Sunday, March 07, 2010

On the UUAWO and staff cuts

Scott at "Boys in the Bands" has two posts on the announced staff cuts at UUA HQ, Bad day for the UUA, and Thinking about the UUA staff cuts, and we had this exchange of comments: "Joel Monka wrote: Why “oh crap?” I was calling for the elimination of the UUAWO years ago, before the fiscal crisis. Scott Wells wrote: And you were wrong. But more about that later."

I think from the second post that he may have misunderstood the nature of my disagreement with the UUAWO. My argument is neither from political policy reasons nor from polity reasons- nor is it anti-democratic. My primary complaint is that the UUAWO, and our other social justice organizations, for that matter, often do not take their stands strictly on principle but on political expediency. For example, does anyone remember this UUAWO mass emailing?

For information on the “nuclear option” and judges, including UUA letters of opposition, Visit
With a vote expected on the “nuclear option” on Tuesday afternoon, religious people committed to protecting the rights of the minority to speak on issues that effect all Americans, must publicly stand for pluralism and democracy. We are committed to a pluralistic society with respect for the beliefs and rights of all people. Our Unitarian Universalist faith guides us on a path of affirmation of difference and preservation of the democratic process.
“To claim that minority-party senators and their supporters are acting ‘against people of faith’ because they wish to preserve the Senate filibuster is an affront to millions of devout Americans."— Rev. William Sinkford, President, Unitarian Universalist Association"

That was five years ago- fast forward to today: the president is calling for majority leadership in the Senate to abuse the budget reconciliation process to bypass the filibuster, and Senators Begich (AK); Bingaman (NM); Brown (OH); Durbin (IL); Harkin (IA); Johnson (SD); Kerry (MA); Lautenberg (NJ); Lieberman (CT); Shaheen (NH); Udall (NM) and Rep. Jim McDermott have all introduced or cosigned legislation to eliminate the filibuster. Where's our outrage now? Where's our "Save the Filibuster" campaign? If the filibuster is that central to democracy, don't we believe in democracy anymore? The answer, of course, is that then it was a Republican majority and we disapproved of what they were doing; today it is a Democratic majority, and we approve of Democratic Party policies. It was never about the filibuster per se, nor our democratic principles; our outrage was cynical political manipulation then, and our silence is cynical now.*

But my objections to the UUAWO go beyond the fact that they make us appear to be not an independent church, but merely the Democratic Party's chaplain office. They are a complete waste of resources. And no, Scott, I am not whingeing about how expensive the UUA is to run, and I agree that if anything, most are underpaid. Nor do I wish people who have served loyally to be tossed out in the streets- they are capable people who could do useful work elsewhere in the UUA. My point is that even if I agreed with the general principle of church as lobbyist**, our efforts are so ineffectual as to be a waste of resources. There's no reason to believe that our efforts have ever changed a single vote in Congress. There's more evidence for the existence of God than for "...the UUA Washington Office for Advocacy... influencing public policy decisions made by the U.S. Congress and Administration."*** Even if a lawmaker has ever heard of us- by no means a guarantee- he's unlikely to be impressed by our efforts. In fact, the more he knows about us, the less likely he is to be impressed by our efforts.

Why should he or she be impressed? Our vast numbers? If every UU in the entire US moved to a single congressional district, they would still only represent one quarter of the vote for that one Congressman! Because of our famous independent streak? If they know anything about us at all, they know there's nothing whatsoever that would make the average UU vote for a Republican; if there's a Democratic candidate so bad a UU could no longer hold his nose to vote- and I've never heard of one- the most that UU would do is stay home. Because having a church behind him is good cover? The only reason a Congressman would need a church endorsement is if he's taking heat from the religious right, in which case our endorsement would do more harm than good- the religious right does know us, and doesn't like us; I know Southern Baptists who would grant more grudging respect to The Covenant of the Goddess than to us. Because of our unflinching realism in facing human rights issues? After the former president of our association said, “I could not imagine the current U.S. president taking the time to honor questions about his actions the way Ahmadinejad did today.”?

The only kind of advocacy office that would be truly effective is one that serves as a resource, guiding members to organizations in their neighborhoods that can actually do something; a dollar given to an organization with a real voice and presence is worth a thousand dollars given to a group no one has ever heard of. And isn't that what the UUA is supposed to be- a resource to help the member congregations be more effective? Sure, it's an ego boost to have an official "UUA Committee to XYZ", but isn't actually accomplishing something more important than feeling good about being enlightened? I say, when it comes to "... influencing public policy decisions made by the U.S. Congress and Administration.", leave it to the pros, and let the UUA Advocacy offices be our guides to these pros instead. Stop compromising our principles to no effect, put the members of the UUAWO into positions where they can use their time and expertise assisting the congregations, (you know, the raison d'etre of the UUA) and use the money saved in these lean times to make UU a religion that new people will want to join, and current members will want to stick with. Perhaps if we do that, we will grow to the point where we have the numbers and influence to make a Washington office worthwhile. (though I would still have philosophical problems with it)
*And before you say "You're a conservative and are just against our positions", I want to point out that the filibuster issue I mention above was over the confirmation of a Supreme Court judge. I am on record, in writing, that my position is that elections matter, and that the President gets whoever he (or she, hope springs eternal) wants, barring an objection high enough that it would cause impeachment if it were found after confirmation- I supported both Alito and Sotomayor on those grounds. I stood by my principles through Clinton, Bush, and now Obama, even when it meant backing someone I didn't like. I will further point out that Senator Byrd- hardly a right winger- opposes the plan to eliminate the filibuster; he is being consistent with his positions. The UUAWO cannot say the same thing. So much for democratic principles.

**I am firmly against the role of church-as-lobbyist. The first reason is that corruption is a two way street; many who think they've bought a politician find that they have too much invested in said politician to walk away from him when they disagree. Then the rationalizing starts- "hold your nose and vote for him because at least he's good on the important issues"... then "Hold your nose and vote for him because even though he can't be counted on, at least he keeps the Democratic majority"... then you realize you sold your soul and didn't even get your payment for it.

The second reason is more philosophical. There are two types of things lobbyist fight for- the first is to get an obscure, less than obvious problem that is nonetheless vitally important to those affected looked at by Congress. Perhaps it's florists wanting a two week quarantine on man eating orchids because they might carry a blight of some kind. This is exactly the kind of thing the founding fathers were thinking of when they put the right to petition in the first amendment. I'm all for that kind of lobbyist- but that's not us. The other kind of lobbyist is fighting a social issue of some kind that he cannot get the general public to support- these range from prohibition to abortion to sexual issues. This sort of activist/lobbyist has discovered that you don't have to sway 150 million people to get your way- you only have to sway the right 268 Congressmen and Senators. Then the government will do your convincing for you, and use tax dollars to do it- it's the modern version of converting the king to your church, then gaining the whole country as converts. And it's so easy to rationalize... this is THE RIGHT THING TO DO (tm)- that gives us the right to sneer at those we disagree with, and cram our position down their throats by government fiat rather than listening to them, addressing their fears, and convincing them.

***from the Draft Statement of Conscience on Peacemaking

1 comment:

Doug said...

Well said!

Doug Traversa