Why There Are Not “Two Sides” At Church
Are there two sides to every topic? The short answer is: not at church!
Here in Unitarian Universalism — where we’re dealing with the same uprising of alt-right sentiment as every other sector of American society — the idea of “hearing both sides” comes up with regularity. I want to point out a few things that might help your church grapple with the issue.
To be clear, I’m not talking about normal conflicts between members, or discussions about whether to cancel church on a snow day. I’m talking about church members who believe that there are “two sides” to an issue like white supremacy, and insist that the church entertain both of them.
It’s Almost Always in Service of Racism
When was the last time your church invited a climate-change denier to preach about how global warming is a hoax? Has your church hosted a forum of fundamentalists arguing that women should have fewer rights? For some reason, the urgency to “present both sides” only seems to come up in our (predominantly white) Unitarian Universalist churches when the issue is racism.
When church members insist that “hearing all sides of an issue” is one of our most cherished and foundational values (FYI: it isn’t), it’s almost always in service of racism. Don’t be fooled! The fact that it’s usually privileged white men who insist on this is not a coincidence, and I think that’s worth pointing out.
In any event…
We Have Church for A Reason, and That’s Not It
When we’re considering questions of what to do at church, I find it helpful to ask why we’re doing it. This applies in all kinds of situations! Why are we conducting a survey about painting the social hall? Is it to get members excited about possible color schemes, or is it to stir up anxiety and opposition to the painting project? The why matters as much as the what. Sometimes a survey is not just a survey!
So when someone insists that we “hear both sides” about white supremacy culture, or our denomination’s approach to racism, I likewise ask why. What purpose or mission does this course of action serve? Why are we doing this? Because sometimes a sermon is not just a sermon.
The false idol of “hearing all sides” is really not a good reason why we should invite Rev. Grumples to come complain about political correctness on a Sunday morning. The mission of the Unitarian Universalist church is not to be a Temple of All Opinions, Upholder of None. Our highest religious ideal is not to preserve the Sacred Tradition of Debate for Debate’s Sake. We’re not hiring an Assistant Minister of Devils’ Advocacy.
Even the National Debate Tournament — whose job is debate — literally states in their rules that the academic debate community “does not provide a license for bigotry”.
We’re Unitarian Universalists, and our churches affirm and promote Unitarian Universalism. Please do not feel you need to expend church resources promoting values contrary to Unitarian Universalism in the interest of “fairness” or Satan.
I thought about including a section here explaining why and how anti-racism and anti-oppression are in fact Unitarian Universalist values, but I’m pretty sure anyone who believes otherwise is probably not going to listen to the rest of the article either. So I’ll simply reverse the formula and point out that racism and oppression should NOT be Unitarian Universalist values. If those are your values, consider joining Stormfront instead of a church.
Not All Questions are Morally Neutral
Unitarian Universalists love asking questions — myself included. But we have to remember that the act of questioning is not always innocent or morally neutral. Sometimes, the act of questioning hurts people. Sometimes, that’s on purpose.
Marginalized people have been pointing out forever that when privileged people force them to debate their humanity, it very obviously has a disproportionate and unfair impact on them. And when our churches let white people entertain questions like whether racism is real, the logical result is that racial minorities will be wounded by the conversation having happened at all.
With a trigger warning for everything:
Should disabled people be sterilized? Were Black people better off under slavery? Are Muslims terrorists? How do we know victims are telling the truth about sexual assault? Are women capable of making intelligent decisions about their bodies?
All of these questions are MORALLY ABHORRENT and EXTREMELY HURTFUL, and SHOULD NOT BE ASKED. Not even as a thought experiment. Not to play the devil’s advocate. Not in the interest of hearing all sides.
The discussions that we entertain, we tacitly endorse as being valid. It seems plainly true to me, then, that there are some ideas and topics that should not be acceptable to Unitarian Universalists. And they don’t have to be as extreme as the examples above. Yet pointing this out inevitably draws cries of censorship, tyranny, and authoritarianism from people who want free reign to hurt others.
“I’m only asking questions” is not just disingenuous, it’s untrue. If someone is incapable of acknowledging the effect their line of questioning has on others, they should not be given the platform to keep doing that in our churches. According to the Bible, Voltaire, and Uncle Ben from the Spider Man universe, with great power comes great responsibility. Anyone who insists otherwise should not be given power, because they will not use it responsibly.
Do not let your church entrust callous and uncaring people with the care of souls. Even if they volunteer. The result will not be good!
Anyway, There Aren’t Always Two Sides
At least, there aren’t always two legitimate ones. The field of journalism famously upholds the principle of presenting opposing viewpoints in the interest of thoroughness, balance, and rigor. But that principle can be misinterpreted and misapplied when it is taken to mean that wrong opinions should be given equal regard and standing alongside right ones.
And yes, “right” and “wrong” exist. Once again, it’s part of the reason we have church. So if someone in your church wants to host a discussion group of a book that is patently wrong, plainly false, or widely considered to be offensive, it is neither unreasonable nor unfair of you to say no.
There are not always two sides! And your church should not be pretending there are.
I’ll leave you with this old but excellent clip from John Oliver illustrating the idea: