Main content | Sidebar | Links

Monday, December 24, 2007

Announcing the Philocrites winter hiatus.

Seasonal Beacon HillMerry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone! I'm taking a few weeks off from blogging and am not entirely sure when I'll kick the ol' blog back into gear. (Would you believe that I started blogging during the 2002-2003 Christmas break?) Don't worry, though: I have a plan for keeping you informed and entertained.

You can keep up with UU World by signing up for its weekly email newsletter or subscribing to its feeds. You might also enjoy putting headlines on your site.

There are lots of interesting Unitarian Universalist blogs to follow while this one enjoys some R & R. Check out my Guide to Unitarian Universalist blogs and keep up with the interdependent Web at the superaggregator of UU blogs, UUpdates, or the more selective UUBlogs Kinja digest.

And find out when I've resumed posting here by getting Philocrites delivered to your email inbox:

Enter your email address:

(Delivered by FeedBurner)

Thanks for reading my posts, joining the conversation, sending me email, and making it fun to keep a blog.

Posted by Philocrites, December 24, 2007, at 03:08 PM | 1 comments

This week at Merry Christmas!

Meg Barnhouse finds herself at a Keith Urban concert, thanks to the kindness of a man who came to hear her perform at a coffee shop, which leads her to reflect on the reality and power of miracles.

From the archives for Christmas: Carl Scovel writes about Christmas pageants: "They're like war, childbirth, and one microsecond of a holy visitation." Michael Timko explains how Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol reflects the central ideas of nineteenth-century Unitarianism. And Ken Sawyer looks back at Edmund Hamilton Sears's Unitarian Christmas carol, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear."

In the news, Don Skinner reports that the UUA has purchased ads in 13 college bowl game programs. Don also reports on the murder-suicide that has rocked the Clearwater, Fla., UU congregation. And Sonja Cohen rounds up a final week's Unitarian Universalists in the media; the news blog is on vacation this next week.

I'm going on vacation, too, so those of you who count on Philocrites to let you know about new content at might want to take this opportunity to subscribe to the magazine's weekly email newsletter or check out the magazine's feeds.

Posted by Philocrites, December 24, 2007, at 09:58 AM | 1 comments

Saturday, December 22, 2007

GOP and Democratic candidates on executive power.

How do the Republican and Democratic candidates for president intend to treat executive power if elected? How do they view President Bush's extraordinary use of "signing statements"? The Boston Globe's Charlie Savage — whose investigative reporting on the Bush administration's use of signing statements earned him a Pulitzer last year — gets answers from Republicans John McCain, Ron Paul, and Mitt Romney and from Democrats Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Bill Richardson.

What's at stake? Savage writes:

Bush has bypassed laws and treaties that he said infringed on his wartime powers, expanded his right to keep information secret from Congress and the courts, centralized greater control over the government in the White House, imprisoned US citizens without charges, and used signing statements to challenge more laws than all predecessors combined.

Legal specialists say decisions by the next president — either to keep using the expanded powers Bush and Cheney developed, or to abandon their legal and political precedents — will help determine whether a stronger presidency becomes permanent.

Romney endorses Bush's expansive claims to presidential power — "The Bush administration has kept the American people safe since 9/11," he said; "The administration's strong view on executive power may well have contributed to that fact" — but McCain and Paul disagree. "I don't think the president has the right to disobey any law," McCain said.

Notably, tough guy and Iran hawk Rudy Giuliani did not respond beyond saying that a president "must be free to defend the nation." Mike Huckabee chose the via negativa, and Fred Thompson wouldn't answer, either.

On the Democratic side, Biden, Dodd, and Richardson called for an end to the use of signing statements. Clinton and Obama condemned the way Bush has used them but said that there are some cases when a signing statement should be used to protect "a president's constitutional prerogatives." Edwards criticized Bush's "abuses," Savage said, "but did not categorically rule out invoking the same expansive theories of executive power in other circumstances."

("Survey reveals candidates' views on scope of executive power," Charlie Savage, Boston Globe 12.22.07; my earlier posts on signing statements and executive power: "Against omnipotent rulers," 1.10.06; "Bush never met a law he couldn't sign. And ignore," 4.30.06; "Dick Cheney's omnipotent hand," 5.29.06; "Dick Cheney's imperial presidency," 11.29.06)

Posted by Philocrites, December 22, 2007, at 10:39 AM | 7 comments

Friday, December 21, 2007

More about ID checks at 2008 UUA General Assembly.

The UUA has posted an extensive list of questions and answers about the ID requirements at the site of the 2008 General Assembly in Ft. Lauderdale. The FAQ addresses a number of the concerns that some trustees and some ministers have raised about the location of next summer's Assembly; make sure to read the whole thing. (My take on the controversy is here.)

[Update: See also this new open letter from Bill Sinkford, Gini Courter, and Beth McGregor to all UUA congregations.]

Several key excerpts follow:

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, December 21, 2007, at 07:29 AM | 5 comments

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

'American Transcendentalism' watch: More reviews.

Book cover: 'American Transcendentalism'The reviews of Philip Gura's American Transcendentalism: A History are starting to pile up. I've already called attention to the disappointing Boston Globe review and the much more engaged New York Sun review. Here are a few more:

Buy a copy of American Transcendentalism from Amazon, Powells, or the Harvard Bookstore. (I'm hoping to finish reading it over my Christmas break.)

Posted by Philocrites, December 19, 2007, at 10:12 PM | 0 comments

Monday, December 17, 2007

This week at G.A. concerns; what's sacred?

Patrick O'Neill offers a Unitarian Universalist interpretation of the sacred. (His thoughts on evil also appeared in the Winter issue of UU World.)

From the archives: As the Winter Solstice approaches, Patricia Montley offers a meditation for the longest night. And with Christmas just around the corner, Eric Walker Wikstrom offers a UU take on Jesus and the modern seeker.

In the news this week, Don Skinner reports that top UUA officials have responded to concerns raised by the board of trustees and others about federal security measures in place at the site of the 2008 General Assembly. And Sonja Cohen brings you another edition of Unitarian Universalists in the media.

Posted by Philocrites, December 17, 2007, at 07:45 AM | 0 comments

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Next year's General Assembly brouhaha today!

Jane Greer reported for in October on concerns raised by UUA trustees about federal security procedures in place at the port in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where the convention center hosting the 2008 UUA General Assembly is situated. (Show an ID to get in.) Late last week, UUA President Bill Sinkford, Moderator Gini Courter, and GA Planning Committee chair Beth McGregor issued a statement responding to concerns that the security procedures might create an "unfriendly environment" for youth and pose other problems for "those not eligible for government-issued identification." On Friday, Don Skinner filed a long news update about the UUA leadership's response — and about what looks like a division in the ranks of UU ministers about the security procedures and about GA itself.

Oh, joy! It's next summer's GA brouhaha six months early! [Update: Before reading on, make sure to read the three items linked above. They provide crucial details and context.]

Some ministers are already clamoring for clamor. UU Ministers Association executive committee member Randy Becker tells Don Skinner: "I am one of those who will not subject [themselves] to an ID check to worship or practice my faith and will stand in solidarity with those who will be excluded by these checkpoints."

UUMA president Rob Eller-Isaacs, however, asks: "Would it be effective or prophetic for UUs to stand against security measures that protect the Port of Fort Lauderdale?" He adds: "It's not going to be helpful to blame the [UUA] administration or the [General Assembly] planning committee."

Chip Roush thinks some "theatrical activism" at federal port security checkpoints might turn into a marketing bonanza for Unitarian Universalism: "I'd like us to satisfy our consciences AND get condemned on Fox News." That should go well.

UUA trustee Rosemary Bray McNatt writes:

More than one of us who've spent the past several years preaching about the slippery slope of American civil liberties will have to decide if we feel like sliding down to Florida next June, much less explaining it to our congregations. The estimated $800,000 loss that the Association would have to absorb in order to change venues could be just as tough to justify to the fiscal conservatives among us. And nearly everyone seems too well-behaved to ask why the Planning Committee hasn't taken a harder line with officials who assured UU site visitors five years earlier that the convention center would be outside the security zone in June 2008.

Other clergy are lamenting security precautions that don't make anyone safer and asking what others think.

UU layperson Chalicechick, meanwhile, thinks the ministerial hubbub about ID checks rings a little false: "[D]oesn't almost everyone who attends GA fly to get there? Don't they need government issued ID to get on the plane?" She adds: "I get that some un-documented immigrants can't attend GA if government-issued ID is required, but honestly, I'd say the $300+ entry fee and the fact that GA is entirely in English would be greater barriers than getting ahold of a half-convincing fake ID."

In case you're curious, here's a Google Maps satellite image of the port and convention center, though you may need to zoom in a bit to see just how close the convention center is to the docks:

View Larger Map

Questions: Are UUs opposed to port security? Are UUs opposed to government-issued IDs — or simply the fact that some people don't have government-issued IDs? Is the concern primarily about the potential for racial profiling? Or is it at all possible that the real concern is not the potential behavior of security personnel at all but the potential behavior of our very own people? Finally, dear ministers, will a boycott of your very own General Assembly (or, more dramatically, a symbolic last-minute move to some other location) bring change to the world, or will it simply burden your own Association with huge amounts of debt that limit its ability to serve your congregations?

("UUA leaders respond to General Assembly security concerns," Donald E. Skinner, 12.14.07; "Memorandum on Fort Lauderdale Site," William G. Sinkford, Gini Courter, and Beth McGregor, 12.11.07; "Security at 2008 General Assembly concerns UUA board," Jane Greer, 11.2.07)

Posted by Philocrites, December 16, 2007, at 06:01 PM | 23 comments

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Boston Globe, New York Times dig out.

Mainstream media digs out

I was lunching with Chutney on Beacon Hill on Thursday when the snow storm hit Boston. (Good luck with the return flight to Atlanta during tomorrow's storm!) Among the pictures I took on the way in to work the next morning, this one shows the diligence of the mainstream media in digging out their newspaper vending machines in Central Square. Here's more of my storm photos.

Posted by Philocrites, December 15, 2007, at 11:39 AM | 7 comments

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Happy birthday, Frederic Henry Hedge!

One of my favorite forgotten Unitarians was born on this date in 1805. Frederic Henry Hedge helped introduce German language studies to the United States, encouraged his Unitarian colleagues' interest in German romanticism (which became "Transcendentalism"), and promoted a form of liberal Christianity that embraced ecumenism and historical change. (His wing of post-Civil War Unitarianism is often referred to as "broad church" Unitarianism.)

Last year, I discovered that his key book, Reason and Religion, is available in digital form. I highly recommend adding the chapter "The Spirit in the Letter" to your reading lists; it's Hedge's answer to Emerson's negative view of institutions and doctrines.

Thanks for the birthday reminder, James!

Posted by Philocrites, December 12, 2007, at 08:34 AM | 3 comments

Monday, December 10, 2007

This week at Mike Gravel's religion.

Michelle Deakin profiles human rights lawyer and Unitarian Universalist minister Karen Tse, who is helping to train public defenders in China and other countries as part of a global initiative to end the use of torture. The organization she leads, International Bridges to Justice, now works in six countries in Asia and Africa.

Columnist Doug Muder sits down with former Senator and current Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel, who has identified himself as a Unitarian Universalist since he entered politics in the 1960s (although he hasn't been affiliated with a congregation since he left Alaska in the early 1980s).

In the news, Jane Greer reports that the UUA Panel on Theological Education gave grants to two doctoral students in religious studies this year as part of an effort to revitalize aid to scholars. Jane also reports that a fire in the sanctuary of the Throop Memorial Church in Pasadena, Calif., appears to be arson. And Sonja Cohen tracks another week of Unitarian Universalists in the media.

Posted by Philocrites, December 10, 2007, at 08:48 AM | 5 comments

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Obituaries of extraordinary Unitarian Universalists.

Boston Globe obituary readers have been treated recently to the life stories of some distinctive individuals with Unitarian Universalist ties.

Last Tuesday's paper included the obituary of Jack Nolan, former head of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory computer systems group who went on to become president of the Massachusetts College of Art. He was a painter as well as a scientist! His memorial service is being held at First Parish in Lexington, which is the clue that he or his family have UU connections.

Last Sunday's paper featured the obit of Oliver Finney Ames, the youngest son of a Brahmin family with old Unitarian ties. (His family built the Unitarian church and many other public buildings in their company town, Easton, Massachusetts, back in the 1870s: Here's an online tour of the building; the embedded video documentary is extremely illuminating.) The obituary doesn't specify whether Ames himself maintained a connection to Unitarianism, although I've confirmed that Ames was affiliated with a UU church and that relatives are still members of the Easton church. His style of Republicanism is fading almost as rapidly as Brahmin Unitarianism, however. [Oops! Forgot to mention that Ames was a liberal Republican politician, philanthropist, and investor. —Philo]

Finally, I missed it when it was published, but the Globe eventually ran a full obituary for Natalie Gulbrandsen, an extraordinary woman who was, among many other things, elected moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association for two terms during the administration of William F. Schulz. (Schulz wrote about Gulbrandsen for

Posted by Philocrites, December 9, 2007, at 04:31 PM | 0 comments

Romney's pluralism tolerates all conservative religions.

In his much-discussed speech in Texas this week, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tried to shrink the big tent of American religious toleration even as he tried to make sure that Mormonism finds a place inside it. Many commentators have noted how Romney's speech endorsed a reactionary conflict between "people of faith" and "secularism" — conservative columnist David Brooks is especially good on this point — but I haven't yet seen anyone point to the way Romney subtly excluded a lot of people who aren't "seculars."

Consider, for example, this passage in the speech:

There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes President he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths.

I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims. As I travel across the country and see our towns and cities, I am always moved by the many houses of worship with their steeples, all pointing to heaven, reminding us of the source of life's blessings.

It's a pity Romney hasn't encountered more faiths. Rhetorically, the speech offers this list of the qualities he admires about other faiths as a personal statement about things Romney wishes Mormonism had, too, but it's more than that. The passage also fleshes out Romney's version of religious pluralism (or, to be generous, the version of religious pluralism he thinks he can affirm in a Republican primary). And what a narrow, conservative pluralism it is.

He lists the religions he has "come to know," the religions he believes draw their people "closer to God": ceremonial Catholicism, personalistic Evangelicalism, tender-hearted Pentecostalism, Lutheran "confident independence," Jewish traditionalism, and pious Islam. What's missing? I don't think it's accidental, although it may not have been deeply considered, that virtually no aspect of mainline Protestantism appears on this list; that almost no religious tradition's commitment to the social good appears on this list (unless you count abolition, the civil rights movement, and the antiabortion movement); that no liberal or progressive or reform tradition appears on this list; that no religion with roots in Asia or in pre-colonial America appears on this list; that no new religious traditions (apart, of course, from Mormonism) appears on this list. When Romney praises religious pluralism, only the traditionalist branches of ancient (or GOP-dominated) monotheistic faiths make the cut.

What he admires about other religions — and, by extension, what he seems to be saying deserves toleration — is conservative traditionalism. But millions of Americans, and not simply atheists and "seculars," are excluded by this definition. Romney isn't defending religious pluralism; he's defending conservatism.

What else might he have admired about America's religious communities? How about (among many other things) the tradition of charitable and social justice work of Catholic religious orders and lay volunteers, the Episcopalians' glorification of God through beauty and education, the conscientious peacemaking of the Anabaptists and Quakers, the teaching zeal of the Presbyterians, the modernizing impulse of Reform Judaism that brought Jews into the mainstream, the independence of mind and adaptability of the Unitarian Universalists, the mindfulness of the Buddhists, the visual parables of the Eastern Orthodox and the Hindus, the veneration of the land by its native peoples, and the inventiveness of new religious movements?

And why not acknowledge that many people are upright, honorable, and moral without subscribing to any creed or system of religion? I pity Romney if he has never had the good fortune to meet a trustworthy and ethical atheist.

By trying to define "faith" as conservative traditionalism and "pluralism" as a name for monotheistic traditionalism, Romney misrepresented the true diversity of American religion, explicitly dismissed Americans who don't identify with a religious tradition, and painted the traditions he did mention in a way that celebrates their most traditionalist wings and ignores almost all of their visions for the commonweal. What a disappointment.

Posted by Philocrites, December 9, 2007, at 04:13 PM | 7 comments

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Philo's hiatus won't stop the Mitt Romney links.

I seem to have run out of time to write for the blog these days, and can't quite tell when I'll have it back again. Like all Mormonism-watchers everywhere, though, I'm fascinated by the chatter about Mitt Romney's big speech later today about religion. I'd love to have time to write up what I think about Mormons in political office -- as a post-Mormon liberal who spent his young adulthood in Utah, it's not his Mormonism but rather his recently-embraced conservatism that troubles me about Romney -- but you can keep up with my reading on the subject by checking out the Mitt Romney links I'm collecting at

Posted by Philocrites, December 6, 2007, at 08:17 AM | 4 comments

Monday, December 3, 2007

This week at Psalm for exiles.

John Nichols offers a meditation on verses from Psalm 137 — "How could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" — and writes about the importance of maintaining one's beliefs when surrounded by people who disagree with you. (His article is excerpted from a new Skinner House book, A Wind Swept Over the Waters: Reflections on Sixty Favorite Bible Passages. And check out the new UUA Bookstore website!)

In the news, Don Skinner reports on an Illinois fellowship's "Winterfaith" program, which invites representatives of different religious traditions to introduce UUs to their winter holidays. Don also writes that Unitarian Universalists gave $50,000 to assist California UUs affected by the wildfires last month. And Sonja Cohen tracks another week of Unitarian Universalists in the media.

Posted by Philocrites, December 3, 2007, at 08:08 AM | 1 comments

Home : Archives : December 2007 | Previous month | Next month