The new F-word?

The new F-word?

Charles Derber


On the Sunday after Election Day 2004, the Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr took to his pulpit at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas, and delivered a sermon entitled “Living Under Fascism.”

“I mean to persuade you,” he told his parishioners, “that the style of governing into which America has slid is most accurately described as fascism, and that the necessary implications of this fact are rightly regarded as terrifying.”

Fascism is a hot-button word, and posting the sermon on the church website pushed the button. Word of the sermon “began spreading through the Internet like wildfire,” Loehr said in a recent interview. Bloggers started writing about it, and linking to it, and before long the church’s server was overwhelmed by such a flood of hits that it crashed.

This spread the word further and inspired the Chelsea Green Publishing Company to contact Loehr and propose a book. The result, America, Fascism, and God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher, was published last month.

Loehr, a Fellow in the Jesus Seminar, holds a doctoral degree in theology, philosophy of religion, and the philosophy of science from the University of Chicago.

Shortly after the book was published, asked Charles Derber to interview Loehr. Derber is a political economist on the faculty of Boston College and author of Hidden Power: What You Need to Know to Save Our Democracy, another newly published book that explores contemporary fascism from a moral perspective.

--Tom Stites

Charles Derber: You are very critical of organized religion and clerical hierarchies. Is religion bad for democracy today? Is it always bad for democracy?

Davidson Loehr: Literalistic religion is always bad for democracy and is, in fact, one of its mortal enemies.

There’s a Buddhist metaphor that says all religions, gods, saviors, sages, and teachings are so many fingers pointing to the moon. The object, of course, is to see where they’re pointing, not to worship the finger. While democracy demands civil behavior and encourages all citizens to grow into their best selves, it also recognizes that there are many roads—many fingers—and makes sure you are free to find the path toward our common behavioral goals that fits you. That’s part of the moral reasoning behind the separation of church and state.

But when you are stuck in that deadening literalism, you aren’t looking for the light; you’re worshiping the finger. Then other paths threaten the primacy of your own path and must not be allowed. So literal religions are natural allies of authoritarian and repressive governments, but are never happy residents in a democracy where people are free to shrug off literalist notions of salvation.

Derber: You also are very critical of existing concepts of God. Under the existing orthodoxy, is God a fascist? Is any concept of God consistent with critical thought and humanism?

Loehr: When God is a finger, he’ll be looking for a trigger to pull. In the real world, God doesn’t “exist” as a being, a critter with a neocortex, kneecaps, and eyeballs. The word “God” is a symbol that stands for those ideals and allegiances that we happen to think are most demanding of respect and obedience. Once again, we’re looking for the “moon,” for enlightenment, illumination. Looking for the moon empowers the seekers, but not the priests or the politicians.

In Christianity, this is the difference between the gospel of John in the New Testament and the Gospel of Thomas, which was excluded from the New Testament precisely because it empowers everyone, rather than empowering only the leaders—whether priest, church, politician, or state. This argument is developed by Elaine Pagels in her book Beyond Belief.

God-talk isn’t the description of a critter, it’s an idiom of expression, used to address issues we believe very important. But since there is no fellow called God that exists except as an imaginative creation, that means that when preachers speak as though there is such a fellow, and claim to be speaking for this fellow, then they have turned the symbol “God” into a hand puppet to do their—but not your—bidding. Pretending to speak for this fellow empowers the churches and keeps the ministers in their jobs. Still, the number of ministers who wish they could tell their people that they really know that these myths are just myths—that number is immense!

Derber: You describe fascism as a kind of political fundamentalism. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Loehr: I think it’s useful to see fascism as political fundamentalism, and fundamentalism as religious fascism. They have nearly identical social and political agendas. They both want men on top in every way; women defined by their biology—and by men; literal rather than liberal understandings of religion; and obedience rather than empowerment. Both also operate on a foundation of fear rather than trust.

When you find virtually identical agendas, they must have preceded the individual examples of fundamentalism or fascism, and this is the case. One of the most important things we need to understand about these agendas is that their roots are biological. They are a kind of biological default setting of sexually dimorphous territorial animals, including us.

Derber: When did political fundamentalism—or fascism as you define it—begin in America and why is it taking root so strongly now?

Loehr: It’s always been here, and in every culture. For example, the Pilgrims wanted a theocracy. Many of the original colonies each had their own local religion, and barred or drove out those who didn’t accept their provincial beliefs. Freedom of religion came about because of the abject failure of the colonies’ effort to restrict it.

But it’s more useful to ask about the forces controlling America at any time, and whether they’re friendly or unfriendly to command-and-control regimes. Right now, we’re in a time that is completely friendly to command-and-control, to rule by our worst plutocrats and imperialists. I think we are in a position similar to Germany after 1933. And remember, Hitler presented himself as the super-Christian and claimed that Christian morals were to be the center of his Nazi regime to reprimand the excesses of liberalism. Fundamentalism and fascism go hand in hand.

Derber: Explain your view of the relation of corporations to fundamentalism and fascism.

Loehr: They all have close family resemblances, in their need for a command-and-control culture. When corporations exalt profits for the owners above profits for the earners, they finally need to destroy unions and government controls, to keep the workers disempowered. Fascism, as the marriage of business and government with business giving the orders, combined with an over-the-top nationalism, is the perfect ally to help keep people in an obedient rather than in an uppity mode. And fundamentalism, always an ally of power and greed, is the perfect form of religion. Together, these three—plutocracy, imperialism, and fundamentalism—form a dangerous kind of perfect storm, complementing each other perfectly, especially when you add their nearly complete control of the media.

Derber: What would you say to critics who argue that if we really lived under fascism you wouldn't be able to write this book or publish it without being killed?

Loehr: Well, one answer is that they are correct; it could be much more dramatic than it is—and may yet become so. But another answer is to remind ourselves that we are already shipping prisoners to other countries so they can be tortured—and, I assume, sometimes murdered. We’re not as far away from full-blown fascism as many people would like to think.

Derber: You suggest that we all need to challenge the priests and ministers and clerical hierarchies that have abused religion for their own purposes. Can you explain this and suggest concretely how people can do this?

Loehr: Throughout history, I think the most honorable moral power has always come from the prophets, not the priests. And prophets are non-priests, for the most part—ordinary people who come screaming in from the countryside to upbraid the priests and politicians for selling out to those with money. It’s rare that ministers won’t care if they lose their biggest pledgers—who often use their money as a tool to restrict the preacher and the church to stay within their comfort zone. It’s embarrassing to think of how many times these people demean religion in this way—with the all-too-willing compliance of the ministers. It’s human nature, just as it’s natural for ministers to want to be liked.

But right now, in the most dangerous time our country has been through in my lifetime, the silence—I want to say, the cowardice—of the pulpits is especially disturbing. Some time back, I spoke to a group of about fifty colleagues at a retreat, about how they must find a way to speak out from the pulpit about the illegal war, the murder of over 100,000 innocent Iraqis whose worst sin was living in a country with oil and strategic military location our imperialists want, about the increasingly dishonest and vicious economy that transfers money by the truckload from the earners to the owners, and the rest of it. There was dead silence. Afterwards, driving back home with two ministerial interns in the car, I asked for their reaction to that scene. One of them said, “I never before saw so many people who suddenly needed to look at their shoes.” That’s shameful, and if the people in the churches don’t challenge it, nobody will.

Derber: Do you feel progressives should embrace a religious or overtly moral agenda? How does this relate to the anti-corporate economic agenda you advocate?

Loehr: I don’t think progressives—and I don’t care for that word—should fake a religious position. The Left is making a dangerous mistake in thinking this is about religion. It’s about responsibility, morality, ethics—but not religion. Talking about being decent, responsible people who care for one another and work to create a culture that empowers rather than enslaves—this kind of talk trumps religion. It’s the way leftists should be talking, rather than whining—and I think it’s perceived as whining—about individual rights unbalanced by individual responsibilities. Religion doesn’t own these greater concerns: they arise in, and are the rightful property of, the human character, individually and collectively. I don’t care whether people have a religion, a spirituality, or not. People differ. But I do care that they are inspired and commanded by the notion that we must all try to serve the greatest good for the greatest number, that we be decent and compassionate, and that we try to leave our small section of the world a little better than we found it. These concerns are the human soil from which all the gods have been born, as temporary expressions and protectors of it.

The greedy corporatism we have—and “corporatism” is the word Mussolini used as a synonym for fascism—should be opposed because it’s unethical, immoral, unfair, brutal, a mortal enemy of our greater humanity. Those are the kind of terms I think we should be using. Too often, people in religion are so desperate for any feeling that they might, after all, be relevant that they jump on the fundamentalist wagon and try to say that America really is a religious nation—just a liberal religious nation. That’s dangerous nonsense. The conservatives have framed the word “religion,” and liberals lack the numbers, the clout, or the moral significance to effectively reframe it.

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