EDITOR'S CORNER: Garrison Keillor disses UMs after Dallas lecture
Robin Russell, Oct 10, 2006
When it comes to faith and politics, Garrison Keillor doesn't always get it.
Like the witticisms he invents on "A Prairie Home Companion," he must have conjured up an image in his mind before he even arrived in Dallas for a Sept. 27 lecture at Highland Park United Methodist Church.
And from all accounts, it just doesn't jibe.†
The audience was highly receptive during Mr. Keillor's lecture. Church staff said copies of his new book, Homegrown Democrat, had been stacked "a mile high" in the lobby, and about 300 were sold. A long line of fans waited for him to autograph copies.
But apparently, those warm fuzzies were not mutual, based on Mr. Keillor's scathing tirade in a column published Oct. 4 in the Chicago Tribune.
In it, he rants against a U.S. Senate vote approving the interrogation of suspected "enemy combatants," saying senators who voted for the bill can no longer "take a high moral view of the Third Reich."
Then, he segues into this: "I got some insight last week into who supports torture when I went down to Dallas to speak at Highland Park (United) Methodist Church."
Now, I can guarantee you I've never seen the words "Methodist church" and "supports torture" in the same sentence before. That's as fictional as the Chatterbox Cafť in Mr. Keillor's "hometown" of Lake Wobegon.
"It was spooky," he nevertheless wrote. "I walked in, was met by two burly security men with walkie-talkies, and within 10 minutes was told by three people that this was the Bushes' church and that it would be better if I didn't talk about politics."
The Rev. Paul Rasmussen, who organizes the HPUMC lecture series, says those security men -- a Highland Park police officer and a church staff member -- were on duty at the request of Mr. Keillor's publicist. What's more, he added, Mr. Keillor did not talk to any audience members before he took the stage.
"I was in his presence, and he did not talk to anyone from the church," Mr. Rasmussen said. "At no time did anyone with the church tell him not to talk about the book."
To the contrary, talking about the book was the whole point of the lecture, Mr. Rasmussen said. The church's lecture series is a way to invite authors to speak about their latest books. Besides Mr. Keillor, speakers this year include journalist Bill Moyers, Gnostic gospel expert Elaine Pagels and Catholic critic Garry Wills.
All publicity about the lecture was clear that Mr. Keillor would be speaking about his new book. Instead, he gave them homespun stories and songs.
Imagine their surprise, then, when in his column Mr. Keillor blasted the audience as too ignorant to grasp his irony as he talked about why he was avoiding politics: "I'm a citizen, I have plenty of money and my grandsons are at least 12 years away from being eligible for military service."
The audience had laughed and applauded at his humor, but Mr. Keillor later mocked them.
"Those were their sentiments exactly," he wrote. "The Methodists of Dallas can be fairly sure that none of them will be snatched off the streets, flown to Guantanamo Bay, stripped naked. . . . So why should they worry? It's only the Jews who are in danger, and the homosexuals and gypsies. . . . If you can't trust a Methodist with absolute power to arrest people and not have to say why, then whom can you trust?"
Here, then, is the logic of the silken-voiced but venomous-penned Mr. Keillor: If you hate Bush, you must surely hate Methodists, at least the ones who show up at the president's home church.
Mr. Keillor seems to have had an attitude when he hit town, Mr. Rasmussen said.
He misjudged the location of the church and had the cab let him off a few blocks away. Setting off on foot, he called the church and demanded someone pick him up.
When he arrived, he barely acknowledged Mr. Rasmussen -- with a "grunt" -- when his publicist introduced them. Saying "I will not have an introduction," he walked out onstage by himself.
When he stepped up to the microphone, however, it was as if a switch was turned on, and he started telling stories in his trademark folksy style. Once the lecture and booksigning was over, however, Mr. Keillor abrupty left without a word.
"We knew he was kind of a bear, but we had no idea that he'd end up writing what he did," Mr. Rasmussen said. "It's totally unsettling. I was stunned on behalf of the event, but I was offended on behalf of United Methodists. I thought he brought a narrow-mindedness into this that was far greater than the narrow-mindedness he came to indict."
Joan Gray LaBarr, communications director for the North Texas Conference, said Mr. Keillor obviously underestimated his audience.
"Knowing many of the people there, I would suspect he would have found them open and ready to listen to his perspectives on politics," she said. "Incidentally, the irony of his remarks that he was following instructions to not talk about politics was certainly not lost on those of us who heard him."
That's because most Methodists are pretty well-read. Smart folks, even. Willing to listen and discuss serious politics.
But to paraphrase Mr. Keillor's longstanding remarks about Lake Wobegon, he had already decided that when it comes to Methodists in Dallas, the women are not strong, the men are not good-looking and the children are not above average.
"I still admire Garrison Keillor and will continue to appreciate his work, but I am disappointed," Dr. LaBarr said. "He might have been surprised at how some Texas Methodists think and feel."