Monday, March 20, 2006

Sermon: "What Davidson Loehr says about Fascism and What it Means to Us" (Delivered 1-29-06)

Opening Words

From time to time, it is important to take the pulse, to examine the health of our nation and the status of its soul. This morning’s service will aim to do just that. This morning we will examine difficult words and strong accusations – spoken in a way keeping in the very best of our religious heritage which has never shied away from thinking ideas because those ideas are dangerous or heretical. And keeping in the very best of our religious tradition, you are not required to believe them because somebody spoke them. You are required though to engage them and consider them, to pass them through the fire of your own thought, to weigh the evidence as it is offered, and to reach your own conclusions without any authority stamping upon your conscience. I call us together into the act of worship in the free church, whose freedom isn’t free, but always demands our vigilance and our exercise.


There’s a story to tell about how this sermon came to be. Each Winter, the book group here at SMUUCh challenges me to preach on a book they’ve read in the past year. This year, their selection was “The Plot Against America,” a novel by Philip Roth.

In this novel, Roth invents a sinister alternative version of American history on the eve of World War II. In this version, FDR loses the 1940 Presidential election to Charles Lindbergh, a Hitler admirer and nazi sympathizer. Under Lindbergh, America adopts policies of isolationism, creeping anti-Semitism, hyper-militarism, propaganda, and corporatism. Roth’s haunting novel is told through the eyes of a young Jewish boy from New Jersey, whose family dynamics and tensions mimic national ones. His father resigns his job due to the pressures anti-Semitism; his brother admires Lindbergh to the consternation of the rest of the family; a cousin enlists with the Canadian army and goes to war to defend Great Britain from Hitler’s Germany and returns from action missing a leg; the family and community face those wrenching questions: How bad will it get here? Should we resist actively and put ourselves at risk or would it be safer to stay silent? Should we move to Canada, and if so when? And, how?

Roth is a master of tension, and he slowly builds the pressure to the point of panic and terror, only to release the tension and resolve the impending doom in a way that is thoroughly, and perhaps intentionally, unconvincing.

So, how to preach on this novel? As I read it, it became apparent to me that there could only be one fitting way. That is to ask the most obvious of questions: could such a descent into fascism happen today? Or is it happening today? It is a big question, but an important one. It is the type of question that makes all other questions secondary. I’m sure that there are some here who would much prefer I not ask this question, however, asking such questions is not only the very embodiment of one’s rights and duties within a liberal constitutional democracy; it is also, the very embodiment of our liberal religious tradition which stands for the responsible search for truth, the rights of conscience, and vigilantly preserving the democratic process. That you are free to hear a sermon like this is something to be celebrated. That you are free to weigh the evidence, agree or disagree, is also something to celebrate.

Fortunately, another book would assist me in asking this very question. A few months ago, Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr, published a book of sermons entitled, “America, Fascism, and God.” Dr. Loehr has a Ph.D. in religion from the University of Chicago and is the only UU to serve as a fellow with the Jesus Seminar. He is the minister of our large Unitarian Church in Austin, Texas. And he has a reputation for never shying away from controversial topics or provocative ideas.

Loehr argues in “America, Fascism, and God” that the convergence of Christian fundamentalism, corporate power, media distortion, and aggressively imperialist US foreign policy form a kind of perfect storm and amount to a kind of fascism. I want to explore this idea with you.

In order to do so, I want to walk you through some of what Loehr has to say. [The starred paragraphs below contain material from Loehr’s collection of sermons.]

* When we hear the word Fascism, we immediately think of Hitler, swastikas, concentration camps, and gas chambers. But as a political theory fascism means something different. The root of fasces means in Latin a bundle of sticks. The idea is that individual sticks have no essential worth, and that one’s entire worth is determined by service to and alignment with a single ruling force. It is worth noting that both pure communism, to one extreme of the political spectrum, and pure fascism, to the other extreme, involve the suppression of individual agency. Fascism involves all political, military, economic, and religious power being transferred to a central authority, and the elimination of whoever would resist. Surely, this sounds far-fetched and un-American, however, it is worth noting that in the 1930’s many Americans looked to Hitler and Mussolini with fondness, wishing that America could be more like Germany or Italy. Some Americans advocated for a marriage of corporate power with government, the suspension of individual rights and workers rights. One consortium of business leaders in 1934 even went so far as to try to persuade a marine general to organize a coup, seize the White House, and install himself as a military dictator beholden to corporations. (Loehr, p. 62, 76-78)

*According to political scientist Lawrence Britt, fascism is identifiable by fourteen characteristics that include, 1) powerful nationalism, 2) the emphasizing of a single enemy as a threat to be eliminated, 3) the supremacy of the military in abolishing that threat, 4) disdain for human rights, 5) obsession with national security, 6) controlled mass media, 7) religion and government intertwined, 8) the rise of corporate power, 9) suppression of labor power, 10) disdain for intellectuals and the arts, 11) obsession with crime and punishment, 12) fraudulent elections, 13) rampant cronyism and corruption, and, 14) insistence on male domination and the control of sexuality. (Loehr, p. 78-81)

Another political scientist, Robert Paxton, gives a different taxonomy of fascism, saying its characteristics are: 1) a sense of overwhelming crisis calling for extreme solutions, 2) the primacy of the group and subordination of the individual, 3) group-identification as a victim, 4) suspension of legal and moral obligations on account of victim-status, 5) dread of decline, 6) emphasis on the purity of community either by conformity or exclusionary violence, 7) the absolute authority of natural leaders who lead by instincts instead of reason, 8) belief in the beauty of violence, and 9) belief in the right of the chosen people to dominate others.

*In his sermon, Loehr goes on to link fascism with religious fundamentalism. In fact, he says that “fundamentalism is nothing more than religious fascism and that fascism is nothing more than political fundamentalism.” What fundamentalism and fascism have in common, according to Loehr, is that they are both rooted in primitive instincts. He cites a wide-reaching, six-volume study called the Fundamentalism Project, which compared fundamentalism in various places in the world at different times, and showed that all fundamentalism had powerful common elements. From this study, Loehr concludes:

“The only way all fundamentalisms can have the same agenda is if the agenda preceded all the religions… These men are acting the role of ‘alpha males’ who define the boundaries of their group's territory and the norms and behaviors that define members of their in-group. These are the behaviors of territorial species in which males are stronger than females. In biological terms, these are the characteristic behaviors of territorial animals. Males set and enforce the rules, females obey the males and raise the children; there is a clear separation between the in-group and the out-group. The in-group is protected; outsiders are expelled or fought.

“Fundamentalism is absolutely natural, ancient, powerful—and inadequate. It's a means of structuring relationships that evolved when we lived in troops of 150 or less. But in the modern world, it's completely incapable of the nuance or flexibility needed to structure humane societies.” (Loehr, p. 39-42)

*To recap Loehr’s argument: fascism and fundamentalism are rooted in powerful and primitive human instincts having to do with power, protection, control, group cohesion, and greed. Fascism involves a sinister marriage of fundamentalist religion, plutocratic business leaders, and military force. Together, these forces conspire to systematically transfer wealth to the wealthy; use media, nationalism, and, when necessary, physical force to keep the population in line; and engage in imperialist efforts too greedy to be defended by noble ideals. (Loehr, p. 1, 82-84)

*It should be noted that fascism does not only hurt those who are identified as scapegoats and enemies. It grievously injures all except for the upper echelons of profiteers and plutocrats. These policies conspire to bankrupt and make vulnerable entire segments of the population. Loehr predicts that economic fascism will result in the theft of social security funds and the increasing destitution of those who depend on social welfare programs, a rising number of uninsured persons, and increased loss of funding for public education. Additionally, Loehr observes that it is disproportionately the poorest of our young men and women who are expected to fight the wars, wars that could never benefit them anyways, and the spoils of which will be seized and enjoyed by those who did not risk their lives in the fighting. (Loehr, p. 85-86)

*Whether or not you agree with Loehr’s label, there are some signs that ought to cause concern. First, our nation has a higher percentage of its citizens incarcerated than any developed nation, and the largest prison population in the world. Two million citizens in our nation are behind bars, about the population of the greater Kansas City area. de Tocqueville said that you can gauge a society’s soul by the status of its prisons. What does the status of our prison-industrial complex say about our society, and how does our prison system perpetuate repression? (Loehr, p. 86)

Second, we need to be aware of changes in the media, and how media works in our world. Contrary to popular opinion, media does not exist to further right wing ideology. And contrary to the opinion of many right-wingers, there is no liberal media either. Almost all media exists as a business whose goal is to make money. It makes money by commanding high advertising rates which are tied to high ratings. Increasingly, a small handful of corporations own most newspapers, radio and television stations. The agenda of these corporations is profit.

We should understand that under President Reagan, the Fairness Doctrine – which mandated that broadcasts devote reasonable attention to coverage of controversial issues of public importance, and opportunities for opposing sides to express their views – was repealed. The Fairness Doctrine was based upon the idea that radio and TV stations were not solely profit-driven businesses, but that they had a responsibility to the public interest. This itself is a liberal idea – that corporations have an obligation to the public good. However, to argue the opposite, is to argue that not only broadcasting, but health care, transportation, the hospitality industry, the food industry, the energy industries, and financial institutions have no obligation to the public good, that their financial interests trump the public interest. [I am indebted to David Foster Wallace’s essay, “The Host” for this analysis.]

*Third, there are financial patterns which ought to concern us. As the gap between rich and poor widens, as money is transferred over to the wealthiest in our country, we will all need to make important financial decisions. My generation is the first in the history of this nation that is expected to do less well than its parents’ generation. Debt is a crippling reality for many in our nation. Financial literacy needs to be improved. We will also need to learn that how we spend money is our greatest political weapon – a dollar is worth a dollar even when a vote is not necessarily worth a vote. Loehr quotes Michael Ruppert, who urges those who have misgivings about the direction of our country to get out of debt, spend their money on the things that give them energy and useful information, and to not spend a single cent on banks, corporations, or media who make you angry. (Loehr, p. 87-88)

So, does it all add up? Do pre-emptive wars and military occupations; do corporations writing laws; do Enron and Abramhoff; do indefinite detentions, Abu Gharib, torture memos, and Guantanamo Bay; do supreme court justices and nominees who favor much more extensive if not unlimited executive power; does the widening of the gap between rich and poor; does domestic spying and wire-taps; does filing for medical records and Google search records; does Pat Robertson’s calls for Christian Dominionism and claims that democracy is a terrible form of government unless it is run by his kind of Christians; does it all add up into fascism? Or, should we call it pre-fascism, or proto-fascism, or fascism-lite, or economic fascism? What does it all add up to?

This question is really a question of definitions. Of Lawrence Britt’s fourteen characteristics of Fascism, almost all are observed in our country, though to different degrees and certainly with mitigating evidence. Of Robert Paxson’s nine characteristics, five are clearly present in our country today. This question is, in the end, a question of semantics. Some would say that Davidson Loehr’s choice of the word fascism is unfortunate, reactionary, sensational, and misleading. Others would say that it is a powerful word needed to draw attention to where attention ought to be. Ultimately, it is only a word. Evil, misguided, destructive and self-destructive, immoral, arrogant, and dangerous trends need to be combated because they are these things, not because they fit some political science taxonomy or other.

At worst, Davidson Loehr’s book and sermons may be accused of crying fire in a crowded theatre. However, if we do in fact believe that we smell smoke, to do so becomes our moral obligation, does it not?

Loehr claims to see smoke when he sees the war with Iraq, which he sees as based on a premeditated plan by neo-conservatives with the Project for a New American Century.

Loehr claims to see smoke when he sees fear-mongering and a public terrified by thoughts of terrorists lurking in every airport and subway station, but hardly anyone bothers to point out that an estimated 18,000 American deaths annually can be directly attributed to lack of health care, or that poverty, pollution, and unemployment cause more death – though far less sensationally.

Loehr sees smoke when he sees Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Loehr sees smoke when he sees our government committing, condoning, and facilitating torture.

(On this last point, I might say that as a college student, I was proud to attend lectures by Darius Rejali, an Iranian intellectual, and professor of political science. Rejali is a world-leading expert on torture. As a political scientist he concludes over and over and over again that beyond the moral objection to torture, it is a practice that actually corrupts information, corrupts other forms of intelligence, corrodes the military, and harms the societies of those who commit torture.)

With all of this smoke visible, what is a person to do?

I want to conclude by returning to Philip Roth’s frightening and tense novel, “The Plot Against America.” One of the things that I found so intriguing about this novel was the insight Roth gave into the stresses and strains faced by the family living under Lindbergh’s fascism. It is an exercise in family systems theory. Roth traces what amounts to a dissolution and disintegration of the nuclear family (parents and two sons) and the larger family system which includes aunts and cousins, neighbors and friends, as well as the local Rabbi.

Some of these stresses and strains have to do with overtly political content, with what opinions can be shared over the dinner table, and such. Other strains had to do with those eternal familial emotions: jealousy, desire for attention, needing to feel accepted, needing to feel supported, pride of bread-winning and caregiving, pleasing and being pleased, acting out.

If there is a lesson that Roth’s novel sends to us as religious liberals, it is this: that our communities are not isolated from the winds of our greater society. In fact, we can tend to mimic the weather to a greater degree than we are often aware of. This is worth paying attention to. This is worth addressing. Pay attention to the signs of the perfect storm in our nation, often perceptible in other forms of turbulence, forms which often are not false indicators.