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Controversy around The Rev. Luis Leon’s Easter sermon

Controversy around The Rev. Luis Leon’s Easter sermon

UPDATE: Audio of Leon’s sermon here.

Here’s the Fox News headline in Chris Stirewalt’s article:

“The captains of the religious right are always calling us back, back, back. For blacks to be back in the back of the bus, for women to be back in the kitchen, for gays to be in the closet and for immigrants to be on their side of the border.”

— Sermon by Rev. Luis Leon, pastor of St. John’s Episcopal Church, in his Easter sermon to congregants, including President Obama and his family, according to the press pool report of the first family’s visit.

There was then a rush of the cry of using Easter for politics, with people suggesting Obama now had “another Rev. Wright” on his hands. Rush Limbaugh for one blamed President Obama for inspiring racism in the Easter service. (NBCNews)

The Huffington Post reports in an extensive article by Jaweed Kaleem reports that Rev. León stands by his words.

“It’s in there. People will do what they want with it,” said Leon, referring to the sermon in which he said it drives him “crazy when the captains of the religious right are always calling us back … for blacks to be back in the back of the bus … for women to be back in the kitchen … for immigrants to be back on their side of the border.”

The key part of this version of the quote are the “…”s (which were found in the excerpts released via a White House pool report), for this leads to what long-time Republican party activist Brian W. Schoeneman (and member of Leon’s church, St. John’s Lafayette Square), in an excellent op-ed in Bearing Drift (Virginia’s Conservative Voice), says he heard while attending church:

But it was in this discussion of the dangers of nostalgia that he made the comments that created all the conservative hate on Easter. He made the point that he is frustrated when “captains of the religious right” want to call us back to times they say were better, but that those times were also times when blacks had to sit in the back of the bus, when women were kept in the kitchen and immigrants on their side of the border. The point was simple and one I’ve said to many people myself – those of us who pine for the “good old days” need to keep in mind that those good old days weren’t always that great for everybody else.

Was that hatred? No. Was it an attack on the religious right? No. Was it pandering to Obama? No – he gave the same sermon at both the 9 AM and 11 AM services and used the same line in both (I was a lay reader at the 9 AM, so I heard that version – it was the same as the 11 AM based on the pool reporters notes) . Was it a straw man attack? I don’t think so. Pat Robertson, among others, has long lamented how society is more immoral today than it was in the past, especially when talking about gay marriage and other social issues. Luis’s point is that those people are living in the past and ignoring that in that past that may have been better for some, it wasn’t better for all. We can’t go back, no matter how much we want to. What we can do is make the future better, and through Christ, we have that opportunity.

Schoeneman then laments the bitterness and hatred that came out over what people thought someone said. He sees that “for too many politics has stopped being about moving the country forward, but has become a bitter personal fight between two sides who both think the other is pure evil.”

Perhaps best is his closing words, in which he invites people to learn the truth about his church and Rev. Leon:

But for those of you who, like Thomas, need to see things with your own eyes, I’d like to invite you to attend services with me. Any given Sunday, you’ll find us at St. John’s and we’d be happy to have you.

Isn’t this the critical message: Come and See? Isn’t this our only hope in stopping the demonizing that we have fallen into: to remove the tinted lenses of the other, and instead witness the humanity (and God’s image) in each other?


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Paige Baker

Chris–he called out conservatives because they are the ONLY ones wanting to drag us back to the 1950s. If the shoe fits, wear it and be honest enough to admit he’s right. If not, then he’s not talking to you.

Having spent a lovely afternoon with Bishop Spong not long ago when he was visiting in my neck of the woods, I really have no time for people who think he’s all that is wrong with the church. He was kind, gentle, and spoke with great conviction about his faith. That evening, he had a whole room full of people who have been terribly wounded by Christianity and the church believing that there might be some kind of faith left for them after all. That, to me, is the work of God in the world.

Chris H.

If he hadn’t made conservatives the only example named by name, I don’t think it would have come across as such an attack. Since they were his only specific example, it was an attack, not as severe as some posts put it, but enough to rile feathers in the current climate.

Say someone gave a talk about some societal problem, pick one–drunk driving, drug abuse, child abuse, any well known problem etc. and the only specific example given in the speech was a gay/transgender person doing it. The speaker then goes on about solving the problem and gives concise, well thought out ideas to stop it. Would you say gays/transgendered were attacked?

Anyway, if conservatives really wanted something in TEC to get worked up about, Bishop Johnson and Bishop Spong’s Good Friday performance, complete with hymn proclaiming the glories of doubt instead of faith, is much worse than Leon’s choice of example.

Rev. Baucum got in so much trouble a few weeks ago for breaking off with Bishop Johnson, well now he’s got a much better reason for it.

Chris Harwood


The audio of the sermon is now online at

I withdraw my allegation of pool-reporter mischief. The ellipses seen in the quotes above are apparently intended as punctuation — they do not indicate text that was left out.

Leon did say just before that, as Schoeneman suggests, that “the good old days, we forget, may have been good for some, but they weren’t good for everybody.” But I have to say that it would be easy for a listener to assume that he meant just what he said (this is transcribed from the audio): that “the captains of the religious right are always calling us back, back, back: for blacks to be back in the back of the bus, for women to be back in the kitchen, for gays to be in the closet, and for immigrants to be on their side of the border.”

All that said, Schoeneman is right in his overall characterization of the sermon and the relative unimportance of the remark about the religious right.

Paige Baker

My question is: What difference does it make? The Rev. Leon is the priest at St. John’s. If his vestry and parishioners are upset with him for the topics or contents of his sermons, that’s one thing–but, otherwise, it’s not really any of our business, is it? I don’t need to hear his sermon to find out what he “really” said, because he’s free to say what he wants.

I think second-guessing him–or trying to “prove” to those who are looking to be offended that he isn’t guilty of their charges–just plays into the hate games.

I am absolutely certain that the people who want to believe the worst of the Rev. Leon will never be satisfied with a recording of his sermon–they will just contend that it’s been doctored. You cannot win with those folks–so why even try?

Kurt Wiesner

I think that’s a fair assessment Mark, if the pool report indeed is worded that way. I cannot track down the report itself, but almost every source has it with the ellipses in those spots, which makes it look like those on the “religious right” are calling for these things, rather than forgetting that the “good old days” were not that for all.

If Schoeneman’s account is correct, it makes me wonder: was this someone seeding a political storm, or someone simply being careless, perhaps annoyed with having to report on a Easter Sunday? I think Schoeneman’s opinion still has merit regardless, but it may be a case that people were baited by the pool report.

Luis has said that the full sermon podcast will be posted on the church website (it has not yet): then we may get some of the answers.

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