Friday, November 21, 2008

Another presidential race (by Suzie)

           In a recent series, Echidne talked about women and religion. I want to use my church as an example of how sexism may remain, in even the most liberal settings.
          The Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961. The UU Association (UUA) has had seven presidents, all male, even though women make up more than half of our members and ministers. We have no formal barriers to keep women out of the presidency. In fact, UUs are notoriously liberal, and we have long supported women’s rights. Susan B. Anthony was born a Quaker, but attended a Unitarian church for most of her adult life. In 1863, Olympia Brown became a Universalist minister, the first woman to be regularly ordained by any denomination.
         UUs don't always know our history. I once taught about Anthony in Sunday school (what we call “religious education”). The grade-school children knew and admired the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, but they had learned little or nothing about any feminist leaders, including Anthony. (I've touched on this issue before, and Anna Belle has written more extensively here.)
         Perhaps one reason women haven’t elected a woman is that many think it’s wrong to let gender influence them, as if living in this world didn't already influence who they consider competent and inspiring. (Can anyone think of an institution that has a majority of men but has never elected a male leader?)
         In a blog this January, DianaKay compared the Dem primary to the UUA election in 2001 in which members chose a black man, the Rev. Bill Sinkford, over a white woman, the Rev. Diane Miller. Similarly, DianaKay, who supported Sinkford, was confident that “smart women” would resist “gender loyalty” and vote for Obama.
         Many UUs were proud to elect their first African-American president. The United Church of Christ was the first major, predominatly white denomination to elect a black president in 1976. But some media, including this interview with Sinkford by Bill Maxwell, a well-known columnist who also is a UU, attributed that first to the UUA.
Sinkford: Certainly the press thought it was an important event. Papers from the New York Times right on down ran feature stories about that, and I think, pretty clearly, Unitarian Universalists thought it was important.
          I guarantee that electing a woman would not have gotten the same media attention. Like other institutions, UU churches seek good publicity, and we want growth. Some people think that having a black president helps attract people of color to our churches. In contrast, there is no “added value” in electing a female president because women are already in the majority. A female president might even deter some men who already think of church as female space.
Maxwell: Although the UUA had more ministers in the civil rights movement, including the march from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. Martin Luther King, why does the UUA have such a hard time attracting black members today?
Sinkford: That's probably the most commonly asked question I get as I travel extensively in the United States to our congregations. My standard response is that for a faith community that is still predominantly white, it is not spiritually grounded to go out and try to acquire a few more dark faces so that the white members of the congregation feel better about themselves.
          In 1968, the UUA committed a million dollars for reparations to African-Americans, but ended up paying only half of that, Sinkford said. He said he and others felt betrayed and left the church. Some churches also have a hard time recruiting black members because they moved into “lily-white suburbs,” he said. For a long time, intellect dominated UU churches, rather than the “heart,” he said, but that’s changing. I guess that presumes that whites are more likely to have higher education.
           There are other reasons why our churches are predominantly white. For many years, UU fellowships and churches offered a haven of integration. In the 1930s, for example, Unitarians and Universalists opposed white supremacists in the Tampa Bay area. In 1955, the Unitarian Fellowship of Tampa evolved out of an interracial Great Books Discussion Group started that year by Unitarians. As time passed, however, other denominations welcomed people of color, giving them more choices.
           Liberal whites sometimes forget that not all people of color are liberal in all of their views, as the recent votes on same-sex marriage illustrated. UU churches welcome gay people, as well as atheists, pagans and others who might trouble someone from a conservative Christian background.
           UU churches are committed to social justice, but not everyone includes gender. Look at this debate between the two candidates for UUA president, the Revs. Laurel Hallman and Peter Morales, in 2009.
Question 4: On the topic of anti-racism and anti-oppression:
What experiences have you had that help you deeply understand the mindset and values of another culture? Are there practical things you will do to help congregations take authentic steps of transformation?
          Mentioning “another culture” limits this discussion to ethnicity. Focusing on multiculturalism, with no talk of gender, tilts in favor of Morales, who said: “There is no substitute … for the experiential.” In other words, as a Latino, he has lived with oppression. Hallman, who’s a non-Hispanic white, can make no such claims as an “authentic insider.” But that doesn’t stop her from discussing efforts on her Web site on anti-racism, anti-oppression and multiculturalism, with no mention of sexism. On his Web site, Morales said:
We point with pride to our forebears who were in the vanguard in the struggle against slavery, rights for women and the civil rights movement. Today our compassion and love for justice lead us to confront the great moral issues of our time: racism, human rights, immigration, economic justice, rights for GLBTQ people, and preservation of life on our planet.”
         It looks like “rights for women” no longer makes the cut. Morales wants a “truth and reconciliation” process in which white congregants own up to their insensitivity. When will male congregants confess sins of sexism?
         Morales wrote: “Many minority ministers have had tragic experiences in our congregations.” Yes, some congregants (of different colors) are insensitive and ignorant about other cultures. But I’d be amazed if a UU committed a hate crime based on race or religion. Yet there are liberal men who have such twisted feelings about women that they brutalize them. I’ve written before about the UU member in a neighboring congregation who killed his two children, his ex-wife and her new partner. Shouldn’t we be taking “authentic steps of transformation” to stop domestic violence and other forms of abuse and discrimination among our members?
         At our General Assembly, UU Women & Religion decided to support Hallman for UUA president. The Rev. Shirley Ranck, co-convener of W&R, posted:
For me as a woman G.A. was somewhat disappointing. Although I was pleased to see that there were many presentations being made by women on all kinds of topics, I was sad to see that there was almost no mention of women's concerns or issues of particular interest to women in any presentations by women or men. One particularly grievous example was a panel on international UU theology. A man introduced the program and every one of the six presenters from countries around the world was male. Not one of them ever mentioned women at all.
I did enjoy talking with the few people who managed to find our W&R booth, but I couldn't help but wonder how the placement of particular booths is decided. I am also wondering if our work on behalf of women, like the work of the 19th century Unitarian and Universalist feminists will be forgotten until some new generation of women in the future is motivated to dig our stories out of some obscure archives. What is it that we need to do, my sisters, to keep women from once again being overlooked and undervalued?
          Considering what I've written, why do I go to a UU church? I have great friends there, I need a community, and where I live, I haven't found any better place.