Page 4


BOOKS & TIRE CULTURE I BY AMENI ROZSA Interview with a Heretical Preacher MIThe 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 fascismincluding 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 governmentare 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 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 Bibleto 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 “unchurched,” 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 selfidentified “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 idealskind 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 mes sage 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 cultureAustin, with the creativity and spontaneity that permeates this placemakes 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 aboutthe values that run our lives and world and the values that should run our lives and worldthen there is no line to draw. If 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER NOVEMBER 18, 2005