Open Letter to Garrison Keillor

Dear Mr. Keillor:

I am writing in response to your recent article in Salon.com criticizing Cambridge, my home church of First Parish Cambridge (Unitarian Universalist), and the Unitarian Universalist faith in general.

I have been a loyal listener of Prairie Home Companion since you first went on the air in the 1970s. I have always loved listening to the News from Lake Wobegon, the gentle and forgiving and open-eyed way that you described the imperfect and well-meaning individuals from a small town in Minnesota that seems to resemble your own. I listen to the Writer’s Almanac every day. In many ways, your soothing voice and gentle words have followed me all the days of my life. I have dwelt in the house of public radio my whole life long. Your work has been a source of comfort and inspiration to me since I was a small child.

That is why your recent article was particularly dismaying and disappointing to me. I am not angry about what you wrote, Mr. Keillor, just very, very hurt.

In one of your stories, you describe a young man who is a dancer in New York City. In this story, you describe how much easier his life would be if he were desperately attracted to the woman who shared his apartment. But he is not attracted to women. You go on to say, “his life would also have been easier if he were a lawyer.” Like that dancer in New York, I discovered some things about myself that have been very hard for me — and many people — to accept. I am a bisexual woman, and I am a witch. Neither of these things did I choose for myself, anymore than I chose to have blue eyes. These labels do not define me, but they are a part of my identity, just as much as my blue eyes and my love for Prairie Home Companion.

After leaving the Catholic Church of my birth, and after many years of practicing my beliefs in private and seeking a spiritual home, I became a member of First Parish Cambridge. I joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation because it was the only church that would take a witch as a member. I discovered for the first time in my life a vibrant, organized, active community of people with deeply held beliefs that I shared. These beliefs and their creed may be different than yours, but they are beliefs nonetheless. They deserve to be treated with the same respect as those of mainstream Christianity, of Judaism, of Islam.

UUs care passionately about things like social justice, the inherent worth and dignity of all people, the interconnected web of existence, and the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Do not mistake our aversion to written dogma for wishy-washiness. Wishy-washy people do not work for the survival of Jews in Nazi-occupied Germany. They do not face criminal charges to keep immigrants from dying of thirst in the desert. They do not face violence and death in their own houses of worship.

You accuse us of having no creed. Our seven principles and six sources are even easier to understand than the Apostles’ Creed.

One of the most hurtful things you said in your article, Mr. Keillor, was that Christmas is a Christian holiday, and that if we don’t like it, we should go off and celebrate another one. Christmas is a part of my cultural heritage, and I refuse to abandon it to bigots and dogmatists. Furthermore, most Christmas traditions have pagan origins, including the Christmas tree, Christmas caroling, the exchange of gifts, and the Yule log. Good Yankee Congregationalists and Calvinists like the Rev. Lyman Beecher even refused to celebrate Christmas.

According to many Biblical scholars, it’s much more likely that Jesus was born in the spring. But there’s already another big Christian festival at that time of year. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s called Easter (from the German Ostara), a holiday that, like its pagan predecessors, celebrates life, death, and rebirth with the coming of the spring. Easter is also full of traditions that date back to its earlier pagan origins. I, for one, am not going to deny my children the pleasure of an Easter egg hunt in the service of theological purity.

Religion, like all of human experience and culture, is constantly evolving. As a Protestant, you should be well aware of how much your version of Christianity differs from that of Rome. And religious tolerance has always been one of the bedrocks upon which American society has rested. Please don’t fall into the same trap that Rev. Fred Phelps did. As a Christian who celebrates the birth of your Lord Savior Jesus Christ, you are no doubt aware of these words from the Book of Peter:

Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing.
1 Peter 3:8-9

I will not repay your insult with more insults, but with this wish: that you be treated with the same kindness, tolerance, and forbearance that all beings deserve.

Author: Frances Donovan (aka Okelle)

I like poetry, long walks on the beach, and net neutrality. Tending the Garden of Words (www.gardenofwords.com) since 1998.

1 thought on “Open Letter to Garrison Keillor”

  1. thanks for writing this
    I so appreciate this letter. I was a member of First Parish in Cambridge from 2001-2004 (now I live in western Mass. and attend the UU Society of Amherst). First Parish was the first place I truly considered my spiritual home, and in a larger sense, finding Unitarian Universalism was like being reunited with my long-lost tribe. My own complicated identity was fully accepted and celebrated, and it allowed me to deepen my spiritual path.
    I also find it hurtful and incredibly ironic that Keillor accuses UUs of “spiritual piracy” and “cultural elitism” when the mainstream Protestant Christianity he espouses and defends is still the dominant and frequently oppressive religion in this country, presuming to dictate what people should believe (talk about elitism) and has freely looted and co-opted pagan traditions as you so rightly pointed out.
    For some reason some people find it easy and hilarious to mock Unitarian Universalism rather than take the time to understand our guiding principles and remember to practice respect for all religious beliefs. How would people have reacted if Garrison Keillor had written something similar about Jews or Muslims? Is it somehow less inflammatory and insulting to make fun of UUs, especially pagan UUs?
    In solidarity with you and First Parish.
    Jen Hartley

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s