Ooooooooooh, boy. This is a tough one, gang.
I recommend that you read not just the article but all the comments. The insults flung by angry Wyomingites* (sorry if that’s not a word) are cringe-inducing to read but they’re really valuable market research.
Putting on my hat as an evangelist and congregational image consultant I can keep a pretty cool head and not take these rants personally. For better or for worse, they are a helpful snapshot of what a segment of the population sees, hears and believes about UUs. That we are a cult. That we have no right to use the language of calling. That we embrace every religion except Christianity. That our rites of passage lack gravitas (I actually heard this same bit of feedback from a theatre friend the other day over coffee. He attended a memorial service at one of our congregations and said that everything the minister said felt like a labored effort to avoid using the word “God,” that the language was shallow and euphemistic, the theology light-weight and more worthy of a dinner party toast than a funeral. Ouch. Double ouch. Hard not to get defensive or correctional there!). That we have failed to distinguish ourselves as a legitimate theological tradition aside from liberal political causes.
Taking a deep breath and keeping on that consultant’s hat I think, “Fair enough.” We know what we’ve done to deserve these criticisms. In marketing terms, we have an image problem. As HoneyBooBoo’s mama would say, “It is what it is.”
But we’re not a product and that’s why we should use marketing language and concepts very carefully, aware of their limited usefulness to us. We’re not a thing that people either buy or leave on the shelf. We are a gathered free religious community and we need all the help we can get understanding how we are regarded among the wider society with, and to whom, we hope to be in ministry. So how do we respond to this article?
A) Defensively. These people are close-minded idiots! They don’t know us! They’re a bunch of flat-earth gun-toting reactionaries and we shouldn’t waste a second caring about what they think. I don’t need to explain myself to those fools. I’m never stepping foot in Wyoming!
B) Wounded. This is so hurtful. I feel so badly for Audette. How can people be so mean? How can people’s values be so different from mine? Don’t they know that writing to legislators to express an opinion on the common good is an important way to participate in our democracy? I feel terrible about this. It makes me want to move to the woods and live with a dozen dogs.
C) Prideful. I love the fight! This is exactly why I feel justified in feeling superior to “those people.” They have no idea what they’re talking about, and I can’t wait to go to church in the morning and put an extra contribution in the plate. I’m so glad I can be a UU.
D) Curious. Oh, wow. I wonder where these people got their information about Unitarian Universalism? It sounds like some of them have some real-life acquaintance with our congregations, but obviously most of them only know what they’ve read on-line and in the paper.
How many Unitarian Universalist and other liberal religious congregations are there in Wyoming, anyway? Maybe we should do some evangelizing in that part of the country or think about a church-plant out there. I’m sure there are a lot of people who would really appreciate a liberal religious community, even if they disagree on the gun issue — which is obviously a huge part of Wyoming self-identity and culture.
E) Evangelical/Relational. How can I have more conversations with people who might be ministered to by a Unitarian Universalist religious community? [Note that this is a different question than, "How can I have more conversations with like-minded people might find a home in UUism" or "who are UU but don't know it."] It concerns me that people whose lives might be made deeper and more meaningful by some kind of participation in the liberal religious community aren’t getting accurate information about who we are. I wonder how I can personally help to remedy that.
In this new era of what I feel — and hope — is a deepening of our maturity as a faith community, it’s worthwhile to reflect on how we react to this sort of pile-on. I’m sure you can guess my preference for reaction modes D and E. Not only do they spare us unnecessary agita, being curious and relational are creative and productive responses. And that works better for our hearts and souls and for the souls of our congregations.
Congratulations to the Rev. Audette Fulbright for committing news and giving really good media.*
*I’m fascinated by the accompanying photo and will be getting in touch with Audette for a BTFM quote soon.
* Thank you to reader David Stump for this clarification:
The Blaze is not a local Wyoming media outlet. It is more like a cross between Fox News and The Drudge Report, a venture launched by Glenn Beck. Hence the responses are not necessarily made by people in Wyoming, but rather by that segment of the US population who hold to an ultra-fundamentalist view of Christianity and are on the hard right of the already far right Tea Party. Anyone who isn’t with them is more or less a godless traitor who wants to corrupt good, upstanding citizens. Not sure if that changes your thinking about the list of potential responses, but it seems like some options were missed, such as praying for them (odd to be missing from a response on behalf of a religious organization), commenting calmly on the issue itself without responding to specific comments made (might be useless or all the more provocative on a forum like that), or ignoring/not empowering such rhetoric.
Thanks, Dave. And because you asked, in my theological understanding, spending time reflecting on the words of these commenters, trying to put myself in their place and also wondering about their spiritual needs is praying for them. – PB