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Sun., June 7, 2009

Dissent needs a safe haven

Last Sunday morning, the Day of Pentecost, I sat in a Spokane sanctuary where the parishioners wore red to celebrate the birth of the Christian church and a fabric banner resembling tongues of fire danced above the chancel.

Afterward, we cheerfully spilled into the May sunshine. When I arrived home, I was stunned to discover that a couple of hours before our service began, a man shot Dr. George Tiller as he was serving as an usher in a similar church in Wichita. I was startled to find he belonged to the same denomination I do.

It goes without saying that churches should be havens from violence. Thankfully, most of them are. But it struck me later that far too few provide a safe space for the fundamental path to peace: the expression of dissenting ideas.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America encourages its members “to participate in the public debate on abortion in a spirit of respect for those with whom they differ.”

But my convictions about public dissent in church stem back to my childhood in another denomination.

I grew up in the First Presbyterian Church in Rapid City, S.D., a state where most churchgoers I knew voted a straight Republican ticket.

Yet each Sunday, our pastor led a session called Talk Back after the service. He invited members to respond to his sermon or to share opinions on topical issues.

It was one of the city’s worst kept secrets that Dr. Ben Munson, a local gynecologist and Presbyterian, provided illegal abortions. I have vivid memories of Munson sharing his views in our church basement. That’s probably because our pastor, the Rev. Ralph Smith, regularly reminded us: “We can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Last week I e-mailed his son, Rex Smith, the editor of the Times Union in Albany, N.Y., for memories of his father, who died years ago.

Ralph Smith, he wrote, rebelled against a rigid religious upbringing when he realized “that his unchurched high school basketball teammates displayed character traits more admirable than the pious churchgoers of his hometown.”

A book by J.B. Phillips called “Your God Is Too Small” also influenced his father’s belief that “a God whose mind we humans could know with certainty wouldn’t be big enough to warrant our worship.”

If such a God had room for all the children of the Earth, Ralph Smith concluded, surely the church could welcome people whose opinions on social issues differed.

Rex Smith recalled Dr. Ben Munson as “a humble but fiercely honorable man” who frequently shared his support of abortion rights alongside a fundamentalist “who kept exhorting, ‘Just preach the Bible!’ ”

Few congregations in the polarized America of recent years would welcome such debate.

It wasn’t that the era of my childhood was hate-free.

Rex Smith reminded me that in 1968, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died, a memorial service was held in our church sanctuary. “A few days later, Pop and I were walking downtown, and a guy stopped us to chide my dad for allowing a service for ‘that communist’ at our church,” he wrote.

But those days were mercifully free of one particularly virulent form of hate speech. Back then, there were no Rush Limbaughs or Bill O’Reillys daily whipping up the repressed hostilities of unhappy Americans or inadvertently inciting the truly crazed ones to strike.

Our town’s abortion doctor never heard O’Reilly calling him “Munson the baby murderer” or “the executioner from South Dakota.”

Today we turn to the rhetoric of hate for entertainment and escape. It’s of course a cheap distraction from the fact that we’re steadily losing the capacity to think with complexity about serious issues. Meanwhile, O’Reilly’s and Limbaugh’s voices remain powerfully, seductively destructive.

Last Sunday morning at St. Mark’s we heard a passage of Scripture. The Earth’s last days will be a time, the verse says, when “your young men shall see visions and your old men will dream dreams.”

I don’t know where that might leave us middle-age women.

I’d settle for imagining these simple wonders: perfecting the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable. And tuning into airwaves free from the voices of hate.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former associate editor at The Spokesman-Review, is now an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her e-mail address is

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