exercise the self-education and foresight that every individual has to display toward protecting the lives and property of others. It is illegal to receive stolen goods, to vandalize other people’s property, to poison their children’s food. In the hands of creative lawyers, this ruling opens a path, finally, to start cutting back on the corporate First Commandment for externalizing (avoiding) as many costs as possible. And if something bad happens, well, that’s just collateral damage, sacrificed to the virtue of maximizing shareholder income.

I have no doubt that leftist political orthodoxy, completely rejecting the idea that insanity consists of doing the same thing over and over, in hopes of getting different results, is already ginning up protests about “the war on women.” Advocates of birth control long ago lost public support when they persisted in separatist rhetoric, rather than offering personal testimonies about how much men, especially those in established family commitments, require options for, and participate in decisions about, using birth control. Instead, gender warriors in both sexes bring constant delight to superficial headline writers by playing up these age-old zero-sum fallacies.

This mistake would be more than a shame; it would be a lost opportunity. The Supreme Court has taken a major step toward humanizing the personhood of corporations; it’s now up to us to demand that corporations subscribe to the responsibilities imposed on the rest of us — as humans.

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Unitarians Use Annual Gathering for Social Action: 1854

By the late 1840s, Unitarianism had spread so far beyond Boston that local gatherings no longer supported denominational business. In 1853, observing that many of their non-Boston colleagues were assembling for Harvard’s Commencement, the fledgling denomination initiated the May Meetings. Burlington, Vermont’s First Unitarian Congregation (Unitarian) promptly provided financial assistance for their minister and his wife to attend. In an era of two Sunday services every week, with no summer or school vacations, this would have been the only vacation some ministers enjoyed (although in more affluent congregations, parishioners customarily raised funds to support ministerial travel breaks when their health demanded it).

In 1854, the new minister to Burlington, Vermont’s First Congregational Society (Unitarian) (who had negotiated additional time off before accepting this call the year before) journeyed to the May Meetings, stayed several weeks, and returned to his pulpit on June 11 with a report on how he spent his summer vacation. This sermon, from Reverend Dr. Joshua Young, recounted what was probably the first social justice witness at a denominational Unitarian gathering: the attempt to protect Anthony Burns from being captured and returned to slavery.

Dr. (then Reverend) Young began with an admission that his hearers had probably assembled to hear denominational news and plans. After explaining why the attempt to protect a fellow human being from slavery rose to the level of denominational priority, Dr. Young said this:

“Brethren, our religion is vain, and our worship here but solemn mockery, the first moment we depart but a hair’s breadth from the great principle, that we ought to obey God rather than man, and that no law can possibly be obligatory upon us, by whomsoever passed, or howsoever enforced, if it come in conflict with the commands of Heaven… not that there is any natural, or necessary antagonism between them. The same God that created man, ordained the state; and the laws of nations, when they are wise and righteous laws… are… but reenactments of the laws of God… as a general proposition, no same man would ever think of denying, that he is, not only politically, but morally and religiously bound to obey the laws under which he lives. It is plain, however, that the duty of civil obedience is not, can not, be absolute and unconditional…”

This sermon, “God’s Law Greater than Man’s Law,” went on to anticipate that only war would right this wrong, and that war coming soon. Vermont was a strong anti-slavery state, with this minister and his wife among the local participants, of various faiths, who formed a vital link to Canada for passengers on the Underground Railroad.|

I mention this event today because Unitarian Universalists now routinely program both local and national social justice witness into our annual denominational gathering, the General Assembly, going on this week in Providence, RI. These folks might like to know that the roots of this practice are deep, strong, and original to our diverse forest.

Bringing in a Porch Cat

For over a year, my beloved has humored me in the maintenance of a porch cat. 

This is my fourth porch cat. They are strays who hang around the house (“friendlies”) but do not want to come in. They often run away when people get too close, or noises get too loud. Or they can’t bear to stay inside, so if you bring them in, they take their nap or eat their meal and then yowl horribly until you let them out to resume their wanderings.

So the fact that Scruffie has been coming in doesn’t really mean that we’re about to have another cat.

Still, it’s big that he has begun trying to come in. He’s gotten himself over the threshhold — which on the first occasion was all he could manage before panic took over — and now is trying to explore the interconnected open spaces just inside our front door. 

There are cautions on our side as well. For one thing, he brings fleas, and they have, in the past, caused my beloved’s chemical system to erupt on violent welts and hives. So until he lets me touch the back of his neck long enough to apply some flea killer, I cannot embrace his courage as fully as I would like.

And if he comes in for any length of time, what about a litter box? I have loved not having that job!

A variation on that theme: as an unfixed male, he has a history of spraying. Lately he has not been spraying here, but in the past, he did. Perhaps if this becomes more of a home, he’ll try it again.

And then, how will he respond to the intermittent, but totally inevitable, irregularities of movement, sound, and behavior that Huntington’s Disease cause my beloved to experience and exhibit? It’s fine if he bolts for the door, but we have to be sure he won’t hiss, swipe at her with open claws, attempt to bite.

For a long time, for all these reasons, and because we were stabilizing her situation, my beloved insisted we should not let him in. But over the long, soft New England spring he has visibly relaxed and reached out. Sometimes he ignores the food I offer, in favor of coming in.

Today, he came in. He sat down. He stayed there for a minute or more, amongst the shoes whose scent he knows as home. Then he carefully headed through the open door toward the bedroom. Sadly, at that point, because we haven’t yet done the flea thing, I had to take only one step in his direction, and out he ran. Past the food dish, off into the neighborhood.

Caring for my porch cat has only been possible because neighbors do it with me. Others who feed him let me know how he looks, what he eats. To make his winter home, I consulted a website.

And I have a neighbor who already has a successful porch cat. Hers recently came in at bedtime, slept on the foot of her bed for five hours. This, of course, is what any pet parent dreams of. But that was just once; I see her inside cat outside more often than she sees her porch cat on her bed.

It doesn’t take a genius to see what this means for organized liberal religion. If a majority of potentially religious folk now consider themselves “free range,” then bringing them into covenant with us — making available to them the refuge of our faith messages in hard times — is going to be slow and tedious. It will require sustained membership mentors who themselves require ministerial and personal support. Encouragement. Tactical advice. Money for supplies. And lots of food.

Hartford Seminary assembled some religious demographic info for this decade, and the median size of a congregation is still 75 people. Half of all congregations, in other words, are that small. These are the seedlings of organized religion. Some are weeds — cults and charlatans. But others are the flower and vegetable gardens of spirituality, carefully cultivating both the miracles of expression and the necessities of nutrition. 

Store fronts. Meet-ups. Web chats. Small groups. These are the nurseries from which to replant the solid rows of occupants for our pews. It won’t make the evening news and it won’t make denominational headlines. They might not even last more than a few decades. But if we’re going to bring in the porch cats, there won’t be any other way.

 

When the Golden Rule Isn’t the Answer

Today’s UUs are often surprised to learn that Unitarianism was heavily Republican until the 1960s. Republicanism today bears no resemblance to its grandparent, and the same can sometimes apply to our religion. (Universalism has different antecedents, which mattered more in earlier eras, and of which I know too little to comment here.) My Dad was one of those Republicans, as was my mother’s father. My dad, a social scientist and inveterate skeptic, insisted that humanism would get nowhere by relying on The Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”) Yes, it has adherents in every culture, every era, every religion, every region. But at the same time, it constantly assumes that everyone wants the same thing, and that one thing which everyone wants will somehow magically result in peaceful coexistence and mutual advantage.

His alternative was free-market economics, based in the idea that everyone is a rational self-interested actor. (He’s pretty disenchanted with that now.) But when NEITHER of these things was working, he had a handy maxim which these days could probably be useful:

“Your rights end where my body begins; my rights end where your body begins.”

He did not say “body,” but “arm.” Today, that would make this an NRA slogan, rather than a Fourth Amendment (safety in one’s own space) catchphrase. He used the physical body, though, because he did not believe that anything which happens in the home is protected. A perpetual softy and family man, he abhorred domestic violence and neglect or mismanagement of children or elders. When he wasn’t doing civics and economics, he devoted every fiber of his being to either his marriage, his children, his parents, and his extended family. And his civics and economics were all directed at the betterment of families of all kinds.

This came to mind because events this week threw me into one of the situations in which he most strongly asserted that The Golden Rule must be set aside: professional friendship with a conservative Christian.

Religious passion is the number one asymmetrical situation. One party believes — with all their being, with all their power — that the best thing anyone ever did for them was to introduce them to some religious being or group. The other party has no yearning in that direction. To an evangelist, of course, the lack of yearning is just a sign that more work needs to be done. This is where the phrase, “Your rights end where my body begins” answers the bell.

The situation that troubled me this week was equally disturbing for the evangelical Christian. We invited her onto our caregiving team because we know her through the union. She is a skilled and sensitive professional, friendly presence in the home, and intelligent enough to appreciate our constant flow of news, documentaries, and historical writing. But we are a same-sex couple, people she’s been told are “sick,” “deluded,” even “possessed of great evil.” And what she sees in our home is two adults who love each other quietly, struggle to keep each other as healthy as possible, and are planning a religious marriage next weekend. We invited her to our wedding, and she says that if her work schedule permits, she will attend. She says — and I firmly believe this is true — that if people in her religion knew that she is caregiving for us, and looking at attending our wedding, they would give her serious grief. She has decided –and she says this — that we are who we are, and she is who she is, and that is that.

She asks what our religion “teaches” and names various Biblical touchstones. My answers are what she expects, and she says nothing. When I asked what her religion teaches “about families like mine,” she groans and says, “I wish you hadn’t asked me that.” We know what she means. But for whatever reason, she has decided to practice “tolerance.”

“Tolerance.” It’s a dirty word for idealists, but at our house, we’re going to give it a try. I suspect it will be harder for me than for her. She is instinctively open to others and interested in them, while I tend to categorize quickly and struggle to walk it back. Still, the very conversation rearranged my inner energies this week, in ways I hope will be good. It’s Pentecost (in my religion, not hers), so perhaps we can both trust that Holy Spirit, each in our own way.

Meanwhile, this Sunday will be Father’s Day — a good time to honor my father’s formulation. “My rights end where your body begins; your rights end where my body begins.”

It made World War II era Republicans the primary Caucasian Civil Rights allies for African Americans (Democrats were chained to racist local power complexes throughout the South). “Main Street Republicans” were the majority of that party, advocating for small businesses, healthy families, and adequate money and leisure to fulfill one’s personal potential. It probably shaped Dwight D. Eisenhower’s caution against diverting excessive government funds into what he labeled “The Military Industrial Complex.”

For New England Unitarians, this slogan captured a Republican ethos (often violated, I know), that we, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, might, with personal profit, dust off, and restore to our personal and political arsenal of phrases.

Maybe it’s the M.Div. Model

In any social system, whether government or religion or family or just a neighborhood watch meeting, there’s always a tension between trusting someone and asking for further evidence. Neither extreme — pure trust or pure skepticism — serves the participants or the system. So how are we skeptics to temper our impulse to challenge? When it comes to criticizing social structures, my father always taught me that I needed to prove something better might be available, at least for the trying.

The one thing held in common by all the religions currently declining in this country is not their theology, but their educational structure. Positioning the M.Div./CPE/internship after four years of college puts ministry in the same group as western medicine: a huge body of knowledge that has to be mastered, within which the intending practitioner gradually sharpens a single focus. Even the intending family practitioner will, at some point, abandon the finer points of, say, abdominal surgery, to concentrate on how to separate various abdominal pains into potential surgery referrals. The abdominal surgeon will long since have given up on how to repair a compound fracture. In this country, doctors self-select, not only the profession, but the path they will follow within it. The basis of this educational model is a remunerative system which no longer serves either its funders or its patients: the most successful medical systems worldwide now emphasize preparation of large numbers of first-contact professionals — nurses and physician assistants — and sharp skepticism toward any statement that expensive treatment or medicine is required.

So if this educational model no longer serves the medical profession, why would it be suitable for ministry, for which, demonstrably, people are much less willing and able to pay large sums? Maybe it doesn’t. That suspicion is what fuels my belief that the problem at SKSM is only one part of a whole we need to consider.

And what would be the alternatives? In my previous post, I took the radical decentralized position, of ample faith-deepening education provided to congregational self-selectors in their regions, districts, clusters, or congregations. But the hallmark of any faith is its clergy, and in the Reformation, the call was not for less-educated clergy, but clergy with MORE education. (If we can blame someone for this problem, let’s blame Luther.)

i’m contemplating, as an appropriate model for this enhanced education, the five-year system used for engineering or architecture, that is, the professions whose hallmark is applied science rather than theoretical science. Of particular attraction to me is that this would open the way for younger people to enter the profession without completely destroying their family life and finances. Congregations would undoubtedly appreciate having a minister unbent with an unbearable student debt, even as the religions would benefit from a preparation path they could actually afford to subsidize.

Kim Hampton, in East of Midnight, asks us to wonder if the best candidate for the presidency of SKSM might have been an academic rather than a minister. While I tend to doubt that, I do celebrate the likelihood that the five year program would greatly shift the balance of leadership from former ministers toward active academics. The role of teaching ministers would then shift to the place it belongs, in mentoring, supervising, leading programs in continuing education. As ministers grow and change through their careers, they would have more opportunities to seek out appropriate — and, again, currently engaged — practitioners of ministry in a world where reality bites.

It behooves me to admit that this would be a structure in which I can see a career path for scholars like myself. Currently, anyone who can’t help devoting their spare hours to denominational studies must have a primary career, a spouse with a primary career, or family money.  Because the desire for denominational identity comes only at particular places along the faith journey, UUs believe that fulfilling it is more suited for self-selecting continuing education than for foundational theory and skills.  I do not agree with that, but it’s a disagreement I could live with — if our faith community were not crippled by the false god of the M.Div.

 

 

Clarification About SKSM Remarks

This morning I woke up with a sense that last night’s comments put a knife in the back of someone I STRONGLY respect and admire, namely, The Reverend Rosemary Bray McNatt. Several years ago she was the Minister of the Week for my annual sojourn at Ferry Beach, so there was plenty of time and space to gain an appreciation of her diverse talents, insights, qualifications, and personal qualities. These are the diversities she will soon make paramount to anyone who knows her.

Secondly, I do not in any way disparage the educational assets of the many SKSM alumniae serving in our UU ministry, or the faculties which have trained them. On the contrary, SKSM has, since I first encountered it in the early 1970s, doggedly pursued excellence in ministry. Its graduates have often been, and might still be, the largest single cadre in our collective ministerial presence.

Thirdly, my concern is not that more of us attend Harvard or any other Ivy League School. Harvard Divinity School has long been an object of my criticisms, for much the same reasons as I criticized SKSM last night.

Rather, I support the movement which emerged in the late 20th century, the NUUTSS (Non-UU Theological Schools Students) as more protective of ministerial families and local spiritual character. However, having grown up in the Bible Belt, I appreciate that NUUTSS often complain that their online UU courses foster a sense of spiritual loneliness that can only be slaked by occasional sojourns in dedicated UU seminary community. Samuel Atkins Eliot founded SKSM precisely because he supported regionalizing, and thereby strengthening, Unitarianism’s academic anchors. In our current financial straits, we are forced — as I was forced on that search committee — to choose between the two goals. Either we shall provide local presences in various locations, or we shall maintain a dedicated UU seminary community. All three of our once-dedicated schools, as with all mainline seminaries, have had to abandon denominationalism in order to maintain academic excellence. 

From time to time, we hear rumors of possibly merging SKSM and Meadville-Lombard Theological School, in hopes of becoming somewhat more denominational without completely giving up our geographic commitment to UUs outside Greater Boston. Perhaps it behooves me to give those suggestions more thorough attention. My instinct, though, involves something more denominational and less academic: regular gatherings for dedicated mutual support and formation, along the lines now provided for Accredited Interim Ministers and Ministers in First Settlements. These were tried a few years ago, but under the auspices of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, with their unfortunate agenda of judgment and selection; what I propose would share collegial resources from the UU Ministerial Association and UU Society for Community-Based Ministers, assisted by denominational money.

I hope members of the SKSM community will accept my apology for ungraceful expression, and, in particular, that Reverend McNatt will accept my good wishes for her ministry in that community.

About the Starr King School for Ministry Scandal

Ordinarily, Politywonk would be early off the mark about something as scintillating as the current tempest-in-a-teapot out at Starr King School for the Ministry, Unitarian Universalism’s Pacific Coast seminary.  What little we know — and will ever know — has all the elements that flick my switches: secret leadership decisions, people being punished for sharing information liberated from private councils, a debate which damages reputations of esteemed denominational scholars and ministers (some of whom are personally known to me).

These factors mean this situation hits too close to home. Nothing glib comes to mind. Despite my opinionated description of confidential information being “liberated,” I believe in, engage in, and advocate, the protection of many confidentialities.

And it is closer to home than you think, for I was a student rep on a similar search committee, now long ago, at Harvard. We were trying to find the first “Emerson Professor of UU Studies”, formally known as the Professor of Modern American Religious History. A successor to C. Conrad Wright. Not a bridge between past and future (Conrad served HDS from the 1950s to the late 1980s), but a bright stone, to be slingshot over decades of radical change into some radically new stable,visible, history-based Unitarian Universalism.

There are many ways to think of our selection, D. David Hall. He quickly displayed an utter lack of interest in Unitarian Universalism, coupled by an absolutely brilliant comprehension and description of the roots of what it would be in the new millennium. Far from seeing individualism and spirituality as the enemies of American religious culture, he saw them as longstanding players that any viable religious institution would have to deal with; he read literature I thought I knew with a lens opposite to my own: not how do we maintain our core, but how do we deal with the natural, sacred impulse toward personal spiritual power? I still recommend both of the books that persuaded me he should have the job, even though I am very grateful that, with the passage of time, we now spend our Emerson dollars on Dan McKanan, who takes a more pastoral approach to seminary teaching and Unitarian Universalist Studies.

But that is not what I sat down to say.

What I wish to communicate is the incredible weight attached to a decision structured like the Emerson Chair or the Presidency of Starr King. These positions, unlike parish ministry, are neither collegial nor rotational. There might be guest speakers but, especially with a professor, there will be no policy governance. And when it comes to finding and communicating direction for a seminary, there will ultimately, in the particular selection, be one direction chosen and others left behind.

In other words, the structure means the search committee is going to have to fail, and fail big. Even if your candidate fulfills all your aspirations for her or him, achieves more than you imagined, she will only be one. All the paths other spirits wanted to follow will disappear into weeds. It’s the road not taken, and you may be sure, it really does make all the difference.

At first I declined to share this story because for such a long time it was so painful, and I love not thinking about it any more. I can understand why people in such a pressure cooker would panic, utterly despair, about the direction a decision was going. Indeed, only recently have I stopped second-guessing my decision those twenty-some years ago. Should there be students on the search committees? I would say yes, and not fewer of them, but more. At the time I felt, and still feel, that if more people had been able to talk openly with me during the process, I might have taken a different path, and a generation of seminarians might have had a more institutional-minded professor for their denominational studies. Nevertheless, as I say clearly, I treasure David Hall’s historiography, and his courage in prioritizing the facts of spiritual journeys over the hopes of denominational commitment by funders. Indeed, the questions he posed and researched bedevil us still.

Or maybe my decision would not have mattered. In the end, what cheated the Harvard UU community, and our Association, was not the choice we made, but the fact that we had to choose. We had a radical individualist versus a stellar institutionalist. I felt then, and feel now, that Conrad Wright had so thoroughly conquered the scholarship on the institutional impulse, and had many decades to preach and document his anti-individual vision — that the individualists — of which I am not one — deserved equal time, weight, and dignity. Judging from our ability to serve them, their time is not yet done.

But that tension within academia is not the biggest issue in 2014. Today the tension between individualism and institutionalism is slicing through our very understanding, not only of ministerial education, but of ministry itself. More and more, the ministerial asset of “continuing education” has devolved onto congregational members. More and more, the parish minister will send people off to learn skills for which, at one time, a colleague would have been hired. At the same time, our seminaries are expanding their definitions of ministerial tracks for which their graduates might delude themselves that they will be paid, and paid well. But most of these careers are not going to pay anything like the sums these students will hand over, and then pay back for decades. Nor will all these students find jobs in these careers at all. Indeed, like me, they might find themselves treasured by the congregation to which they belong, paid occasionally for a finite, focused offering, and bound by collegial ethics to refrain from speaking in public on matters about which we once cared enough to disrupt our families and fortunes.

My time in seminary was precious, and I would not have omitted it for anything. I loved parish ministry, but was not constructed for it. Did my education pay for itself? No.* And that, in the end, is the paramount fact underlying the scandal at Starr King. I hope it will be seriously examined at GA. Yes, I have colleagues whose careers follow the ideal path, or who hack new roads by which liberal religion shines its light into the wilderness of an unstructured public square. But are they the majority of people who struggle to pay back seminary loans? Whose children seethe at the hours spent in Clinical Pastoral Counseling instead of watching the softball games or waiting at home to talk about how the date went? Whose spouses give up — or already gave up — because this religion has asked the aspiring minister to discern an irrefutable life commitment? The Department of Ministry should be forced to reveal the numbers of applicants, much less candidates, compared to the number of jobs available. Perhaps the money spent on that school should devolve to massively enhanced support to lay leaders, using enhanced district staff and e-education.

In the decades since 1990, I have spent hundreds of hours providing free, non-copyrighted e-education to colleagues in UU religious education and ministry. Anyone may read this blog, and it is not protected in any way. All I ask is that you credit me for anything I have done well, as so many others have blamed me for what I did less well. If this where most of us are winding up, the question is not “Who shall be the president of Starr King?” but “Should Unitarian Universalism maintain such institutions, at such cost to its most passionate adherents?”

*My family of origin was able to write a single check for my student debt about 18 months after I graduated; that particular long-term penury is not the burr under my saddle.