Are You a Subversive?

Last Sunday, I told the origin story of Renaissance Festivals in the United States. The first one, the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in California, came partially as a response to the Red Scare that blacklisted many people in the motion picture industry. Phyllis Patterson, a public school teacher, decided that her principles prevented her from signing the “loyalty oath” all California public employees were required to sign, in which they vowed to not be subversive.

What does it mean to be subversive?

Well, according to the Oxford dictionary, it means “seeking or intending to subvert an established system or institution.” When I think of so many of the established systems that were created to reinforce white supremacy, I think, well, yes, I would want to subvert that.

But then when I look closer at the legal understandings of subversive, such as “insurrection” and “seditious conspiracy,” I say, well, no, I wouldn’t want to be part of that, and I do believe in things like the peaceful transfer of power. I am at heart an institutionalist, but I believe that requires looking very closely at the institution and working to make it better.

It was common knowledge during the 50s and 60s that if you attended a Unitarian Universalist church, your name was probably on an FBI list somewhere. That was not paranoia. After the Freedom of Information Act was passed, stories emerged of UUs — individuals and congregations – who were targeted.

Unitarian Universalists, with our progressive leanings, emphasis on justice, and culture of nonconformity, were suspected subversives.

What does that look like, in 2024?