Main content | Sidebar | Links

Saturday, August 25, 2007

What does 'liberal, welcoming' mean at your church?

Friday's Washington Post includes a column that opens with this anecdote:

The sign outside Accotink Unitarian Universalist Church in Burke announces that it is a "liberal, welcoming religious community." For Rep. Tom Davis yesterday, it was more liberal than welcoming.

The Virginia Republican, a possible Senate candidate who supports the Iraq war, had bravely agreed to attend a meeting of the antiwar Americans Against Escalation in Iraq. It was a journey into the belly of the beast, and Davis got out in one piece. Almost.

He accepted -- but did not drink from -- the bottle of water with the sticker saying "Iraq War/Wrong Way." He spoke from the lectern with the poster demanding "Representative Davis . . . End This War." He politely endured shouts from the audience: "Chicken hawks! Impeach Bush! Our children are dying! You didn't answer the question!"

Then, as the moderator tried to bring the forum to an amicable close, a man in the second row stood up. "This has been a terrible meeting!" shouted David Kuebrich. "Let's not thank Representative Davis, who has been for the most part lock-stepping with the Bush administration."

Others applauded, booed Davis and joined in the protest. The congressman, buttonholed by angry activists, beat a hasty retreat, pushing aside chairs to get out of the church.

Be sure to watch the video report, too, which shows the event organizers doing a good job of trying to establish a civil meeting.

So: Does the fact that an antiwar group held a forum on a weeknight in a UU church sanctuary with a moderate Republican Congressman and a mainstream Democratic adviser mean that the congregation betrayed its "liberal, welcoming" self-image? If the congregation itself had hosted the event, I sure would have let the podium and the water bottles go unadorned. But the boorishness of some of the activists in the audience doesn't necessarily mean that the church itself is unfriendly. Then again, UU political activists are not always the folks I'd appoint to the church welcoming committee.

If this article were about your congregation, would you be more indignant at the reporter, the organization sponsoring the event, the people in the audience, the congregation, or the Congressman?

("For a man in the middle on Iraq, church provides no sanctuary," Dana Milbank, Washington Post 8.24.07)

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 25 August 2007 at 11:05 AM

Previous: Mark Lilla, William T. Cavanaugh on religious violence.
Next: This week at All parents teach religion.





August 25, 2007 11:57 AM | Permalink for this comment

I read the newspaper article and watched the video. During the forum, the crowd for the most part sat silently and listened to the speakers. I was surprised at how biased the Washington Post reports are - using insulting terms to refer to folks on the political left. It is not clear to me from the so-called news reports how the event was advertised by its organizers. It sounds like Rep. Tom Davis was the only person from the right who agreed to attend. And as the video report says - he "perhaps foolishly" agreed to attend. From the video - the crowd was for the most part polite, assuming the reporter highlighted the most confrontational behavior. To answer your question: who would I be the most indignant at? The reporter. The bias in the report seems extreme to me. The use of the word "moonbat" ????? That is totally inappropriate.


August 25, 2007 01:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

Read the announcemet of this event in the church newsletter Philo and I think you may see some answers to your questions.

Church newsletter Quote:
AUUC Hosts a Town Hall Meeting with Rep. Tom Davis
On Aug. 28 at 10 a.m., AUUC will host a town hall meeting with Representative Tom Davis, sponsored by Americans Against the Escalation in Iraq for the 11th Congressional District in Virginia. The purpose of this meeting is to let the Representative know that his constituents are against the war. So far, Mr. Davis has declared himself to be opposed to the war in Iraq but his voting record shows otherwise. This is a chance for his constituents to show their opposition and to also ask questions of Tom Davis. There will be other speakers as well. This event is open to the public and would be a great substitute for the nUUners program, which does not meet on this day. Bring your friends and neighbors too.

hafidha sofia:

August 25, 2007 01:56 PM | Permalink for this comment

It sounds like it was intended as an opportunity for the Rep to hear from his constituents, not the other way around.

But maybe there was miscommunication about that?

In any case, what are ethical, *effective* AND "polite" ways to influence one's representation to ... represent you? Maybe there needs to be some more education on that. For everyone.

Jamie Goodwin:

August 25, 2007 02:26 PM | Permalink for this comment

I can honestly say that if my church were to post a sign of such blatantly on sided opinion. I would ask them to take it down, and if it was refused, I would not attend as long as it were up.

If my congregation suggested having a forum that was so blatantly one sided I would be dead set against it.

That said, I do not think what happened is the fault of the church in which it occured and it is evendent in the report that they WP knew something was likely to happen and wanted to use it as a way to trash politically liberal persons.

What I do not understand is taking the time to follow someone out the door of the meeting and harrass him with questions and not take the time to speak to the reporter and explain that religious liberalism is not the same as political liberalism.

Steve Caldwell:

August 25, 2007 04:15 PM | Permalink for this comment

Gee ... an ill-advised war is still happening and there are no easy ways to extract ourselves from the mess that we've gotten ourselves into. The congressman voted to support this war.

And you're wondering why people are angry?

Some of the people quoted in the print article were people of faith but not Unitarian Universalist. There was a Roman Catholic Nun who was quoted as speaking about the "untold damage" of the Iraq war, the "diminishment of moral and political leadership," and her view that the conflict is "contrary to international law."

Should we also assume that Roman Catholics and other Christians are rude because they disagree with the congressman?

Yes -- there is disagreement with the "moderate centrist" congressman and his constituents. This disagreement was both vigorous and forceful. And this is viewed as rude?

No one called the congressman unpatriotic, immoral, un-American, un-Christian, etc. I heard no "verb-pronoun" exchanges during this event. All I heard was disagreement being expressed and citizen disgust with politics as usual.


August 25, 2007 04:40 PM | Permalink for this comment

Personally, I don't think political events should be held in church sanctuaries at all, period. A common room, fellowship hall or meeting space is a different matter, but the sanctuary should be off limits, no matter who is officially sponsoring the event.

That said, I think the reporting was horrendous, which surprises me from Dana Milbank, since he usually seems pretty reasonable.

Bill Baar:

August 26, 2007 08:20 AM | Permalink for this comment

I was one of the hecklers at these meetings years ago for a different war.

At the Third Unitarian in Chicago. They had an older closeted faction from the American Communist Party that sponsered the meetings.

As time went on, it was impossible to get anyone to argue the pro war case.

And we kids went on to become more radical and disdainful of the older secret Reds.

So we started heckling them instead, for not being open reds like us, and hiding behind UUism: a liberal bougeois fraud.

What's you get into the habit of throwing bricks at people it gets hard to stop and you just keep looking for new targets.


August 26, 2007 02:27 PM | Permalink for this comment

While I do not support shouts and pushings (if there were finally any), I am proud and glad that someone who supports the invasion of a country and the murder of civilians for the "greater good" of oil and world politics is publicly ashamed and has to hear what some honest American citizens think. I will mention this to my fellow Europeans to show that it is not true that the American people support war and murder (as it actually looked to many of us in 2003, at the time of the "freedom fries").


August 26, 2007 05:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm not in any way challenging the idea that elected officials should interact candidly with the people they represent. I'm not even necessarily challenging the idea of hosting a forum with elected officials in a house of worship. I'm asking whether the way this particular event played out reveals something important about what we mean when we describe our churches as "liberal and welcoming." When we say that our churches are "liberal," do we mean that political moderates and political conservatives should expect to be met with this kind of response — or do we make a distinction between what openly partisan advocacy groups do in our spaces and what the congregation itself stands for? And if we mean the latter, how do we make that clear in a culture that no longer knows what liberal theology or religious liberalism mean apart from political progressivism?

Please note as well: The only opinions I've expressed about this event are that some of the people in the audience were boorish — they were — and that I would have discouraged putting openly hostile messages on the podium and water bottles.

Finally, I'm mad about the conduct of this dismal war, too. I'm amazed that this particular congressman had the guts to go to what he must have known would be enemy territory; he has a hard case to make, but good for him for showing up. I thought the reporter overdramatized the scene, based on what I could see in the video, but didn't misrepresent the situation. And I thought it would have been really helpful if there had been a way for the article to make a distinction between the religion promoted by this church and the politics of advocacy groups that meet there, if such a distinction exists.

Clyde Grubbs:

August 26, 2007 05:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

The laity of the generation(s) that created both the Unitarian and Universalist movements in the United States were very political and very passionate about their politics. Meeting houses were public buildings and not only did they "instruct" their represenatives, but the elections took place in the meeting house! Let us recall that here was no secret ballot and shouting down the opposition on election day was a common practice by Adams men and Jefferson men (Federalists versus the Democratic Republicans)

In New England some of our congregations split because some of the congregants were Federalists and some supported Jefferson. The preachers preached their endorsements the last Sunday in October, and pulpits were won and lost on the sentiments of the passionate pew sitters.

In the 20th century we opted for civil politics and bipartisanship and churches have become less engaged in partisanship. There are pluses and minuses to this development. On the positive side, we don't split congregations, we can go to a political debate with the expectation that we won't get punched, and we get to meet the opposition and discover our common humanity. On the negative side, we have less than half our electorate participating and the politicians work at being banal.

Would that we discover a new manifestation, a politics both engaged and civil.

It strikes me that the video reveals that this meeting was an attempt at that kind of participatory democracy. Perhaps that is what the Washington Post is targeting, they would prefer that we sit back and listen to their approved experts and then choose between the Democrats and Republicans. Grass roots activism has been marginalized in that journal for decades.

Peter B:

August 26, 2007 07:04 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think this is a wonderful anecdote for how Unitarian Universalists no longer, in fact, practice liberalism. This may not have been a church-sponsored event, and there certainly were non-UUs at this meeting, but this incident signifies for me the dominant ethos of Unitarian Universalism today. We have traded "the disciplined search for truth and meaning" for demagoguery.

The essence of liberalism is an open and free exchange of ideas. A liberal mind and spirit is one that is open to new ideas, to hear opposing arguments with respect, remembering that new insight can come from those who disagree with us, and to assert one's claims with the humility that one might be proven to be mistaken. The liberal spirit is discerning and reasonable, and does not accept all truth claims at face value. Openness, broadmindedness, and generosity are the hallmarks of liberalism.

A generation ago, the theological bottom fell out of Unitarian Universalism. It has been replaced with a narrow politics and, more recently, a vacuous narcissism posing as "spirituality."

I am dead set against the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and I let my elected representatives know this in no uncertain terms. I am also dedicated to a civic society based in liberal democratic principles. Demagogues, fanatics, censors and boorish bullying at town hall meetings are the antithesis of liberalism.

Peter B:

August 26, 2007 07:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

So in response to your query, I think that the culture at large won't distinguish liberal theology or religious liberalism from liberal and progressive politics because we ourselves, unmoored from our historic testimonies, no longer do. Like this reporter, we read a church sign that says "liberal community" and assume it means politically left. For UUs, liberalism in religion now means supporting a certain social and political agenda... at church.

Steve Caldwell:

August 26, 2007 11:06 PM | Permalink for this comment


Perhaps my threshold for "boorish" is different than yours?

Perhaps my threshold for "bullying" is different as well?

If a highly paid congressman cannot handle constituents disagreeing with him without his feelings being hurt, perhaps he should be in a different line of work.

Statements like "Let's not thank Representative Davis, who has been for the most part lock-stepping with the Bush administration," "Our children are dying!" and "You didn't answer the question!" indicate passion. "Passion" is not the same as "bullying" nor is it "boorish."

I know we Unitarians have the reputation of being "God's frozen people" -- however, I didnt' know that passion was incompatible with Unitarian Universalism.

These statements from the crowd indicate a dissatisfaction with inside-the-beltway business-as-usual attitudes. But they are a far cry from bullying.

Based on the news coverage, no one used the fuck-word, no one engaged in verb-pronoun exchanges with the congressman, and no one threatened the congressman with physical harm.

He may have felt uncomfortable at an event where most of the room disagreed with him and criticized him for past political stands.

But that isn't bullying nor is it boorish.

It's simply constituents criticizing the representative that works for them.


August 27, 2007 08:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

Steve, I've never defended the Congressman's feelings or tried to protect them. But shouting at and interrupting someone who had the courtesy to show up as an invited guest to your own group's meeting is, by definition, rude, even if you disagree with them. Passion is no excuse.

Clyde, you raise an interesting (and unsettling) precendent. I'm reading Forrest Church's new book about the religious politics of the first five U.S. presidents. He explains that one thing that muted the openly partisan and often ferocious politics of the New England clergy was the elimination of tax support for their churches (in 1818 for Connecticut and 1833 for Massachusetts). Before that, they may have been a civic-minded elite, but they were also quite clearly a self-interested caste — and they were easily manipulated by politicians.


August 27, 2007 01:50 PM | Permalink for this comment

The Congressman won.

The church lost.

Having a group of people yell at an isolated individual who is trying to be polite generates sympathy for the individual, which, of course, is why the journalist spun the story that way.

The church controlled the space and could have presented itself in a better light. Regardless of the church's overall righteousness, it's guilty of bad political theater.


August 27, 2007 10:07 PM | Permalink for this comment

That's a shame that it happened the way it did. but who really did the shouting? Do we know it was church members? This was open to the public, and full of passion, and not as rude as it could have been.
Maybe it's that "class" thing -- we upper class intellectuals expect good manners at all times. I remember in the 1960s when someone from the John Birch Society came to speak at an LRY meeting. We listened very quietly and politely, and then demolished him, quietly and politely, with the intellectual brilliance of our questions at the Q&A period.


August 28, 2007 12:21 AM | Permalink for this comment

Yeah, what UUWonk said.

I didn't like that taking place in the sanctuary either, or the political signs on the church lawn.

Also the "voting in lock step with Bush" thing isn't true. According to the Washington Post, Davis votes with the Rs 82 percent of the time. (Item: The average Democrat votes with the Democrats 92 percent of the time. Known rebel Republicans Chris Shays and Ron Paul voted with the Rs 75 percent of the time.)

Davis IS a Republican, but he's great on DC statehood.

The part of the video that annoyed me the most was:

Milbank: Davis couldn't get out of there fast enough.

(footage of Davis slowly moving a chair out of the way and walking out of the room at what could only be described as a casual pace.)

who has known a lot of well-mannered working class people.


August 28, 2007 11:17 AM | Permalink for this comment

This incident leads me to ask, What is "a peace church"? What do advocates of that mission-statement mean by "peace"?

Classical civilizations had rules for debate, so that disagreements could be thoroughly aired and both sides understood. These rules naively assumed that rational arguments, fairly presented, would sway an audience of open-minded listeners, while deepening the agumentatative integrity of adherents on either side. This definition of debate assumed the lesser value of "ad hominem arguments" (attacking the person rather than the position) and "anecdotal evidence" (inflammatory or sympathetic illustrations in place of statistical analysis of data).

One definition of "peace church" would be "a place where classical debates were offered for voters who are endeavoring to make informed, rather than emotional, decisions." The best participants would not be politicians at all, but rather academics, responsible journalists, and policy researchers buried in the bowels of administrative or legislative branches of government.

It would be hoped, however, that these debates would be offered while real choices were still available for politicians, not, as in this case, many years too late. The question now is not whether we belong in Iraq, but what are the means and consequences of various withdrawal strategies.

kim (not the one above):

August 29, 2007 12:45 AM | Permalink for this comment

A couple of things came to my mind when I read this:
1. This had to be an upper-middle or upper class audience. Working and middle class audiences, on the whole, don't act like this at a political event.

2. UUs have a heck of a long way to go on being either liberal or welcoming.

Even though I would have a really hard time answering the question of what a "peace church" is, I will be starting my ministerial studies at a Quaker seminary in January, and hope to learn. I do know that the Quakers, Church of the Brethren, and Mennonites all consider themselves peace churches and say that it begins with a stance of pacificism.

Scott M:

August 29, 2007 04:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

Kim (the first) said:

"That's a shame that it happened the way it did. but who really did the shouting? Do we know it was church members? This was open to the public, and full of passion, and not as rude as it could have been.
Maybe it's that "class" thing -- we upper class intellectuals expect good manners at all times. I remember in the 1960s when someone from the John Birch Society came to speak at an LRY meeting. We listened very quietly and politely, and then demolished him, quietly and politely, with the intellectual brilliance of our questions at the Q&A period."

Wow. Really. Most of the folks that have taken the time to be belligerent about the war (that I've seen) are middle-upper class folks who don't have relatives IN the war. I've seen far too many liberals (a political group that I consider myself to be part of) that are angry and instead of using it for productive change, they're yelling and shouting rhetoric. Really, will shouting that a Congressman is a "Chickenhawk" change his mind after years of a war? Like he never thought of that before and suddenly will be awakened? A lack of manners, for sure, but let's face the classism in the assumption that low/lower-middle class people are the ones without manners.


August 30, 2007 02:39 PM | Permalink for this comment

I once witnessed a summer program guest who was treated so rudely that I wanted to apologize to him. His only sin was having "non-rational" religious beliefs that inflamed the "rationalists" in the audience. I was raised in the UU church and came to believe that we were open and welcoming; as an adult I have seen that we are anything but that. In my position as a chaplain I use my UU upbringing in welcoming ALL belief systems.


Desmond Ravenstone:

September 2, 2007 08:56 PM | Permalink for this comment

Whether because of class or passion, there is no excuse for the behavior described here. Congressman Davis was, and is, owed an apology.

There's the old saying that "One can disagree without being disagreeable." Certainly the members of the crowd should have gotten all of their facts straight about Davis' voting record (and thank you, CC for showing us). Nor should they have resorted to name-calling and shouting.

I was always taught that one of the definitions of "liberal" was "open-minded." Doesn't seem like the bulk of the crowd fit that description.

Do I think the congregation was responsible? In part, yes. IMHO it would have been better to have a member of the church leadership serve as host and moderator, and make it clear that disruptive and disrespectful behavior would not be tolerated. I remember that being done when, as a high school student, I attended a panel discussion on the nuclear freeze at a UU church here in Massachusetts.


Comments for this entry are currently closed.