Letters are window into our world

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(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following column originally appeared on Sept. 16, 2007, and was written in response to a complaint about the Inter Lake publishing religiously based letters to the editor. It seems appropriate to reprint it in light of the complaints we received last week about a guest opinion published on Aug. 12 that used the Bible to condemn an LGBTQ+ teen support group which the Inter Lake had written a story about in April. For a more specific response from the Inter Lake about the decision to publish that particular letter, please see our editorial in today’s paper.)

The Inter Lake is unusual among papers our size in that we run almost all the letters that are submitted to us by our local readers. The exceptions are contributions which are potentially libelous, form letters, or letters that are not of general interest.

That last one, of course, is the trickiest. How does one determine what is of general interest to a readership as diverse as ours? Obviously, general interest does not mean that everyone will agree with it, and it also can’t mean that everyone will be interested in the topic. No letter would meet those criteria.

Rather, general interest suggests that the letter is written on a topic of either some importance to the community as a whole (public safety, growth, education), a criticism or suggestion for the government which represents us all (including Bush bashing and congressional tongue lashing) or a personal experience that can enlighten through example. It also includes a healthy helping of give and take between readers who challenge each other’s arguments and thinking.

The point of these letters to the editor (including the guest opinions, which are essentially just long letters) is to provide a cross-section of the mood and mentality of the local population — our neighbors — so that we can get a sense of who we are as a community.

If you thought of the letters column as a row of chairs at a gender-neutral barbershop, you would not be far wrong. Everyone in the chairs has an opinion. Some are long-winded; some get right to the point and shut up. Some are eloquent; some are tongue-tied. Some are conservative; some are liberal. Some have a sense of humor; some have a sense of self-righteousness.

And every day, there is someone new in the chairs. Oh sure, some people come back to get their hair cut every two weeks, while some may wait as long as three months or even more. But for the most part, there is a steady rotation of customers through the barbershop, just as there is through the opinion pages of this newspaper. And though the barber may not believe everything he hears, or agree with even a small part of it, there is one thing certain — if he is listening to his customers, he knows this world a little better, understands how alike we are in so many ways, how different we are in many others, and how much more boring it would be if everyone always agreed about everything.

The reason I have been thinking about these matters is because I received a complaint this week about the Inter Lake printing letters on religious topics. The argument of the letter writer, Patricia Berliner of Whitefish, was that, “This country was founded upon the premise of freedom of religion. We all, supposedly, inherit the privilege to choose our own spiritual path without having someone else’s conviction forced upon us.”

Berliner, whose letter appears in full [alongside this column], said she is “horrified” to see letters in the paper that are used to evangelize, and noted that “This is not a Christian ministry newsletter.”

On that point, she is correct. In fact, we publish letters from atheists as well as Christians, from Jews as well as Muslims, from practitioners of Falun Gong as well as from Buddhists, deists, and doubters. That is the nature of a publication which is not specifically “secular,” as Berliner assumes, but rather open-minded.

The reason we publish such letters is because you, our readers, write them. It can, of course, be difficult to determine if a letter on a religious topic is of general interest, but there are many examples where they plainly are. The influence of religion on public policy is plainly of importance to all of us, so if someone writes a letter about abortion or gay marriage and refers to religious beliefs in either a positive or negative connotation, they ought to be able to do so.

Moreover, many times, this newspaper reports on religious figures, movements and events around the world. Certainly, if we deem a story to be important enough for our news pages, then it should also be worthy of response and debate on our Opinion page. Such a case was seen recently when Pope Benedict XVI declared that non-Catholic Christian churches are deficient because they lack a claim of “apostolic succession” — in other words, that they did not get their marching orders from Jesus in the flesh.

This is an interesting argument, and one that naturally invites a counter-argument. Will it interest everyone? Of course not. But neither does the moral turpitude and artistic decline of Brittany Spears, yet letters on that topic would be published as well.

But, of course, once you let someone respond to the pope, and give them the room to make their argument with scriptural evidence and theological reasoning, you must also expect people with other opinions to write with clarification, rebuttal or rejoinder. In my mind, that’s called a conversation.

Ultimately, what letters to the editor are, really, is an opportunity to talk, and an opportunity to listen. I would hope we can all agree that it would be a shame if those who wish to discuss their philosophical and religious beliefs did not have a forum to do so, and I hope we can all agree it would be an even bigger shame if the rest of us had no interest in what they had to say.

You do not have to agree with atheist philosopher Friederich Nietzsche to learn from him, and you do not have to agree with devout iconoclast Martin Luther to find him compelling. But the world would be poorer without either, and if you do not agree to let them into your world, then your world is a little smaller than it could be. And fortunately we have our own homegrown Nietzsches and Luthers right here in the Flathead. Let them argue, let them debate, let them live. I am the richer the more I can absorb, and if I am swayed to the right or the left after hearing them, it is my choice. One thing I cannot do is stand still.

Remove religion from the editorial page?

I could no more countenance a Daily Inter Lake editorial page without the presence of professed atheists like Dan Kelleher and Fred Spoerl and professed Christians like Annie Bukacek and Curtis Schroeder than I could imagine it without Republicans and Democrats. Will the religious ever convince the atheists to change their positions on moral law? Probably not. Will the Democrats ever convince the Republicans to change their mind on the war in Iraq? Probably not. But thank God, there is no rule against trying. It provides a thoughtful alternative to the pre-digested pabulum that we are fed each night on the boob tube.

And let us remember that the freedom of religion which is acknowledged in our U.S. Constitution is accompanied by an equally important freedom of speech. Both freedoms are most meaningful when they are put to use, not when they are empty words on a page. Ms. Berliner eloquently makes her case in our paper today, and we are happy to let her have the space to do so. When it comes to a public forum, the more voices we hear, the better off we all are.

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