Hugh Taft-Morales is the leader of the Philadelphia Ethical Society and the Baltimore Ethical Society. He is deeply rooted in the Ethical Culture and the Ethical Humanist movement as a leader and a member, and a scholar. He describes his experiences and work in this in-depth interview.
*This interview edited for clarity and readability.*
Tell us your family background — geography, culture, language, and religion.
I was born in 1957 in New Haven, Connecticut. I am the son of an academic father and an artist mother. I grew up in a secular household and as part of East Coast Liberal culture. I was loosely part of the Episcopal religious culture around me in terms of general acceptance of Judeo-Christian morals, but I was not taught to believe the metaphysics of religion.
I never thought I’d go into something like Ethical Culture clergy work as a profession, but, after 25 years of teaching history and philosophy, I found myself really wanting to share some of what I learned in teaching and in school in a more inspirational setting in order to make the world a little bit better — not to be too dramatic about it! That’s what drew me into Ethical Culture work.
And what about your own educational background? How does that play into your own humanistic values, if at all, during your development?
Yea, it probably did because what I ended up focusing on in college was history; primarily, US history (20th century). I was intrigued by post-Civil War history in terms of the ebb and flow in the United States of the power of money versus the power of populism — the tug-of-war between the robber barons and the rise of US populism. The farmer grain cooperative movement against the railroads. Teddy Roosevelt in the White House fighting the corporations. The rise of business during and after WWI and during the ’20s with power swinging back into corporate pockets, then the Depression bringing in more modern Democrats opposing corporate power, to the Welfare State in the ’60s, and so on.
I left college wanting to go into politics. I lived in New Haven on the Yale campus where my father was a professor. After graduation, I worked in Capitol Hill for one year. I enjoyed it. My humanist education focused on real mundane social justice issues, where people are both the ones responsible for the horrors of the world and responsible for making the world better. I never had the desire or the need to look beyond human beings to make this world better. My humanism is grounded there.
My first five years of teaching was at a private school in Washington, DC called St. Alban’s. Many sons of the elite went there. I began to appreciate the inspirational side of a religious school. I tried to teach the ideals of the human mind to allow kids to imagine a better world.
If you don’t imagine a better world, then you might fall into thinking of the personal acquisition of material riches as the path to a better world so you get as many toys as you can before death. However, if you believe in the possibility of a better world ethically — and somehow that was part of a meaningful life for you — I thought it would help people, myself included, to live a more ethical life. That began to draw me, initially, into Ethical Culture. I hadn’t heard of Ethical Culture until I was about 13 years into my teaching career. It came late for me.
How did you first become involved in The Ethical Society of Philadelphia, in depth?
Through the Washington Ethical Society. I lived inside the Washington beltway. I joined the Washington Ethical Society in the 1990s when we had two children and a third one on the way. My wife and I never thought of joining a religion. She calls herself a retired Catholic. She is very disgusted at the wealth and the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church and the misogyny.
We wanted our kids to grow up with some religious literacy. We didn’t think about it too much until one day our eldest son said at the table, “Mom, Dad, who is Jesus, again?” He was 7-years-old. [Laughing] We realised he’d be impoverished culturally. We could have done more of that, but our friend talked about the Ethical Society. They had a Sunday school program, which taught religion from a humanist perspective.
They taught that religions are human creations. This is the history. They had very sensible approaches to sexual education. We used Our Whole Livesprogram, which is our Unitarian program, which is down-to-earth, non-judgmental, and holistic. We were drawn into it because of our child. After going to the Washington Ethical Society for a year, or two, I began to appreciate a moment in the week apart from the chaos. Teaching and raising children, and the rest of life is chaotic, I began to assess where I was in life.
Ethical Culture began to grow on me. I found myself teaching at the Ethical Society. I decided to run for the board. I served on the board for a number of years. I was a president for one year. However, it became clear to me that I loved the teaching and preaching aspect — the motivational aspect so I decided after a couple of years on the board to go through the leadership training, which is our version of seminary work. I ended up getting the job in Baltimore at the Ethical Society.
My training took me about four years. I did internships at 3 ethical societies. My first year was in Baltimore. The next year I got a job in Philly. I am now splitting my time between Baltimore and Philadelphia commuting from Washington. I don’t use this term often, but I did use it when I applied for leadership positions. They ask you the same question, “What draws you into Ethical Culture leadership?” I said, “I felt called.”
I don’t have a drop of superstitious thought in my head, but saying “I felt called” seemed right. It was a way to express my values and admit my limitations with integrity and wholeness. It was a profession that became more of a vocation and a way of life for me. That was a nice direction. I loved teaching. I could go back tomorrow. I think it is fantastic as a job, but I don’t regret the shift.
With respect to being the current leader of the Philadelphia Ethical Society and the Baltimore Ethical Society, what tasks and responsibilities come along with these positions because I would see the teaching background as relevant to the current work in leadership?
It is. My teaching background was relevant to my current work in Ethical Culture and Ethical Humanism (I use interchangeably.) Sometimes, I see the term “Ethical Culture” as representing a historical legacy because that’s what it was called originally. But in the mid-20th century, more and more people started to use the term Ethical Humanism because it connected to a broader movement. There are distinctions in humanism generally, but the term Ethical Culture had this Victorian antiquated feel to it. People didn’t get it, necessarily so Ethical Humanism works better in speaking to the general public.
In my job I play the same role as a minister in a small congregation, basically, but take the God aspect out. Both Baltimore and Philadelphia are small, like 80–90 members. Unlike Washington, and New York and St. Louis which are larger (around 300+). Anybody who goes into ministry knows there’s a big difference between running a small, medium, and a large society, what your roles are. Since I am in a small group, I am more of a jack-of-all-trades.
Primarily, my duties are teaching, preaching, counselling. I do adult ed., courses and outreach, events, one-off interviews with humanists, courses on Darwinism, or moral philosophy, or animal and human studies. Last year, in Philadelphia, we had a year-long series called “Capitalism in Crisis,” which was eight evenings with guests from around the country speaking on various aspects of capitalism’s limitations and problems.
The counselling, obviously, is there. It takes a lot of time. That’s why counselling needs to have boundaries so that it doesn’t become long-term counselling. It’s more helping people get through crises and helping them secure long-term counselling or psychotherapeutic counselling to help them get what they need.
In both Ethical Societies, my work touches on many aspects of running a small organisation more than I’d like, because it is not what I’m drawn to. It can involve making sure meetings run well, and agendas are set, helping all the volunteer-run committees, helping manage our listservs. I am basically the only staff person for our programs, and we have an administrator in Philadelphia who looks after the building, finances, and other tasks. I handle our membership.
There are lots of little things that need to get done or congregational development elements. How do you make sure your newsletter is well-produced? How good are your Sunday morning programs? Sunday morning is the hub of the wheel, so to speak. Like other small liberal congregations, our weekly meetings have a liberal lean to them. But in Ethical Culture we are exclusively non-theist and that’s important as a term for me. That means we don’t take a position on whether God exists or not.
Ethical Culture has always been non-theist because we believe that what’s most important in is how you live your life. If you battle over whether God exists or not, you often miss the point. Felix Adler, who founded Ethical Culture over 140 years ago, wanted to make sure there was a home for people who wanted inspiration and community without the metaphysical baggage, Ethical Culture doesn’t turn away theists either because the core message is that it is more important how you treat each other than your reasoning behind it, theistic or not.
That said, if you’re theistic and if you’re looking for a community that meets once a week and supports people and does social justice work, and you believe in God, then you’re probably going to go to some form of church, mosque, or synagogue. Consequently, many of our members tend to be atheists, freethinkers, and sceptics. But I have to remind them that there’s a distinction between our identity as a group of people and our mission as an organisation. While many of our members are atheists, our official position is non-theism. That allows us to focus on our mission: to inspire and support people to live closer to their ethical values and ideals.
What do you see as the main threats to the practice of humanism and Ethical Culture in general within the United States and within Philadelphia, in particular?
I’d have to say, greed, money. It’s a little simplistic, I know. I studied plenty of Marxism in college but I’m not a determinist. I’m not a simplistic materialist. I am basically a naturalist and materialist in one way, but not the way Marx was a determinist. But I think he got it right in saying that one way to understand oppression is basically to “follow the money.” Often greed and money push people to violate the values of humanism which looks at human beings as having inherent worth and dignity.
Most humanists believe that human beings, including oneself, should be treated well. Reason and compassion are the best tools for us to get along and figure out public policy and so on. All of those values are shared widely in humanism. I think they’re most challenged when somebody can make a buck by violating those values. I’ll bring up an example of the prison-industrial complex, which is making money off of criminalising the poor, particularly poor people of colour. It is not just criminalising. It is dehumanising. It is humiliating people who get caught up in the system often due to a system that tries to maximise profit. Private corporations are making money due to the criminalisation of poverty.
Again, a little detail that I think crystallises this. I worked with an organisation in DC that tries to help families and inmates stay connected. They are doing things like making sure phone calls are affordable between the prison and the home. This organisation facilitated skyping between inmates and their families. But I see how hard the system works against these efforts. The system seems to try to minimise the most powerful thing that could keep an inmate feeling loved and able to love — their family. The system tends to do everything it can to take that away due to some absurd, retributive approach to criminal justice. Ethically, it’s devastating to me. My tax dollars are going to support this retributive and profit-driven system.
Money works against my faith in the inherent worth of every individual. That faith is not based on a naïve idea that everyone is “nice.” No, there are going to be people who are dangerous in the world. But our default is to dehumanise and to incarcerate, and we do it not just individually, but with large systemic, racially-biased systems from the top-down. And so I think the biggest — and I see more and more humanists agreeing with this.
I have a lot of respect for Roy Speckhardt of the American Humanist Association (AHA) for focusing on social justice issues. I see the Foundation Beyond Belief focusing on how to make the world better interpersonally regarding justice and so on.
I appreciate that. Thank you. You mention the poor and minorities as the primary victims of what some call the “prison-industrial complex,” where the ability to have a phone call with loved ones or family, or even a Skype call, become difficulties. I mean, the main punishment in prison is isolation. You can be surrounded by, you know, murderers, rapists, but the main punishment is isolation.
It goes to show, as a social species, we know the main punishment you can give to people is keeping them alone away from other people in minimal sensory conditions, minimal sensory input conditions. In the industrialised world, the United States leads in fatherlessness. In minority communities, the thing you did not mention, the main thing is lack of fathers, and prisons, mostly, are men, especially poor minority men.
So there are tied in, not necessarily “systemic” because the term has lost a bunch of meaning based on overuse in and out of context, socio-cultural sets of factors that come into play to reduce the amount of time innocent people, by which I mean children, have with their primary caregivers, at least one of them in most cases. So I agree with you, and just wanted to take that one more step.
There’s a lot of truth in what you say. It’s complicated. You remind me of when Patrick Moynihan wrote his famous report about the deterioration of the black family, which I believe came from a place of compassion based on facts and research, but it got turned into a political weapon that pathologised the black community. Politicians used it to turn the victims of our system into threats to “law and order.”
The problem began to be described as the “black problem,” rooted in the pathology of the black family. That was the way it became framed. This type of framing is happening today. I am wary how race issues are being defined and who is defining the problem, and where the problem lies.
Because it is all part of this pandemic afflicting areas of poverty in our cities. This urban focus is tied to the history of Ethical Culture which took root in the eastern coast in urban centres. It was involved with empowering the urban poor from the very beginning. It’s part of my focus. But our members all focus on ethical issues that most interest them. We deal with thousands of different issues.
Many are concerned with environmental justice. One of the enemies of humanism is global climate change because if there’s anything likely to reduce people to greater desperation and greed it is environmental collapse. Look what happens when water supplies are stressed — poverty rises and wars can break out. The ability of anyone to fulfil their potential as a human being decreases if their natural environment is devastated.
Many members have put a lot of time into LGBTQ issues as well.
However, I am a generalist. I know a bit about many things. I try to support many causes, but we are not first and foremost a social justice organisation. One of things I tell our members is, “We are not an advocacy organisation. We are not experts in advocacy. We are offering people a home to nurture their own commitment through community support and through human inspiration. This inspiration can be as simple as the reading of Carl Sagan or the reading of poetry or sharing of music.” We get involved in many social justice projects, but we are not experts on the issues.
Most ethical humanists — those that take part in Ethical Culture — might not care too much about the history, about Felix Adler and how he was Jewish, wasn’t so keen on it, and invented Ethical Culture. They might be more keen on the more immediate concerns you’re pointing out — greed, climate change, and nuclear catastrophe.
I agree. I am drawn to history. Most members care about how do you live in the world now, meaningfully, in dealing with these issues.
Also in a smaller context, what are more heart-warming stories that you have had in your time in Philadelphia, as a leader there?
The testimonials people give about what the Ethical Society means to them. There are some consistent themes. There is the feeling the Society is their communal home. There are fewer opportunities to be part of organisations that speak to the deepest parts of our humanity. I don’t know if you know Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone?
His whole theme of the flattening of culture. the fact that there are fewer deeply meaningful connections. Those that come to society say, “This is what I am looking for.” They discover deeper meaning. I know some people were burned by their religious experience. It is thinking, “I can’t believe there is a group that is trying to deepen their connection to life in a way many religions do while not requiring a litmus test of belief.”
Another area of heart-warming experiences as a leader is bringing together interfaith coalitions. That includes coalitions of reason with sceptic groups and more traditional interfaith groups in the Baltimore and Philadelphia areas. The social justice work I am involved with the most is along the more traditional community-organising model.
In Philadelphia, the Ethical Society is a member of POWER, Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild. In working with people of traditional faiths, I have worked through my own resistance to traditional religion. Often, when we start what is called our “clergy caucus,” we start with a prayer. However, POWER invited humanists into the circle. I felt welcomed by those clergy from traditional faith traditions. In addition, I am so impressed with the civil rights work of POWER. They focus on bread and butter issues affecting marginalised groups.
Being involved with POWER is not about advancing my “denomination,” or increasing our membership, it’s about working in broad coalition. In Baltimore, our interfaith coalition has numerous non-theist organisations involved, like homeowners’ associations and day-care cooperatives too. They tackle tough issues.
They show up time and time again, whether at city hall, the city council meeting, or protesting on the streets. They protest against the proposed youth jail being built or against a large tax giveaway development program, which will create a gentrified neighbourhood in an urban area displacing those currently living in substandard housing.
There are people who put their lives on the line in ways I can’t manage quite to do. I am more sheltered, more comfortable, more scared, less able to take that so-called “leap of faith” into a commitment that is truly inspiring. I do my best
Those would be two areas I find heart-warming — testimonies from our members, and interfaith work — where I feel the joy and the warmth of work that I do.
For those that might want to found a humanist organisation or an Ethical Humanist organisation in particular, to build on previous legacies of Ethical Culture in their locale, how might they go about doing that?
Reach out to the American Ethical Union in New York, or call me at the Philadelphia or Baltimore Ethical Society, I will connect them. One Ethical Society was begun this past year with incredible energy and vibrancy. They have support from inspirational and historical elements, to practical advice on the various elements of congregational growth best practices in terms of how to get off the ground.
They get advice about routines that seem to work, which help groups craft intellectually satisfying and aesthetically pleasing events. I don’t think Ethical Culture is at its best when it is intellectual alone. We have a long history of that. Some deep thinking and talks offered, but more and more it’s necessary to create a sense of belonging and a rhythm of shared living. You can learn about that by studying successful congregations.
In Ethical Culture, we even have a sort of informal liturgical calendar. We celebrate the solstices, the equinoxes, the harvests, and the Spring festival. There’s a focus on the cycle of life. There’s a focus on various transition moments in life. We have coming of age programs. We perform weddings and memorial services. Different societies have different levels of programs and things to offer. My kids went through the Washington Ethical Society coming of age program.
It was one of the most moving experiences in my life, when I saw what it gave not to my children, and to many families. Ethical Culture is described by some people as “a religion of relationships.” Whether you use the term “religion” or not, Ethical Culture is about relationships so the coming of age program in Ethical Culture is not about the kids coming to a point in their life. It is about how parents and children negotiate the transition from childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood in a respectful way to nurture their relationships.
The broader society does not help teens become responsible adults. It tends to label kids, teenagers, as problems or difficult creatures, when they are in fact incredibly joyous human beings. We need to do better in building relationships between teens and adults. Parents have to be supported so that they avoid being both oppressively dictatorial or overly permissive.
Ethical Societies can help build relationships and deepen communities. It does this by speaking to the heart and the head. It uses rhythms, rituals, and programs that can have an aesthetic beauty to them in addition to wonderful speakers and social justice causes.
Do you have any feelings or thoughts in conclusion about what we have talked about today?
There are so many different areas I could go into, but here are two things I’d want to add:
First, there is a pragmatic streak in Ethical Culture. We are what we are by virtue of our history and communities together. There’s a rich interchange there. We don’t hand down rules and say, “This is how we are.” We come together as a community and say, “What do we agree on what we value? What about our history do we draw forward?” I like it.
We are open to change. Sometimes, it is as if herding cats. [Laughing] But that’s what comes with respecting the integrity of individuals and being open to conversation and pragmatic testing and change. But there are some values that we tend to agree upon, at least in Philadelphia and Baltimore where I serve. There is a lot of agreement.
One value we generally agree upon is the inherent value in every individual. That means respecting the individual as unique and irreplaceable. Every person has infinite worth that is not determined from the outside. It is part of who they are as a person. It is not necessarily proven by reason or given by human nature or divinely provided by God. But we agree to try to live as if all people have inherent worth so we are choosing to act towards people as if they are all unique and irreplaceable. That’s one value: inherent worth.
Second, the application of inherent worth universally, believing that everyone is of worth. To me, that leads to social justice work against systems that deny the worth of so many. Systemic injustice must be confronted. Finally, the third value would be true relationships. We respect that relationships are organic. They evolve. They’re respectful. They’re open. They’re compassionate. They’re candid. It’s about being compassionate and open, not on being superficially “nice.” I don’t think being superficially “nice” is respecting the other person. Respect includes being open and sensitive to reason and facts.
A second point I will leave you with is part of my personal journey. It focuses on the Masters thesis in philosophy that I wrote after my first 5 years of teaching. I was intrigued about how people in ethical conversations often seem to be talking past each other. And I keep using this following example.
Imagine somebody going into a burning house to save their child, and they run out of the house with it. Quite often, in western philosophical circles, people might say, “Oh! Look at that example of altruism, he was sacrificing himself for a child. What was a wonderful gesture!” Other people would say, “No, he was clearly doing it out of self-interest. It was his child.” Others would say, “It’s a bit of both.”
But that conversation occurs within a context of moral thinking in which all moral issues involve the balancing of individual interests. I didn’t think that captured so many examples of human behaviour. I didn’t think the father was being altruistic or selfish. It was not a case of whether he sacrificed himself for the baby or used the baby to feel better about himself. I prefer to say, “No, he ran into the fire because he was the child’s father.” This is not about individual interest. That is not about the weighing of values or the worth of individuals. It is about a relationship.
I saw wisdom in alternative approaches to justice that focused on relationships, from aboriginal cultures to Hegelian systems of relationships. Overgeneralising Hegel’s theory, it claimed that the whole is more primary than the parts. Hegel was used by Marx in this way. Marx would say, “We are what we are via virtue of our relationship to the means of production. If I own the means of production, and I am extracting the surplus value of labour from my workers, then I am a capitalist. If I do not own the means of production, and I am a tool of my oppressor and, as a result, I am a proletariat. I am what I am most essentially by my connection to the economic whole.
Fascism, which also drew from Hegel, said, “You are what you are by relation to the whole, the nation-state.” You can see that in Spartan soldiers who died in the battlefield and were said to have died in self-interest. How can you say you died in self-interest? [Laughing] You’re dead! Well if you are defined by your relationship to the state, then you are a soldier. By dying as a soldier you fulfill your role and in a heroic fashion. Nazi Stormtroopers did the same. They were fulfilled as part of the whole. I see these as politically motivated perversions of relationally-based systems of identity.
But there is something important about this regarding identity. I am what I am because of my relationships. I am a father, which is relational. I am not fully described by my autonomous existential existence. While a part of our identity is defined by our autonomy (I am an existentialist after all), part of our identity is defined by relationships. I am living in relationships. What I love about Ethical Culture is that it allows for this duality of human nature. We are creatures who are essentially autonomous from other people in a deep and profound way. That aspect of our identity can be seen in much Enlightenment thinking. At the same time, we are relational creatures. For me, balancing those two poles of my existence is the art of living.
How do I do justice to both my autonomous nature and my relational nature? I don’t do justice by rejecting relationships. I am autonomous, but I also live a life of joy with family and friends, and being a citizen of a country, and a man, a creature, on this planet. To me, that combination of autonomy and relation is fascinating. And Ethical Culture has that assumption of our duality undergirding it. I think this is due in part because Adler came from a very collectivist culture in eastern European Jewish culture and came to America where he was amazed and impressed at our individualism. Somehow navigating both of those aspects was necessary to be a part of individual life and of this country.
I appreciate that very much. It is insightful. Thank you for very much for your time, Hugh.
Original Publication in Humanist Voices.