Our ministers ran out of time during the Aug. 19 service to answer this question: “We say all are welcome, but are they really? For instance, if a person came to service wearing a MAGA hat, would we make them feel welcome? Should we?
The question, which Rev. Paige Getty noted in her subsequent “In Between Sundays” email, resonated for me on a couple levels. As facilitator for nearly a decade of a weekly discussion group at the Florence Bain 50+ Center in Columbia that focuses on news, I’ve heard that same hesitancy multiple times, albeit lacking the MAGA hat. The first time, long before No. 45 even declared for the presidency, knocked me, as a political progressive, aback. My 36 years as a newspaperman dealing with all sorts of people quickly provided the tools to answer – tools that work. And they can work for us, too.
Here’s the thought process, with two caveats: First, let’s assume the MAGA visitor is passive, not armed. (The latter’s a whole different topic that, as announced during this summer’s fire drill, we’re going to hear more about.) Second, you and the passive MAGA fan may have to agree to disagree, which is OK.
So, for context, the Bain Center and UUCC are similar in one sense. Both are open to the public; walk right in. (I walked into UUCC for the first time cold, having chosen it from the Columbia phone book; I knew no one.)
That said, if UUCC were your home, not our place of worship, how might you respond to the MAGA fan as a guest? Would you welcome that person politely, neutrally, even if uncomfortably? Let’s assume, too, that getting-to-know-you small talk occurs as you, maybe others, and the MAGA fan size up each other. Where’s the line between your political and/or social views and what you perceive to be your guest’s views?
Keep chatting and listening. You might learn something. Or — and our congregation is large enough for you to do this — stay silent. Walk away. Agreed, that’s cold and unwelcoming, but neither is it hostile or confrontational. As in other aspects of living, you cannot expect to please, agree with, convert, or even like everyone who enters your space.
Even if small talk strays into politics, everyone might go home fine … if you hang tough on facts. Agree to disagree. My guess is that such a UUCC visitor would quickly grasp that MAGA isn’t exactly this congregation’s preferred beverage. MAGA isn’t the Bain news group’s favored tea, either, given that participants generally reflect Columbia’s populace in education, race, gender, and political leanings. Plus, there, we’re all elders. The news group once had a late-walk-in who, after about an hour of listening to us bat around politics, stormed out with a loudly muttered curse drawn from his own political bent. We’ve not seen him since.
Anyway, UU congregations everywhere, as the UUA has reported, problematically experience many visitors who never return for an array of reasons, most never openly expressed. This is a free nation, and here in Howard County, we’re civil, remember?
If, however, ugly politics rear up, keep cool, stay polite, and stick to facts. (Which means you need to be minimally up-to-date on news from mainstream print, TV, and/or online sources, not solely Fox News, which my journalistic decades have taught me, just isn’t trustworthy in its opinions or news choices, period.) Don’t be confrontational. But don’t yield, either. Disagreeing civilly is OK. The late four-term Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is famously quoted (although the nearly exact words can be tracked to other pols years earlier) as having said in 1994, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”
In my initial session facilitating that news group years ago, a tall, burly ex-football player turned nuclear engineer who, sounding authoritative, spouted what hit me as “fake news,” as it’s termed today. He sure sounded off-base, but even as a daily, nerdy consumer of news, I couldn’t say why on the spot. We facilitators do not deliberately function as teachers or experts; rather, we enable, try to guide, even provoke conversation and thought, as well as, I hope, expect accuracy. No one in the then-small group (about a dozen people that frigid, early January morning vs. 50 or more now) challenged the speaker, and so I kept quiet.
Back home, I hit Google fast, keying in a couple relevant terms the visitor had used. Indeed, my new group member’s source was either (I don’t recall exactly) Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, who was the far-right’s rage at the time, or the Drudge Report, the forerunner to Breitbart and also another early cousin of today’s Fox News. Bottom line: Facts armed me to argue back.
The very next session, I spoke privately to the guy about his unattributed disinformation (he later apologized, then participated factually albeit quite conservatively until his death several years later). I also asked the group to agree on discipline that continues today – we stick to news from mainstream, public sources known for reliability in reporting. That standard applies to newspapers, magazines, TV networks, and, these days, an array of emerging online news websites. No blogs, which with few exceptions are by definition points-of-view, no matter how reliable. Selectively, we sometimes use material from advocates and their groups — always being conscious of their expertise, political flavor, or fervor — and only with careful attribution.
We pursue and learn from truth, which with news reporting as our resource is, yes, sometimes slippery to grasp. We talk comfortably – not always agreeing — about such current events as terrorism, Islam’s variants, Russia, voter suppression, political divisions, politicians, gerrymandering, social ills, schools, the pope’s problems, Israel vs. Palestinians (and very occasionally Bedouins), race, white privilege, police killing black men disproportionately, marriage equality, environmental concerns … whatever’s making news. We’ve talked about health issues, aging, genetically modified food, Ellicott City floods, Colin Kaepernick, and recently, an NBC News essay about how older women dress (that particular chat fizzled after, oh, two minutes).
The point is, be mindful about truth when dubious statements pop up anywhere, UUCC included. That’s the standard, it says here, to unapologetically apply should a MAGA fan appear, passively speaking. Just as we UUs challenge one another about beliefs (and all those other things), the Bain group’s regulars constantly challenge one another about opinions, but most importantly, facts. What Moynihan said still applies. Facts matter.