One of the biggest contemporary ironies is that being liberal in the United States of America, home of history’s greatest democracy, has become dangerous. That danger is particularly acute for religious liberals, as the recent tragedy in Knoxville, Tenn., demonstrated.
Last Sunday, Jim David Adkisson, 58, walked into the sanctuary of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church carrying a sawed-off shotgun concealed in a violin case. He opened fire on congregants who were watching the performance of a children’s play.
Two people, Greg McKendry, 60, and Linda Kraeger, 61, were killed, and seven others were wounded, two critically. Several congregants wrestled Adkisson to the floor and restrained him until the police arrived. He is being held in jail on charges of first-degree murder in lieu of $1 million bond.
Like other Unitarian Universalists across the nation, I am saddened by the rampage. But unlike many Unitarians, I am not surprised.
Although I am not a purveyor of conspiracy theories, I am convinced that some of the motivation for Adkisson’s actions, like those of many other disaffected conservative extremists, can be traced, at least indirectly, to the writings and on-air vituperations of conservative commentators and authors. These people have helped divide the nation in unnatural ways, and they have influenced legions of dangerous followers willing to act on the insanity of their convictions.
In a four-page, handwritten note found in his Ford Escape that was parked at the church, Adkisson explained why he had targeted this church. Knoxville police investigator Steve Still, who wrote the search warrant to inspect Adkisson’s house, told reporters that Adkisson said he was angered by not being able to find a job and the reduction of his food stamp allotment.
Adkisson hated the church, Still said, "because of its liberal teachings and his belief that liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied the country’s hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of the major media outlets."
Still further stated that because Adkisson "could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement, he would then target those that voted them in office."
While searching Adkisson’s house, Still collected three dog-eared books: "The O’Reilly Factor," by TV commentator Bill O’Reilly; "Liberalism is a Mental Disorder," by radio personality Michael Savage; and "Let Freedom Ring," by Fox News pundit Sean Hannity. These and other right-wing books, such as Ann Coulter’s "Godless: The Church of Liberalism," are must-reading for liberal-hating conservatives.
Without doubt, Unitarian Universalism is the most unabashedly liberal denomination in America. The Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the 268,000-strong Unitarian Universalist Association and the first African-American to lead a historically white denomination in the United States, defended the church’s liberal tradition when I interviewed him last April in his Boston office.
"Here in the United States, Unitarians believe that we actually invented American democracy," he said. "Thomas Jefferson considered himself a Unitarian, and John Adams and John Quincy Adams were two other early Unitarian presidents. We were signers of the Declaration of Independence, and our values and principles — liberty, acceptance, tolerance and the freedom to believe — underpin the American Constitution.
"And Unitarian Universalists have always been prominent in all of the social movements in this country. We were prominent in the abolitionist movement, and Unitarian leaders — both men and women — were very prominent in the struggle for women’s empowerment, women’s right to vote, and so it has continued on to the present day. We support the struggle of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. So we have been a part of the American democratic tradition since there was one."
Shortly after the Knoxville shootings, Sinkford visited the congregation and affirmed that hatred of liberalism would not diminish the association’s commitment to its core values or its advocacy of the democratic way of life.
"Unitarian Universalism is a faith that is not based on a particular creed," he said. "Instead, it is grounded in a few deeply held principles. First among these principles is ‘the inherent worth and dignity of all people,’ a belief that compels us to speak on important justice issues.
"This has been part of our mission since early days. … It will take time for (us) to heal. But let me reassure you that we will not change our beliefs or compromise our demands for social justice."
(Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the St. Petersburg Times. E-mail Maxwell(at)sptimes.com.)