Pulpit politics divide Unitarian church
Unitarian minister gets mixed reviews for sermon accusing Bush administration of terrorism.
AMERICAN-STATESMAN | March 11, 2006
By Eileen E. Flynn
Unitarian minister Davidson Loehr was roiling with anger when he sat down to finish writing his sermon on a recent Friday. He'd been reading "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" by John Perkins, who paints the U.S. government as a corrupt force willing to sacrifice people for profits.
And that Sunday, Feb. 12, Loehr let his fury loose in the sermon's conclusion.
The Bush administration, he told members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church, orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks to fulfill its plan to establish a new world order. Several church members walked out; others stood and applauded.
Weeks later, controversy over Loehr's sermon is still buzzing on the Internet. Loehr is being blasted from inside and outside his church by some who question not just his views, but his use of the pulpit to advance them.
Though standing by his premise, Loehr now wishes he'd given his words more thought.
"I didn't do research, and I flung out some Web sites," he said Thursday. "It was a very sloppy thing to do."
In the largely liberal North Austin congregation, Loehr normally doesn't fret over criticizing the administration or advancing controversial religious ideas. He recently published a book titled "America, Fascism and God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher."
But Feb. 12 was different, longtime church member Corinna Whiteaker-Lewis said.
"He accused people of murder without significant evidence to back it up," she said.
Whiteaker-Lewis and her husband were amongthosewho walked out on Loehr's sermon.
Among those who stayed, Loehr said, about 80 people stood to applaud.
A heated debate followed on an Internet discussion forum.
Some church members expressed outrage and concern that Loehr damaged the whole church's credibility. Others supported the minister and pointed to the shared ideal of a free pulpit that did not censor speakers.
Ryan Hill said he doesn't subscribe to Loehr's conspiracy theory, "but the thing that bugs me is, (in) this supposedly liberal church, you express an idea that's sufficiently weird, and people freak out."
In the meantime, Loehr removed the controversial portion of the sermon from the church Web site and wrote an essay to clarify his conclusions.
That essay, posted on a different Web site, claimsthe United States government planned to establish a "New World Order," which would benefit the wealthy.
The United States, Loehr writes, wanted a presence in the Middle East to control the world's oil supply. But, in order to rally the American publicfor wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, high-ranking Bush officials executed the Sept. 11 attacks and blamed them on al Qaeda.
Loehr said he's not ashamed of his beliefs, that he's going by the available facts. "We have to do what we can do to try to seek truth," he said.
The Rev. Ryan Rush, pastor of Bannockburn Baptist Church in Southwest Austin, derided the sermon as absurd.
In the wake of sensitivity over mixing religion and politics, Rush added, "I find it very ironic that those who accuse conservatives of politicizing from the pulpit would make such an outlandish and absurd statement in the name of truth."
The Rev. Jim Rigby, pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in North Austin, took a sympathetic view.
"I would rather focus on the threats to democracy that we know about," Rigby said. "But I also think it's a shame that somebody can bring up issues, and it's not acceptable to even explore those as possibilities."
Church board member Jo Soto urged people to put the sermon in perspective.
What makes Loehr a valuable speaker is his ability to challenge members, she said.
Soto declined to comment on whether the sermon jeopardized Loehr's job, but Loehr said he's not worried.
"People are very fierce here about saying they want freedom of the pulpit," he said. "At the same time . . . there are also responsibilities of the pulpit. And I think people are saying . . . I treated an extremely important topic in ways that did not show good scholarship."