Anti-war activists have been slow in reacting to the military buildup in the Persian Gulf, but as President Bush has turned up the volume on his war talk, public attitudes have begun to change.

And as that has happened, the Unitarian Church has assumed a leadership role in the Utah peace movement. It just took a while.The Rev. Tom Goldsmith of First Unitarian Church is one of those scheduled to speak at today's peace rally, which begins at 11 a.m. at the Vietnam Memorial on the state Capitol grounds. Sponsored by the Utah Coalition Against the U.S. War in the Middle East, the protest includes a march down State Street for a noon rally at the Federal Building.

Despite his involvement in the protest, the Rev. Goldsmith says it wasn't long ago that he supported Bush's actions.

A letter from Unitarian headquarters in September urging all congregations to maintain an attitude of suspicion toward official U.S. actions in the Persian Gulf sounded one of the first sour notes in the chorus of global approval, said the Rev. Goldsmith.

"My reaction at that time was that the president of the Unitarian Church was totally off base." Goldsmith said he believed Bush's early response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was a display of skillful diplomacy that drew support from all quarters, including liberal camps and peace groups.

But as public support ebbs somewhat for U.S. involvement, Salt Lake peace activists are organizing teach-ins, letter-writing campaigns and other programs that the church has become involved in. Even so, Goldsmith said, "our response to what's going on in the Gulf is not as organized as we would like. I think we were kind of lulled into a false sense of security, with the cold war coming to an end and the democratization of Eastern Europe. I think it's been a combination of increased self-interest and a relaxed posture vis-a-vis global issues.

"Sadly, the national peace organizations and for our church as well, there was really nothing in place . . . If you're reactive, you're always a couple of steps behind," Goldsmith said.

With the United Nations Security Council's Jan. 15 deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait looming, time, everyone agrees, could be getting very short for peace actions.

University of Utah law professor Ed Firmage contacted the Unitarians recently to say he was deeply concerned about the country's war preparations, wanted to talk about it, and chose the First Unitarian Church at 569 S. 1300 East as his forum.

"The fact that he called us, and said this is the space he wants, signals that in the wider sense the community does look to this church to take some kind of leadership initiative," Goldsmith said. "The community is turning to us. Non-Unitarians are turning to us, saying `you've got a proven history, and we trust you, and we expect you to take the lead and provide the space for us.' "

The Unitarians' position in the peace movement derives from the church's theological teachings, Goldsmith said.

"There's no division between heaven and earth. We see just earth, earth being in the cosmos, with no arbitrary divisions, no locating God up there, down there, around there or any fixed location. So because that division isn't there, we by necessity have a very strong impetus to want to affect this world positively. Our chief guiding principle is a moral obligation to this world and to each other.

"One of the great Unitarian ministers, an abolitionist in the 1850s, a man named Peter Parker, said it so beautifully. He said piety is not enough. You've got to be actively involved."

The Rev. Goldsmith said Utahns "owe it to themselves to mobilize their energies and get involved."