An Interview with James Croft, Leader of The Ethical Society of St. Louis

Was there a family background in humanism?

I grew up in a nonreligious home, and although neither of my parents identified explicitly as humanists, humanist values were very much a part of how I was raised. Both my parents are extremely nonjudgmental and supportive of the fair and equal treatment of all people. They raised me to be open-minded, to love learning, to question authority, and to respect the humanity in everyone. We frequently enjoyed culture as a family, spending a lot of time in the theatre, art galleries, etc., and we traveled often. This instilled in me a love of world culture and a sense of cosmopolitanism which I believe to be central to the humanist worldview. They encouraged political participation and a sense of civic duty. In its own way, it was a very humanist upbringing.

What is your preferred definition of humanism?

Humanism seeks to recognize and uphold the dignity of every person. It is a life-stance which asserts the ability of human beings to work together for the improvement of humanity, without the need for divine intervention. Humanists promote the values of reason, compassion, and hope: the ability of human beings to use our own intellect to make sense of the world; the equal dignity and worth of every person; and the ability of people to improve the world on our own.

How did you find and become involved with The Ethical Society of St. Louis?

I began training as an Ethical Culture Leader (that’s our word for the professional clergy who lead Ethical Societies) after visiting the New York Society for Ethical Culture while I was on the Humanist Institute’s leadership training program. I was studying for my doctorate at the time, and travelling the USA giving presentations on humanism, and I wanted to find a way to make humanist leadership into a career. When I discovered there are humanist congregations which bring people together to deepen their understanding of and commitment to humanism, I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I began my training with the American Ethical Union, and part of the training includes an apprenticeship at an Ethical Society. I moved to St. Louis to complete that apprenticeship, and then was hired as their Leader with responsibility for outreach. I feel very lucky: I’m one of very few people who are clergy for a truly humanist congregation.

What are your tasks and responsibilities as the leader of The Ethical Society of St. Louis?

I am one of two Leaders — the other is Kate Lovelady, who has been leading the Society for more than ten years now. I play many of the all the roles of a clergy person in a religious congregation: I provide pastoral care for members, speak on Sundays, organize events for the community, lead educational workshops and discussion groups. I have particular responsibility for outreach, meaning I represent the Society and humanism in general in public events. I speak on panels, make presentations about humanism, visit college campuses etc. I am the professional public face of our community.

What are the main threats to the practice of humanism in St. Louis and the US at large now?

I don’t think there are major threats to the practice of humanism, in the sense that people can believe what they want and practice that as they wish. There are, however, major threats to the success of humanist values in the culture. The US (and many European nations) is facing a very powerful populist right wing movement currently which threatens to overwhelm political institutions and make the country more nationalistic, xenophobic, and closed-minded. Trump — and the political forces which swept him to the presidency — represents a grave threat to the humanist ideals of international cooperation, respect for science, equal treatment of people, and religious freedom. All across the wealthy west people’s baser natures are reaching for the controls. People are afraid of their economic condition and tired of a political system which doesn’t serve them, and are looking to strongmen who promise a return to national glory. The parallels with the pre-war era are extremely worrying. The humanist movement must work extremely hard to help people resist these trends.

Who have been the most unexpected allies for ethical societies and the humanist movement in North America?

My strongest allies have been liberal religious clergy who understand the importance of crafting and presenting a powerful moral vision of society. Although we disagree over theology, these clergy understand the humanist project as an essentially cultural one, and since we share many of the same values, we are often together at rallies and events trying to promote a hopeful vision of society. I’ve been amazed by how principled and hardworking many liberal clergy are: I count them among my closest allies.