The Moonies (the Unification Church) start up their newspaper, The Washington Times, next Monday and already I have got word there will be a sidewalk protest demonstration that day in front of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where The Times is having a great bash to celebrate its birthday.

A lot of people, I learned from a friend of mine at the new paper, dislike the Unification Church, and doubt any good can come from a newspaper drawing its financial backing from that source.

Some of us, on the other hand, are quite hazy on what the church believes but suspect that like other churches it has no particular effect on the virtue of its members beyond, say, some detail of piety like not eating larks.

The Moonies are often suspected of having joined a church so closely identified with interests of the Korean government that they might as well be Korean intelligence agents, and thus their church is regarded as not quite parallel to other churches.

But whatever the church doctrines may be, the newspaper is something else and must be judged, surely, by the same standards we apply to other papers: that is, the relative number of grocery coupons, the degree of ink smudge, the quality of the bridge column, the thoroughness of local crime coverage ("Inflamed Tot Slays Mum") and so on.

But protesters have legal rights also, of course. I took part in some myself, years ago, when I felt it was wrong to shoot black people with notions.

"They've got crazy notions," people often said, and wondered what on earth the Memphis blacks wanted since, after all, the mayor himself paid for the funeral of a black worker accidentally ground up in a garbage truck. With fringe benefits like that, well, my God, is there no end to human greed? Do they want the stars?

The trashmen, I well remember, took to the streets wearing sandwich boards that said, "I am a man," and it finally dawned on us they were men like ourselves, requiring dignity and fairness. So it was worth marching about in such good company then.

But I do not see much point protesting a newspaper that has not even had time to infuriate anybody (not having published anything yet). What if we protest and then discover we like the paper better than any we ever read? God forbid, but it could happen.

I know that some believe the staff over there will commence the journalistic day slaughtering little kittens, heh-heh-heh, and rubbing themselves with henbane to encourage the Devil to appear. Some worry about that, but clearly the kitten business could not be tolerated, whereas the henbane could be. End of dilemma, in case it should arise.

Consider the American experience of the past: What a revelation it has been to many of us to discover that Catholics, Jews, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Presbyterians and people like that are no worse than other people for all our fears.

I have repeatedly heard Jim Jones mentioned, he of the tropical cyanide suicides, as an example of religious enthusiasm with the implication that any church we do not happen to be a member of is very likely to wind up the same way.

But that terrible business proved chiefly that plenty of people are crazy, which everybody already knew, and proved that uncritical loyalty to leaders of any sort is contraindicated.

And in a free society the word "brainwashed" is rather dangerous to fling about, since all of us privately believe all people different from us have clearly been brainwashed, else they would be fine sturdy steady folk like us. And this way lies social madness, when we set out too eagerly to reform all Americans to our own enlightened ways.

The three charges I keep hearing about the Moonies is that their leader is in court now for tax evasion, a charge not proved, and even if it were, a charge susceptible to noncriminal explanation, and in any case a charge not immediately relevant to The Washington Times. Second, it is said the Moonies brainwash young people, lure them into the church somehow and greatly upset the parents of the kids. Are the courts unable to prevent illegal abuses of the young? I try to keep in mind (a very easy thing to do since World War II) that young people tend to go off and lead strange lives since they are strange creatures by nature.

Third, the Moonies have pestered people at airports pinning roses on them, hoping thereby to get a buck or two in contributions. I never found it very annoying, as annoyances go, and hardly as annoying as airports themselves. The Moonies have never, to my knowledge, roared over my house at night or forced me to drink lousy coffee while pitching about in air pockets or, for that matter, dreamed up bizarre taxicab fares.

There's much to be said for leaving other people's religions alone, and if they break the law (some delicious examples have occurred among the most settled religions) the offenders can be flung into jails. End of dilemma.

The new newspaper says it will have full editorial freedom despite the church financing, and I imagine that is a matter of importance to the working stiffs at The Times, but even if the paper reflected church policy all the way, that is a protected freedom. Nobody has to buy it, after all.

But I have so often reflected when reading The New York Post and The New York Daily News, that even dumb papers are, if not a voice in the choir, at least a cry in the general hubbub, often with attractive compact headlines.

In any paper, however suspect, you may find a coupon for groceries you missed elsewhere or stories from unusual points of view ("Cornbread Is Killing You," "Is Sister Teresa a Crook?" "Taurus in Frightful Danger Today") or editorials ("Let's Jail Bess Truman") more wondrous than the average.

Bad papers are said to be useful in keeping good newspapers from succumbing utterly to their own glory, as fleas are said to prevent dogs from brooding too high on their caninity.

So even if The Washington Times should prove to be a poor paper, we need not go bats with protests. Of course if it should prove to be a fine paper, well whoa boy, that's going a bit far. Man the barricades.