“Lies become law become fact become truth.”

Unitarian Universalist Church in Meriden
President’s Column, January 2017
Bob Reutenauer

“Lies become law become fact become truth.”

“I have lived for the last month with the sense of having suffered a vast and indefinite loss. I did not know at first what ailed me. At last it occurred to me that what I had lost 4abnt43bwas a country.”
Henry David Thoreau reflected on his bewilderment during the month between enactment and enforcement in Massachusetts of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1854. The author had been part of a very public campaign to keep the fugitive Anthony Burns from being taken back to a Virginia slaveholder.  Thoreau’s unsettled waiting period reminds the essayist Jed Purdy of the present haunting November to January interregnum before the transfer of power from President Obama to the next president.  Purdy admits of his own distorted relation to unfolding reality of the 2016 election.  I shared a species of Purdy’s “magical thinking” in the summer and fall: it is “impossible because it is unimaginable” for Donald J. Trump to be elected. No time for hand-wringing. “We may be at the beginning of four years of vigils, civil disobedience… and the tiring reassertion, every day, of basic facts against lies that are almost official, ” writes Purdy. This, he continues “is one of the better scenarios.” 

Seventy yeimagesars ago Albert Camus published The Plague  his classic allegorical representation of totalitarian society.  Political leaders refused and medical experts were not certain enough to call “a” plague “the” plague.  The words got in the way of reality and came to “describe a world that isn’t, and create a world that should never be.” Lies become law become fact become truth. Plague or fever, it is killing half the town and Anthony Burns is the property of a Virginia plantation owner. Camus’ protagonist, Doctor Rieux asserts his purpose, his value, in saving lives. What match is official absurdity in the face of justice and dignity?  Camus once wryly observed that in the French Resistance having “no reason for hope was no reason to despair.”  Doctor Rieux  finished his thought: “Yes, but it is no reason for giving up the struggle.”

“The most active spirit in the dissenting group….”

“The most active spirit in the dissenting group”: Universalism, Democracy, and Antislavery in the Hartford of John Milton Niles, 1816-1856. Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, pg. 100-126 (Summer 2015), Robert Reutenauer

The Reverend Daniel Foster was forthright in his encouragement of the freethinking members of the Poquonock Congregational Church in their apparent attraction to Universalism. His liberality soon went too far, however, for the Windsor, Connecticut church elders; in 1783, they asked him to leave its “troubled” pulpit. It was distressing to these Yankees that the Calvinist orthodoxy of human depravity, limited atonement, and the futility of individual action was giving way to the optimism of moral free agency and the simple creed of salvation for all under the care of an eternally benevolent deity.

Soon after the election of Thomas Jefferson to the presidency in 1801, the Poquonock Universalists, by then a majority among the faithful, gained control of the church society, the building, and its funds. Windsor, home of the Poquonock congregation, was one of only a handful of towns in Connecticut to send Jeffersonians to the legislature during the democratic “Revolution of 1800.” Only fifteen or so of these “Jacobins,” in the language of the dominant Federalist Party, held office in the General Assembly in 1799. By 1803, about forty of the two hundred members in the lower house were Jeffersonian Republicans. The near simultaneous emergence of these two developments – liberal religion and “democracy” – was no accident; and in the early life of John Milton Niles, they would together collide with the Connecticut Standing Order.

As a young boy growing up in Windsor, on a farm just south of the fractious Poquonock church, John Milton Niles was an early witness to the on-coming democratic assault on the status of Federalist political, religious, and economic elites. Of five children born to Moses and Naomi Niles, John was the second son, born in August 1787. After Moses died, Niles took responsibility for the farm and his younger siblings, while also attending the local common school and worshipping with the Universalists. By his late teens, he was teaching at the school, work he left in his mid-twenties to study law in the office of a local Democratic- Republican.

After the War of 1812, Niles ventured beyond rural Windsor into the often-hostile Congregationalist and Federalist stronghold of Connecticut. About this time Episcopalians were finally ready to end their erstwhile junior-partner status in the Standing Order. They had become frustrated with the General Assembly’s continued unwillingness to charter an Episcopal college. A scandal in which funds from the Episcopal-chartered Phoenix Bank were reportedly diverted to Yale College was the last straw. Episcopalians joined Methodists, Baptists, and freethinking dissenters like Niles to inaugurate the American Toleration and Reform Party in 1816. Extension of the suffrage to all free white males, religious toleration, judicial reform, separation of powers, disestablishment of the tax-supported Congregationalist Church, and a written constitution to replace the still-operative royal charter of 1662 were the policy goals of this movement.

In support of the cause, Niles issued a reprint of the first American edition of The Independent Whig, a series of anticlerical essays known as Cato’s Letters, authored in 1716 by the British “commonwealth men,” John Trenchard and Richard Gordon. The first American edition appeared in 1724 and was extremely popular and influential among the early revolutionary generation. In his lengthy preface, Niles reminded his readers that the original publication of these essays in London had “brought on the most violent opposition and attacks from the bigots and the legal hierarchy.” To publish them again, here and now, was worth the risk, he contended. Only by “free enquiry” and the “circulation of ideas” can civil liberties exist.

He targeted the clergy, “who in despotic governments …will always be found in league with the oppressor,” calling them the main obstacle to free thought in Connecticut. He accused them of approaching their ministry as “a trade and religion itself as merchandise.” The Congregationalist monopoly on this “trade” in Connecticut was enforced by the state government. He complained of the clergy’s “peevishness of temper, and the extreme impatience with which they hear contradiction. A furious and implacable spirit of persecution,” awaits those who cross them.

The church-state establishment was, according to Niles, the primary impediment to the progressive improvement of society. Both institutions, civil and religious, were corrupt, “leading to superstition and intolerance in the one and oppression in the other.” The remedy, Niles concluded, was “democracy”— popular self-government, within a new constitutional framework.  Sustaining this critique would be central to the life and work of John Niles for the next forty years.

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“It’s a Heart Problem.” Reverend Dr. Barber’s Long Summer

President’s Column.
Unitarian Universalist Church in Meriden
Robert Reutenauer. October 2016

A dozen members of our congregation joined a packed auditorium for the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber’s rousing oratory— “It’s a Heart Problem”— at Central CT State University on September 8. Reverend Barber’s North Carolina “Moral Monday” movement, which inspires duplication as he travels the nation, has become a force in many of our lives in a very short time. Our anti-racism ministry is key in helping us realize our mission. Angie Swimage-for-website-due-justice-9-8anger leads these efforts, and has done a wonderful job making sure that we  are practicing loving community, advancing justice, and nurturing spiritual growth while we are at it!  Witness our church’s deep involvement in Moral Monday CT and the newly formed  D.U.E. Justice group that sponsored his talk.  UUCM was well represented for the National Day of Action/Moral Monday CT demonstration in Hartford on Monday, September 12.

Reverend Barber spoke at the UU General Assembly this summer and later at the Democratic National Convention. Many of us watched on live feeds or streamed later.  It’s a Heart Problem,” he repeated convincingly all summer long while calling attention to how extremists expect to remake America by defunding state government in the interest of wealthy people and corporations. They hope that curbing federal health care and unemployment benefits to millions of qualified people in the states will be accepted as necessary for a healthy business climate. Cuts in public education, deregulation of polluting industries, denial of equal protection for gay and lesbian people, skyrocketing incarceration, and suppression of voting rights of minorities are key planks of this agenda.

The recent and continuing North Carolina experience of fight back against this well funded extremism is detailed in  Reverend Barber’s 2016 book The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of the New Justice Movement.  The book has been a “common read” for our Anti-Racism work this summer. What we learned from the book will no doubt feature in the “Revolutionary Conversations” series led by Bishop John Selders, a close Barber ally, at UUCM this Fall.

What does a 21st century social justice coalition look like? This is the question he asks in the book and that his organizing and preaching answers.  First, it must be a moral movement.  “We cannot let narrow religious forces hijack our moral vocabulary,” he charges.  “At the heart of all our religious traditions are truth, justice, love, mercy.”

It must be a broad and unified movement of justice loving people united in a coalition and committed to each others issues and to a strategy of “fusion” that can make real the promise of democracy. “We cannot come together to work for the common good by ignoring our deepest values…. We stand together where our values unite us and learn to respect one another where our traditions differ.” All manner of people are welcomed
— religious and secular, union members and merchants, immigrant rights activists and environmentalists, gay and straight, young and old, rich and poor, employed and unemployed, of all national origins, racial, ethnic and cultural identities.  No one says it will be easy.

It takes a long time to make history.  “Faith-rooted moral battles do not advance on schedules that make sense to us,” he writes partially as explanation for his title : The Third Reconstruction.  The First Reconstruction followed the Civil War emancipation of four million enslaved people, new constitutional guarantees of equal protection and full citizenship rights including voting. The Second Reconstruction defines the civil rights era when federal laws (1964, 1965, 1968) were enacted to bring these constrevdrbarberitutional guarantees (13th, 14th, 15th)  to life. One hundred years later. And we are still counting and being counted.

Resistance is our confirmation. We have enemies and they are powerful.  Extremist reactionary measures and violence rolled back  gains in economic and racial pr
ogress of the first two Reconstructions.  Barber delights in reminding us that the the “good news” of the bible  “ends not with Jesus taking Jerusalem through a popular uprising”  but his execution as an enemy of the state.  Two thousand years later and the world’s bequeathed from Rome and Israel measure calendar time by the date of that execution! Nonviolent civil disobedience in the face of similar dangers, he exhorts,  “is a tool to demonstrate our capacity for struggle” tomorrow and over the long haul of the Third Reconstruction.

“Home and Away”

August 2016
UUCM President’s Column
Bob Reutenauer

Yet if I am asked, “to whom do you belong?”, I would not want to answer, I belong only to myself”. I would say I belonged to those I love best.  And to places, loved places, some inside and some outside the window, some two, three hundred miles away, but, as we say, “part of me.”

While on vacation this summer I came across a gem of cultural history. The Delicious History of the Holiday (2000) by Fred Inglis “renders lovingly” how after 1850 in the UK and USA an “egalitarian and democratic movement of popular culture” invented the family vacation. Working and middle class people found need and opportunity to “excuse themselves” from the new demands of urban industrial modernity:  “to create a little space in which to renew the best, the most fulfilling and happiest relations of their lives: with those they love best, in the places they love best, and in the modest luxury life mostly denies them.”

It is worth considering what the history of our congregation in Meriden reveals in this regard. I’ll bet archival digging will yield insight into at least a few things we have inherited directly from the long summer’s past of our co-religionist ancestors.

Why, unlike most other religious denominations, do we “take the summer off” in a manner,  by shifting to a lower key in our mode of Sunday worship services? Ingliss demonstrates the “mass” not just “elite” embrace of summer vacations that began in the mid 19th century. Popular church outings, retreats, sEarly_Tab_DaveShenk 3tudy, and revivals figure significantly in this story. This alters my sense that this July/August practice came strictly from the upper crust character of many UU congregations— people for whom, as the joke goes, the word “summer” is an active verb- as in “where will you summer?”

Our congregation has always been filled with innovators, risk takers, restless critics of the conformities of their times. They sought to make change in business, politics, religion,  and met with success. The grandeur and prominent location of our former stone church and by the family names of key Meriden streets— Pomeroy and Lewis— early church members, come to mind achautaqua825bs evidence of this. How influential these model citizen leaders must have been for the congregation and the culture at large. Where did they and less well heeled congregants vacation? 

The places we visit on vacation writes Inglis “provide little fables for memories to shape into biography. The places which are so enshrined become way-stations in the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, about our safe belonging, about our history.” 

These pictures never wither. They join a mythic past to a free and fearless future. This is the great narrative we all seek to contrive out of our lives, the vivid coincidence of what each person believes about his or her life, with what their society can provide by way of loving corroboration and credible endorsement.