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Monday, April 30, 2007

This week at JLA's 'fascist' prophecy.

Chris Hedges caught a lot of Unitarian Universalists' attention when he started invoking UU theologian and social ethicist James Luther Adams to promote his argument that the United States is on the brink of Christian theocracy. Hedges says that, in the 1980s when he was a student at Harvard Divinity School, Adams predicted that "we would all be fighting the 'Christian fascists'" by the time Hedges was Adams's age. I noticed Hedges talking about Adams in a "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly" interview, then in articles in Harper's and Truthdig, and finally in his new book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America. George Kimmich Beach, the most prominent UU interpreter of Adams's work, writes that Hedges's new book misses key elements of Adams's thought and misrepresents what Adams would have to say about contemporary religious politics.

For people who just can't get enough of JLA, here's my 2005 review of Beach's book, Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams.

In the news, Don Skinner reports that Wiccans who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces can at last have their religious symbol on their military tombstones. (Don had reported back in December on the lawsuit that pushed the Veterans Administration to approve the symbol.) Sonja Cohen tracks yet another fascinating week of Unitarian Universalists in the media.

P.S. Sorry for the late posting; Mrs Philocrites and I were out of the country for a long weekend — ah, Montreal! — and didn't get back to Boston until this afternoon.

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 30 April 2007 at 8:47 PM

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May 1, 2007 04:13 AM | Permalink for this comment

At the risk of veering off topic, I have two awarenesses to offer -- if we are truly concerned about the threat of eventual fascism in America (fascism defined as "a political theory advocating an authoritarian hierarchical government":

Awareness #1. Rather than worry about churches, look first at our schools -- where all of our youngest and most vulnerable Americans are daily trained in how to be "adults" in America, with no expectation of real freedom or voice within the "authoritarian hierarchical government" of school boards, administrators, and teachers, all of whom comprise a total rule over the daily school reality of each student. (And remember, that the American model of mass-schooling is derived directly from the Prussian model of mass-schools, "kindergarten" through "doctorate" -- and that Germany society suffered with those schools long before America began forcing all of its own communities to adopt the same totalitarian approach to learning)!

For a reassuring alternative to the Prussian model of schools, please see how well our own recently home-grown approach works, for real democratic learning for kids, at

Does anyone else wonder: Why does the USA rely on non-democratic schools to "educate" the upcoming citizens of our democracy? What an amazing contradiction -- of our most basic values as a freedom-loving society!

Awareness #2. Christian Churches have a fascinating chapter in their own history -- ie, how, during the rise of Nazi Germany in the early 1930s, it was Christian Churches which gave vital public support to Hitler (save for the lone gallant rebel/martyr Bonhoeffer)

Here's a link...

And, a quote from the above webpage...
"Through the Bonhoeffer story, viewers observe the Church of Germany in the 1930s, so anxious to ride the Nazi wave of popularity that it ordained Hitler the "savior" of the German people. Against Bonhoeffer's strong protest, the church clung to a false sense of patriotic nationalism when confronted with the reality of brutal oppression of the Jews, and in so doing "paved the way for the Holocaust."

So, let's remember, and remind others, too -- that we have so many unrung bells of freedom, within our own daily lives, and that it is only by talking often about freedom, that we can hope to keep and safeguard our freedoms.

Are you talking about freedom, for yourself and others?


May 1, 2007 07:27 AM | Permalink for this comment

American public schools may have many shortcomings, but I disagree that they pose any particular threat of breeding fascism. (If your definition of "fascist" is so broad as to mean "highly structured," well then, we've been doomed already for many decades.) American research universities were also modeled on German universities, but are now the top scholarly institutions in the world — as well as notably liberal.

Bonhoeffer wasn't the only German Christian to oppose Hitler. He was part of a larger, though still minority movement of German Christians.

Dudley Jones:

May 1, 2007 12:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

JLA was not only an enemy of fascism. He is the only UU figure I know of who made it very clear how much he was an enemy of communism. Then again I am not an actual UU history wonk. There may be others I never encountered.


May 1, 2007 12:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

Dudley, it's true that Adams was clear in his denunciation of communism — but he wasn't the only one. The most prominent Unitarian to make anticommunism an important part of his public ministry was A. Powell Davies, the minister of All Souls in Washington, who sharply criticized McCarthyism and communism.

Jeff Wilson:

May 1, 2007 12:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

Random history tidbit that might be relevant to Tawmess' theories: kindergartens were introduced to the USA by the Unitarians (in particular, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody). I think there was a UU World article on the subject a few years back, if you'd like more details.


May 1, 2007 01:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jeff is remembering an article I wrote about Elizabeth Palmer Peabody called "Kindergarten's radical advocate." Unitarians were also prominent advocates of the idea of public education and of the introduction of German studies, German liberal theology and biblical scholarship, and German models of higher education to the United States — so Tawmess's generalized hostility to German culture would also run into problems with UU history.

Jeff Wilson:

May 1, 2007 01:18 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for the citation, Chris. I think we can't over-emphasize the importance of late 18th and 19th century German developments in religion and higher education for the evolution of Unitarianism (less so for Universalism). While first filtered through British Romanticism, American Transcendentalism was in large part an adoption and extension of ideas and aesthetics first expressed in Germany.


May 1, 2007 02:25 PM | Permalink for this comment


In the 40s and 50s the AUA was quite anti-Communist. Pro-Communists like Steve Fritchman and Noel Field were purged. Even today, this remains a sore point. For example the official histories of the UUSC play up minor figures like the Sharps while ignoring the contributions of the far more active Field.

Google "Noel Field" for an amazing story that the UUA would rather you didn't know about.


May 7, 2007 05:41 PM | Permalink for this comment

Wow -- what an amazing set of comments, showing how tricky "effective communication" really is...

Alas, I had hoped to see suport for my call for freedom for all (including our younger students, and thus their teachers, too) - as the real safe-guard for our nation's hard-won celebration of freedom.

Where are the defenders of real freedom?

Clearly, I have much to learn about how (and where) to ring anew our dusty bells of freedom -- so, back to Gandhi and Tolstoy and Thoreau, for me...

Help me here? Given your expertise in UU history and philosphy -- who might I read, to gain insight into how to create and cause powerful new freedoms for all, thus to counter the oppression we see all around us everyday (if we are not yet blinded to such "always-been-this-way" oppression)?

Or, perhaps this is not the appropriate blog to speak of freedom, and to attempt to "ring bells of freedom" for those who are mightily oppressed (such as all students and teachers caught within our industrial-model of mass-schooling)?

A few quick responses...

Mass-schools do not breed fascism, so much as breed people unwilling and unable, later as adults, to protect themselves from whoever would seek a non-democratic future for our nation (which most likely will not be fascist at all, but perhaps some unseen and un-named corporate-based control of politics, media, and society).

Philocrites, it's very interesting that you dropped "authoritarian" from your mistaken restating of my offered definition of Fascism (from Why?

Also, it's very interesting that your defense of US schools mentioned only "research universities". Why?

My concern clearly is the crippling lack of freedom for the overwhelming majority of students who are too young to be aware or to resist their daily oppression, and then are no longer free by the time they might be strong enough to resist.

Also, I see no response here yet, to my original quesion -- "Why does the USA rely on non-democratic schools to "educate" the upcoming citizens of our democracy?"

Our "Freedom" deserves our highest efforts - and our current mass-schools are apparently designed to dispel all hopes of real freedom within the daily "school" efforts of students and teachers

FYI #1...
To clarify, I have no "hostility of German culture", having lived there for several years in the mid-70's, even after serving in the US Army there (in military service to "protect freedom and liberty for all"), and I also learned to speak German, and became a member of a highly-admirable German family -- and I now see Germany as the place of my "rite of passage" in so many ways, and rejoice at its re-unification as a modern miracle.

FYI #2...
Prussia is the culprit, not Germay... My original post pointed to Prussia (through the mid-1800's) as the culprit in creating industrialized mass-schooling -- designed to best serve the State's authoritarian needs, over and above the individuals' needs to learn to be free and to insist powerfully on liberty, for themselves and others.


May 8, 2007 04:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

Tawmess, I simply don't think I understand you. No one took up your question about "non-democratic schools" because, I suspect, you took so much for granted that most of us couldn't figure out how to engage you -- or whether to take you seriously. (I can't recall you commenting here before and don't know if you're a Unitarian Universalist, for example, and so I concentrated on the ways that Unitarian history would make UUs an unlikely audience for your critique of the idea of public education.)

You clearly have a vivid idea in your own mind about how the public school system is undemocratic, but you didn't make an argument to that end; you simply dropped in, said several things rooted in assumptions that I'm pretty sure I don't share, and then wondered why I hadn't endorsed your views. As a public-educated guy with a public school teacher for a dad, I could plead "brainwashed," I suppose. But as a liberal who opposes tyranny and authoritarianism, I think you're finding enemies in all the wrong places.

Freedom and democracy are very nice words. I believe in them, and apparently so do you -- but we probably mean different things by them. I am not convinced that America is under the tyrant's thumb unless we immediately convert to the Montessori method and send all our children off to be unschooled; other things are much higher on my list of concerns. That's not to say you might not be right, but I didn't find you persuasive -- especially the charge that we public-school folks have been bred "unwilling and unable . . . to protect [our]selves from whoever would seek a non-democratic future for our nation."

A thought: We might have had a better conversation if you had found a way to invite us into a conversation about how school models help develop people's understanding of human liberty. Instead, you linked public education -- which religious liberals have been deeply invested in from the beginning -- to fascism. Somehow, that strikes me as a strategic error on your part.


May 11, 2007 01:40 PM | Permalink for this comment

Now we are talking -- Big Thanks, Philocrates, for your valuable insights and efforts, with your fine blog!

Later, I'll post here a careful response to your careful comments. For now though, here are some quick thoughts to share...

(I trust you will let me know, if I should find a more appropriate website for sharing these ideas?)

As you sensed, I am indeed just beginning to learn here -- how to invite others to ring new bells of freedom, for all students and teachers!

Plus, as a long-time visitor and admirer of UU congregations, I highly appreciate the gentle, good-hearted, fair-minded community of UU thinkers (who already profess an accepting encouragement for self-thinking, and self-led learning).

Your blog seems perfect, for sharing my concerns, and for exploring UU's approach to real freedoms for everyone - in other words, to ask if UU advocates it's Seven Principles as a worthy approach for all, or only within UU itself (with schools being exempt from calls for real freedom).


Since nowhere in my comments did I refer to "public" schools, it is extremely interesting to see that my concerns were read as an attack on "public schools" only.

Listen here -- the core problem is the total authoritarian nature of our mass-schools, public and private.

In other words, let's all stand for consistent application of "American" ideals -- including, especally, all students and teachers within their classrooms, as a clear learning demonstration of the worthy nature of American ideals (for the best personal education for each individual, for their adult life, as well as for our country and planet).

What are we, as adult society, so afraid of -- that we eagerly defend the denial of real freedoms for our kids and teachers within schools?

I'll write more soon...

Thanks to all here!

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