Nailing down motives

unitarianSome tragic news is coming out of Tennessee. Yesterday, a man armed with a shotgun walked into a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville yesterday and killed two people and shot seven others. Whenever something senseless like this happens, the media rush to determine why. Early reports from Knoxville had neighbors suspecting anti-Christian animus:

The man accused of a mass church shooting this morning was described by his Powell neighbors as a helpful and kind man, but one who had issues with Christianity.

“He had his own sense of belief about religion, that’s the impression I got of him,” said neighbor Karen Massey. “We were talking one day when my daughter graduated from Bible college, and I told him I was a Christian, then he almost turned angry.

“He seemed to get angry at that.”

According to Massey, [Jim] Adkisson talked frequently about his parents who “made him go to church all his life … he was forced to do that.”

It seemed curious that an anti-Christian gunman would target a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Both Unitarians and Universalists share a founding in Protestant Christianity but they seek spiritual guidance from all traditions and religious beliefs. Later stories revealed that the gunman had written a four-page letter that shed light on his motives:

The shotgun-wielding suspect in Sunday’s mass shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church was motivated by a hatred of “the liberal movement,” and he planned to shoot until police shot him, Knoxville Police Chief Sterling P. Owen IV said this morning.

Jim D. Adkisson, 58, of Powell wrote a four-page letter in which he stated his “hatred of the liberal movement,” Owen said. “Liberals in general, as well as gays.”

Adkisson said he also was frustrated about not being able to obtain a job, Owen said.

The Knoxville paper did a good job of succinctly explaining why the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Univesalist Church might have been targeted:

“It appears that church had received some publicity regarding its liberal stance,” the chief said. The church has a “gays welcome” sign and regularly runs announcements in the News Sentinel about meetings of the Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays meetings at the church.

The church’s Web site states that it has worked for “desegregation, racial harmony, fair wages, women’s rights and gay rights” since the 1950s. Current ministries involve emergency aid for the needy, school tutoring and support for the homeless, as well as a cafe that provides a gathering place for gay and lesbian high-schoolers.

It turns out that Adkisson’s ex-wife might have been a member at the congregation as well. Tragically, one of the dead was a devoted member of the congregation who died a hero, according to the Associated Press:

Church members praised Greg McKendry, 60, who died as he attempted to block the gunfire. Church member Barbara Kemper told The Associated Press that McKendry “stood in the front of the gunman and took the blast to protect the rest of us.”

As this story continues to unfold, reporters must not only explain the shooter’s deranged motives but seek to explain how religious motivations guide the UU tradition. There is a rich history and legacy to explore.

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  • Dave G.

    What struck me was that the first reports I read pointed out that the church was known for its liberal views. This was before there was any mention of a suspect. Yet in other cases, where I came to find out the churhes had more traditional views and beliefs, these things were never assigned a motive. The motive usually went to something like racism, ex-spouse, mental problems, or no motive at all. The quickness of the MSM to report the church’s beliefs was the thing that caught my attention.

  • pgcfriend

    Same here. The first report I heard talked about them being a progressive church, which to me translates to liberal. I thought ‘why should that make a difference?’ It almost inferred that this should happen to a more traditional Christian church instead of a progressive one. Maybe because they have the idea that a progressive church does not offend anyone and should not be victims of violence. Of course traditional churches would provoke violence because they are offensive. What bias.

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  • Mildred

    Unemployment, frustration and anger have existed in this country throughout the 20th century. What has NOT existed over that same period of time is the propensity to conceptualized unemployment, frustration and anger as caused by “liberals” and “gays”.

    What we are seeing here is what happens when right-wing rhetoric becomes deeply rooted in the ways that ordinary working people “see” the world.

    In short, the world hasn’t really changed that much, only people’s ways of thinking about it. This is the great achievement of the right-wing conservative revolution — the ability to get ordinary working people to perceive themselves and their problems as somehow the victims of bleeding hearts, do-gooders, liberal wingnuts, fairies, faggots, hippies, love-children, pinkos, peaceniks, and other reductive cliches.

    Of course, as every child knows, it is never the bleeding hearts, do-gooders, liberal wingnuts, fairies, faggots and the like that open fire in a church, fast-food joint or shopping mall.

    Now I wonder why that is?

    p.s. Gee? Do you think this guy might qualify as one of the “bitter” disenfranchised unemployed types that Obama noted several months ago?

  • pgcfriend

    I was getting ready to post a article about motives. Looks like all of them are now inferring that this man is a traditional Christian. Of course this is no surprise to me. I was waiting for something where the church was being attacked for their beliefs. Sad to say it did not take long.

    Mildred, of course he is one that clings to their guns and religion.

  • Titus

    Greg McKendry is a hero. Shame no one has mentioned that.

  • Stephen A.

    Why were the early reports suggesting that he was “angry” about a neighbor’s kid going to a “Bible College” and that he was “forced to go to church”? Seems like that implies that he hated CONSERVATIVE religion.

    I guess this angle plays a lot better to the liberal base, as it clearly hit a few buttons for Mildred, above.

    We’ve seen in other nations what happens when “left-wing rhetoric” or “anti-Christian rhetoric” is used by the elites and the mass media to inflame passions, too. Let’s not wild and blame traditional religionists for all evil in the world, just as Bill Clinton did when he blamed ALL talk radio for the Oklahoma City bombing – a ludicrous and overreaching stereotype. And of course the media played this up for all it was worth.

  • Dave


    Thank you for your delicate treatment of this. It is a shocker; nothing like this has happened to a UU congregation for as long as I can remember.


    I hope folks will refrain from extrapolating from this shooter’s personal motives to comment on his religious and political connections. Traditional Christianity does not tell folks to shoot up liberal churches. Conservative politicians do not advocate gunfire rampages. There are, indeed, voices of hatred in our culture; they should be opposed day in and day out for their failure to respect the worth and dignity of every person, not just when something ugly erupts.

  • Citizen Grim

    I hope folks will refrain from extrapolating from this shooter’s personal motives to comment on his religious and political connections. Traditional Christianity does not tell folks to shoot up liberal churches.


  • Mildred

    no buttons to push here, pgcfriend. The facts are the facts. This guy expressly targeted THIS particular church — NOT because it was conveniently located, NOT because its parishioners were east targets, NOT because he had a person grudge against an ex-girlfriend in the congregation — but because (drum roll, please), it was a church that this particular assailant expressly believed to be comprised of “liberals” and “gays”.

    It is this characterization — in the mind of the assailant — that is most illuminating. It tells us a lot about the prevailing rhetoric and goes far toward explaining why he would organize his anger and frustration in the manner that he did. After all, he could just as easily have attacked a government building, fast food restaurant, or Mormon enclave. He did not.

    It doesn’t take a genuis to figure out that this guy has deeply internalized the lessons and the rhetoric spouted and touted daily by the doyens of right-wing talk radio and the politics of hatred that have come to permeate right-wing conservatism.

    This is an easy point to understand. Ask yourself: when was the last time you heard of a gay man advocating that heterosexuals be damned to hell? when was the last time you heard of a gang of gay men hunting down a heterosexual teenager, beating him, tying him to the back of a truck and dragging him to his death? when was the last time that you heard a “liberal” talking head calling for the extermination of Christians (comparable to Ann Coulter calling for the extermination of Muslims)?

  • Brian Walden

    Mildred, I really don’t think you want to play the who’s better game – no one will win, we’ll all lose.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Since I have been deeply linked with the UU community (member of two different churches, employed by a UU community center for a year), I’m going to refrain from getting into the usual sparring here. Having your co-religionists shot-up doesn’t put you in a rational or forgiving mood.

    Having said that, in this case, from a journalistic perspective, we may get more information than we usually do in a church shooting. The shooter is still alive, and perhaps more importantly, the shooter wrote a manifesto. No doubt in the next few days much will become clearer about his personal religious beliefs, and his motivations for killing two people and wounding six others.

  • Patty

    Christianity is supposed to be about love. It has been twisted by zealots who emphasize elimination of those different from them rather than loving your brother/sister as yourself. This attack is not an indictment of Christianity, but it does point a finger at those who have have over the last twenty years managed to twist the message of Christ.

    This guy was out to get “liberals.” Was he just another nutjob or was he influenced by right-wing rhetoric? That’s a question only they can answer.

  • Mollie

    It’s also worth noting that there isn’t necessarily a conflict between the various motives mentioned. One can hate Christians, liberals, gays and an ex-wife and be mentally unstable, etc., all at the same time.

    The key from a journalistic angle is to tread carefully. But the coverage I’ve seen thus far has been accurate.

    It reminds me, sadly, of that young man who not so long ago shot up the mission center and New Life Church in Colorado. He was clearly mentally unstable — but there was hatred for Christians there, too. Coverage there also did a good job of balancing the competing motives and factors.

  • Brian Walden

    Patty, who twists the message of Christ into a message to kill innocent people? Which right-wing rhetoric calls for shooting liberals? Everyone who commits a mass-murder comes from some group of people, you can’t just say Aha! the group made him do it. As much as we want a simple, clear cut explanation for what happened the real answers will probably be convoluted.

  • Mollie

    I understand that this senseless shooting provokes many emotions. I wish we could discuss all of the surrounding issues here but please keep comments focused on media coverage of the shooting as opposed to personal feelings.

  • Titus

    Instead of blaming liberals or conservatives or libertarians, and instead of blaming atheists, liberal christians, gnostic christians, or conservative christians. Why don’t we take a look at the pundit-ocracy, and the politicians who turn us against one another so that we ingore their principal role in all this?

  • Phillip

    I’ve been to many Unitarian Universalist churches in the last decade. I’ve never found them compelling enough to attend regularly but I bear them no animosity; live and let live. One thing I did notice in the few times I attended after 911 (and in reading their own pastors’ sermons posted on websites–you can do the research and find them), was a thread that “the United States by its policies brought the violence of 911 upon itself.”

    I hope this church and all other Unitarian Universalist churches analyzing this horrible tragedy in the days and weeks ahead will use the same philosophical underpinnings on themselves to inquire why they would engender and bring into their own house such vicious hatred and violence. From the consistency of their own preaching for the last 7 years, clearly they have themselves to blame.

    I would disagree. But then, I also disagreed with their misguided analysis when it was applied to 911.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    I hope this church and all other Unitarian Universalist churches analyzing this horrible tragedy in the days and weeks ahead will use the same philosophical underpinnings on themselves to inquire why they would engender and bring into their own house such vicious hatred and violence. From the consistency of their own preaching for the last 7 years, clearly they have themselves to blame.

    Boy, I bet you feel super-clever now! What dazzling insight! You sure hoisted those UUs by their own petard! Nothing like scoring some rhetorical points in the aftermath of a shooting, that is pure class.

    See? This is exactly why I’m trying to stay away from this thread. Now I’m going to try double hard before I make some unkind statements. If there is any sense of decency among the Get Religion mods, Phillip’s comment, and my response will be deleted.

  • Stephen A.

    I saw a report on TV earlier that said the guy’s wife attended this same UU church. No further details, but this wasn’t some random choice, apparently.

    Combine this with earlier reports that he hated his neighbor for their kid going to a Bible college, and his seeming disdain for traditional conservative Christianity, and I would have to say there’s a lot of uncertainty about this guy’s motives.

    I suspect the rampant speculation here is going to be mirrored in the press, as well. As I noted before, scapegoating entire groups is not a great practice, and I bet even our liberal friends here will agree with that.

  • Stephen A.

    Phillip’s “scoring points” at this time isn’t exactly the classiest thing to be doing right now, as Jason says. Then again, how many liberals pulled a “gotcha” on Pat Robertson and his ilk when, after 9/11, he blamed gays and our liberal culture for driving the terrorists to act? Same with comments Clinton made about talk radio “causing” the Oklahoma City bombing in the 90s, etc. All of it is out of bounds.

    Point scoring in the media and BY them (when they give peopl a platform for it) is inevitable, and it’s easy to say “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” but then again, it’s very hard to condone blaming the theology of the VICTIMS here for the actions of a lone nut who shot up their congregation, just as it will be wrong when people blame that lone nut’s bizarre interpretation of conservative Christianity, or those who practice it.

  • Phillip

    No, Jason, it’s not about points. And it’s not about winning some little polemical debate that only you have constructed in your mind. It’s certainly not about your using ad hominem while railing against the very thing you claim (“oh woe is me”) while you still continue to read and post (and no doubt will reply again here).

    Here’s a tip: You need to embrace EVERYTHING that other poster’s write. Not just enough to trigger your emotionalistic rants. Because it’s not about you. For example, read the last two sentences I wrote, the summary paragraph (which most intelligent readers know as “the wrap”) to understand what my theme was. If you can.

    Your post, Jason, was intellectually bankrupt. You did not refute what I wrote, you simply emoted. You were the one trying to be clever (and failing). I simply inferred from direct observation of my own experiences several statements from a few (not all) UU churches and a line of thought that is, in fact, heard in many “progressive” threads, many of them mainstream. My conclusion was that perhaps some of them will now finally see that the shallow philosophy of “we brought this upon ourselves” needs a bit closer inspection. I sincerely hope this poor congregation and its pastor in Tennessee doesn’t fall prey to that ridiculous notion that somehow they were to blame for this mad act. They have enough pain. As, I suspect, do you.

  • Phillip

    Stephen A., I agree with everything you wrote except your concurrence with Jason’s nonsense that I was trying to “score points.” It’s a ridiculous notion and a careful reading of my entire post, including and ESPECIALLY my conclusion, supports that it was Jason’s polemical fantasy.

  • Stephen A.

    Fair enough, Phillip.

    The bottom line is that we should be watching in the media for those reporters who are agenda-pushing and those reporters who are being USED by those pushing agendas, rathr than simply reporting bare facts.

  • FW Ken

    This reminds me of the shootings at Wedgewood Baptist Church a congregation polar opposite to a UU church. The treatment Time Magazine gives the evangelical Baptists is particularly noteworthy and should be bookmarked for comparison of media handling of this tragedy.

  • Dave

    Phillip (#19) wrote:

    I hope this church and all other Unitarian Universalist churches analyzing this horrible tragedy in the days and weeks ahead will use the same philosophical underpinnings on themselves to inquire why they would engender and bring into their own house such vicious hatred and violence.

    Unfortunately, that’s too easy. UUs have supported women’s rights, abortion rights and gay rights, all of which have at one time or another provoked violent backlashes. It’s simple to assume that this is what happened in Knoxville. But to do that would be to embrace a stereotype of those who disagree with us. UUs, along with everyone else, will have to wait for the shooter’s note to be released to find out his real motives.

  • Dave2

    Phillip, I take it your claim is that the very same principles that led the UUers of your acquaintance to put some of the blame for 9/11 on US foreign policy would, if applied consistently, license the conclusion that the UU is partly to blame for this shooting. But I very much doubt that. I suspect the UUers in question would hold that the policies cited by bin Laden as his casus belli (US support of Israel, military presence in Saudi Arabia) are bad policies, unjust and unduly aggressive, and that Islamic and Arabic peoples have very legitimate grievances. With all this granted, it would by no means follow that the ‘grievances’ of this gunman were legitimate or that the policies of the UU have been unjust or unduly aggressive.

    In short, I think the only way for your point to stand is by way of a grossly uncharitable understanding of the UUers and their principles (e.g., they probably don’t think that all misfortune can be blamed on the victim).

  • Jay

    While perhaps Phillip’s remarks are a bit too conclusory, they may not be far off the mark. I left the UUs after my minister began preaching that 9/11 was an inside government job, and he and a faction of the the church began working closely with the 9/11 truthers. While something like that may or may not have motivated the gunman in Knoxville, part of my reason for leaving was that I was concerned that the minister’s actions would ultimately motivate violence, from either the left or right. I won’t be surprised if this shooter attended or was associated with the church at some point.

    Also-why isn’t the media clearly noting that most UUs aren’t Christian, and most UUs would bristle at being labeled Christian? Surveys from several years ago indicate about 10% of UUs accept that label. See (toward the bottom of the page) That’s not a knock in my book by the way-I’d would have put myself in the 90% other then and now, but I wouldn’t bristle. It is entirely possible here that we have a case of atheist on atheist violence in Knoxville.

  • Maureen

    If it hadn’t been for the Internet, I doubt I’d ever have heard that the Unitarians were not just another Christian, Trinity-believing denomination, albeit one with mysteriously open standards of what they let in as part of worship. I knew about them commonly having Wiccans in the congregation (because I knew neopagan Unitarians) and other such shenanigans, sure. But nobody ever mentioned, “Oh, yeah, and they don’t believe in three Persons in one God”. I always had thought that “Unitarian Universalist” meant “We are really really unified, possibly from a coalition of churches, and take everybody.”

    Unitarians are not terribly interested in telling you about their church’s dogmatic constitutions, ye ken. So it’s a lot easier to find out these things when you’re on the Internet.

  • Maureen

    Anyway… whether or not the gunman realized that the UU church does not teach Trinitarian Christianity, it’s plenty clear that the guy despised church attendance. UU people, Christian or not, clearly place value on having a church and sitting their butts in it upon occasion. (And their kids’ butts, too.)

    So sure, the guy hated liberals and hated the gays who were publicized as attending the UU church (which is kinda creepy, really, like a zoo advertisement. “SEE the lions! SEE the lesbians!”). But it’s also pretty clear that he had the traditional American beef (sometimes atheist, sometimes not) with “hypocrites” and “religious freaks” who “force their children to sit through brainwashing sessions on Sundays”. He may have even bought the line about children being brought to church being a form of mental child abuse, and thus convinced himself that shooting up a church full of kids would be a blessed release for them.

    Shrug. Obviously, whatever he thought he was doing, he was wrong. But it doesn’t seem so hard, to me, to reconcile these supposedly opposite motives.

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  • Mollie

    Come on people. Please limit your discussion to media coverage of this tragic shooting.

  • Stephen A.

    I found the Time Magazine coverage of the Sept, 1999 shooting at a Christian Church pointed to by FW Ken (26, above) to be very englightening and relevant to the unfolding coverage of the recent tragedy.

    The questioning of one church member’s eyewitness account as a possible “pious invention,” the rather incredulous-sounding reporting about the possible theological explanations that were offered by a pastor, the implied ‘persecution complex’ of Christians – and not just the ones in that particular church – and the barely concealed amazement of the reporter that the congregation didn’t all become gun-banning gun control advocates after the event were all quite astounding.

    The fact that their claims and fears were treated as if they were not real was the most troubling aspect of that report.

    I somehow doubt we’ll see that “mirror image” reporting we’ve been looking for with this recent shooting, but I’m actually hoping it’s NOT going to be inflicted on these UU Church members, because it wasn’t fair when they did it before.

    In fact, the Time Magazine piece on this issue seems pretty bland and factual. Though I see no references to the man’s earlier hostility to ALL Christians, but I do see an obessive amount of mention of the word “liberal.”

  • Stephen A.

    TIME Magazine piece on this incident:,8599,1827213,00.html

    I do want clarification as to what it means when it (apparently, without questioning) quotes the church as saying, “The Knoxville congregation also has provided sanctuary for political refugees…”

    They’re helping folks escape from Castro’s totalitarian dictatorship? That’s GREAT! But no, I suspect they meant to say “Illegal Aliens.”

  • Dave

    Maureen (##30,31), you are right about the reluctance of UUs to promote our religion in the marketplace. It’s the problem of how to tell people “Our religion is great!” without the disrespectful implication of “Your religion is wrong!” There is a proselytizing function at the denomination level — you can get a bumper sticker that says “The Uncommon Denomination” — but it’s very low-key.

    You are incorrect that the Welcoming Congregation program has a circus atmosphere. The idea is to let BGLTs know that they are welcome, not to invite folks in to look at them.

    Jay (#29), I’d like you to know that the “inside job” theory of 9/11 is a minority position among UUs. There’s a level of “blame the victims” which I find disturbing, somewhat ameliorated by the fact that UUs who hold that position are not very good at defending it if challenged (and with me in a congregation, they are challenged).

  • AmaniS

    One thing that is lost on society is that we don’t seem to believe that some people are just crazy. It may have nothing to do with the reality of what this UU church taught, but what he thought they taught.
    His motives seem to have nothing to do with religon. “his belief that all liberals should be killed” seems more political than religious. Until we can read the whole letter we should not make an conclusions.
    This brings us to the problem the media now has. Print the whole letter, giving people the best information to draw a conclusion, but also giving notary to such people.