Interview with a Heretical Preacher

The Observer talks with Austin's Davidson Loehr


The Sunday following the 2004 elections, Davidson Loehr stood in front of his congregation at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin and delivered a sermon entitled “Living Under Fascism,” in which he made the case that many of the distinguishing characteristics of fascism—including conspicuous displays of nationalism, obsession with military and national security, the suppression of labor power, the protection of corporate interests, and the intertwining of religion and government—are clearly visible in America at the beginning of the 21st century. This sermon and others are collected in Loehr’s new book, America, Fascism and God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher (Chelsea Green Publishing Company).

Eschewing religious jargon, Loehr addresses his message to believers and non-believers alike, suggesting that both liberals and conservatives have foregone their claims to the values they hold dear. His sermons draw not only from myths and religious parables from around the world, but also from historical and current events. At their heart is a call to awareness and to action.

“Gods are those central concerns that our behaviors show we take very seriously,” writes Loehr, suggesting that we are worshipping “false gods” by permitting social and political policies to be “dictated by the overriding concerns of capitalism.” Moreover, he points out, religious fundamentalism, which by its nature discourages any questioning of the status quo, has become an ally of corporate greed and political repression. This has resulted in disastrous wars undertaken on false pretenses, a social safety net that is under attack, and laws that increasingly encroach upon people’s right to speak and live in accordance with their own consciences. If Americans are to restore democracy, they must put their faith—whether in the god of profit or in the God of the Bible—to the test, demanding religion that is open, engaged, compassionate and humane. “The soul of honest religion,” he writes, “is the human soul seeking its own finest form.”

A Vietnam veteran who grew up “un-churched,” Loehr worked as a photographer, musician, and carpenter before enrolling at the University of Chicago to earn his Ph.D. in theology, the philosophy of religion, and the philosophy of science. Recently he met with the Observer to discuss God, the state of religion in this country, and the difficulties of being a self-identified “heretical preacher.” Following are excerpts from that conversation.

Texas Observer: It struck me that you’ve written a book about God for people who don’t believe in God.

Davidson Loehr: Not true. This is a book about God for people who think God is a concept that deserves far more intelligent and informed treatment than the mindless superstition that our society has treated it with. God is treated as sort of a Superman figure in the sky, a supernatural critter that all preachers know isn’t there, in that sense. The idea now is that the word “God” is a symbol onto which we’ve projected a lot of our high ideals—kind of as a protector of them. And we need something to protect those ideals. The question is, in the world we’re living in, how do we talk about those high ideals? We can’t talk about them in terms of a critter who kills people right and left. This is an abomination. This is a cartoon treatment that betrays everything that religion’s ever been about. You’ll find Christian thinkers going back to Augustine and Origen talking about literalism as a childish thing that’s a betrayal of religion.

TO: As one of those people who has always struggled with the idea of God as a being, I found it exciting to think about shedding the vocabulary.

DL: I think so too. It opens up the message to a lot more people when you take it out of the jargon. I think the reason people in religion don’t want it taken out of the jargon is that they honestly don’t know what they’re saying anymore. [They’ve been] reciting a mantra that marks them as members of a certain club. That’s very bad in religion because they’re such powerful words.

TO: You earned a Ph.D. in religion but you didn’t want to go into academia because you didn’t want to get lost in “thoughts about thoughts.” Has the ministry been what you hoped it would be?

DL: Yes. It’s like marriage: It’s not about finding the right church, it’s about finding the right match. And something about Texas culture—Austin, with the creativity and spontaneity that permeates this place—makes this a good fit. The sermons that make up the book, which were all given here in Austin—1 percent of the churches in this country would let these sermons be given. It costs money to do them. Our board told me that we lost $20,000 last year in cancelled pledges from members who said they wouldn’t pledge if I was going to talk about society and the economy and the war. Any minister who wants to talk about [these issues] will be hearing from church leaders, who will basically say, “Oh gosh, while we certainly affirm your freedom of the pulpit, the Smiths are going to withdraw $12,000 in pledges if you ever talk about the economy again and suggest that it’s rapacious, or that the war is illegal.” It’s a passive-aggressive argument that every church minister has heard. This church is the only one I’ve ever been in where nobody would say that.

TO: How many of your sermons are political in nature?

DL: I think that if what religion is what we’re supposed to be talking about—the values that run our lives and world and the values that should run our lives and world—then there is no line to draw. If you’re only going to focus on yourself, then when society is in a malevolent period (and I think ours is), you become an accomplice to the malevolence. I was raised with the stories about the “good Germans”: all the Germans who knew what was going on and didn’t say anything. The phrase as it was used to me growing up meant cowardly, evil people who were accomplices to immense evil.

Karl Bart, an early twentieth century theologian, said that every Sunday, the preacher had to enter the pulpit—figuratively—with the Bible in one hand and the morning newspaper in the other. My translation is just that you need some source of wisdom, perspective and insight—he used the Bible but we have to draw more broadly than that now—and you have to have some sense of what’s going on in the world. You need to talk about how we’re living compared to the values we call ultimate.

TO: More and more powerful people seem to be using religion to shore up their support. Certainly the Republican Party has had a great deal of success mobilizing voters through churches. Why do you think churches are permitting themselves to be used in this way?

DL: Because they’re desperate to be relevant to anything. In Western traditions, there are two kinds of religion. In Judaism, [you have] the religion of the priests and the religion of the prophets. They are absolute opposites. The priests always sell out to money and power, they always support the status quo, and the prophets are coming in from the countryside to [protest]. In Christianity the same division is between the religion about Jesus—this became the religion of the priests—and the religion of Jesus, which is profoundly the religion of the prophets. When these people are siding with Bush, you don’t ever hear them quoting Jesus. They can’t. You don’t hear them saying “Judge not lest ye be judged” when they want to condemn gays. You don’t hear them saying, “Sell all you have and give to the poor if you want to be saved.” The religion of Jesus, the religion of prophets—and I believe these are the only honest and decent religious traditions we have—their job has always been to oppose the religion of the priests, which has always been an enemy of Jesus, an enemy of his teachings, and an enemy of all the prophets’ teachings.

TO: Do you think the religion of Jesus has the potential to transform the religious or political dialogue in this country?

DL: No. It has the potential to transform parts of liberal Christianity, and some of the parts of conservative Christianity. But the real story behind the rise of fundamentalism is that it’s losing its hold, not gaining it. We’re the most pluralistic nation on earth. The biggest Hindu temple in America is right here in Austin. And the most reliable figures I’ve seen on church attendance—because I think the polls have been intentionally misleading for a very long time—say that only 21 percent of Americans attend church regularly. This isn’t a Christian nation by any stretch of the imagination.

As fundamentalism hooks up with the power of the state, it’ll lose its hold permanently. This is what happened in Europe. After World War II, the people realized they couldn’t trust the churches, because they’d sold out so easily and quickly to power. Christianity was dead in Europe, and it’s been dead ever since.

This constitutional amendment [Proposition 2, which Texans passed on November 8]—I don’t think people understand what it’s about. Christian churches can and will take major credit for this amendment, and they should; they were a part of it. But what this election will show—and I think this is terribly important—is that in fact Christianity and the Bible are incapable of providing a moral foundation for America. The foundation they’re providing is a foundation of ignorance, bigotry, and hatred. That’s what the constitutional amendment will make an official part of the definition of Texas.

TO: Why do you think this silent majority is so silent?

DL: They don’t have a shared vision; they don’t have a shared vocabulary; they can’t speak in patriotic terms, nobody will listen; they can’t speak in religious terms, they don’t know how; they can’t speak in moral terms, they don’t know they’re supposed to. It’s a very serious problem. When fascism and fundamentalism rise, it’s largely—maybe always—a sign of the left having failed to provide an adequate vision. Fundamentalists aren’t the evil people, they’re the canary in the coal mine. They’re the early warning system that says, something about the liberal vision of this society has lost its center and it’s destabilizing and dangerous. And they’re correct. But fundamentalism and fascism cannot make us humane. They can provide a stable society but not a humane one. To do that you have to have a bigger vision.

I think some of the best help we have now comes from Eastern religions, like Hinduism and Buddhism, because they’re so different. Buddhism is about waking up from the illusions—not only the ones that control us but also the ones that comfort us. And the biggest illusion in Western religious thought is that you can talk about a loving God when we know there’s no critter up there. We need the insight of Buddhism to wake up from that.

TO: In your book you write that Americans need religion and not politics to help change society for the better.

DL: I’d want to change that a little. I’d say Americans need a grounding in morality and ethics and civics—in humanity. Honest religion is one route toward that, but so are honest non-theistic paths. The notion that we treat people, as Kant used to say, as ends in themselves, not use them for our own ends. There’s a very good philosophical path to the same place.

And then politics. Politics still, by definition, is the search for power by one partial vision over another partial vision. When I lived in Albany, New York, I was accused of being a Republican because I attacked Clinton for selling out America with NAFTA and the WTO. I would be told, “Well if you’re a liberal you need to support Clinton right or wrong.” If you’re in religion you don’t do that. If you’re bringing the Bible or the Upanishads or the Buddhist writings—the sources of wisdom in one hand, and the morning paper in the other—you can’t identify with a political party. Religion should be criticizing political parties as equal opportunity targets, because it’s supposed to be about trying to articulate more of a vision of the whole.

Ameni Rozsa is a writer in Austin.