This small book exists because of a sermon I delivered on November 7, 2004, five days after the presidential election. Titled “Living under Fascism,” it drew together what I thought were pretty obvious patterns—the simultaneous rise to power of plutocracy, imperialism, and fundamentalism—into an even larger pattern: the establishment of an American style of fascism, with logical implications that should be seen as terrifying.
I am concerned for this nation, and for its soul; both are in serious trouble. The nation has revived the dangerous and arrogant policy of preemptive invasions of sovereign nations that have resources or locations we desire for our own economic ends—a policy last made infamous by Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. Our politicians have rushed to endorse, in our name, imperialistic ambitions too greedy and bloody to be defended by noble ideals. The media are so unquestioning, they seem like co-conspirators. And the churches seem to lack the vision and the courage to serve us or our highest ideals. When our politicians, our media, and our official religions cannot be trusted with our high ideals and tender mercies, we are in deep trouble. And the way back to democracy, freedom, and honest religion, if still possible, will be very hard.
This book was written for reasons as personal as they are faithful and patriotic. I was born in 1942, and grew up in a middle-class family in an America that was defined, I believed, by democracy, exalting the middle class, and upholding the highest moral and ethical values at home and abroad. I believed in that picture, and loved it.
Within a week after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, my local draft board increased its quota tenfold to prepare for the Vietnam buildup that Kennedy was planning to cancel when he was murdered. I was out of college for the semester repaying a school loan, and was going to be drafted. So I enlisted, and took it seriously. I graduated from the Army’s best NCO academy in Bad Tolz, Germany, and from the Artillery Officer Candidate School. I served as an assistant brigade adjutant for a four-thousand-man training brigade, and was then sent to Vietnam. During what amounted to a job interview after arriving, my orders were changed and I became the Vietnam Entertainment Officer, charged with meeting entertainers at the airport and taking them out to dinner on an expense account funded by profits from enlisted men’s—but not officers’—clubs in Vietnam. More officially, our office arranged the itineraries of visiting shows and entertainers. Sharing an afternoon and a beer with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans was one of the thrills of my young life—though the little boy in me could hardly believe they really drank beer!
When a classmate from officer candidate school was decorated as a genuine war hero, I felt guilty and cowardly for not being in combat. I knew that if I returned home without having had the experience of war, I would not want to live with myself.
So I transferred to the field, and spent my final seven months in Vietnam as combat photographer and press officer for the 17th Public Information Office, attached to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Xuan Loc. I was shot at, mortared, and have as a souvenir the live bullet that was aimed at my head when the North Vietnamese army officer squatting fifteen feet in front of me was killed by the two men beside me. I was not wounded, sometimes scared, and never heroic, though I did my job for my country, and tried to do it well. As a result, my time in Vietnam—especially the last seven months—is sacred time for me. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I believed in my country, and learned that courage mostly consists in showing up for a war, rather than trying to avoid it through special entitlements or the bribes of privilege.
After returning in 1967, it took almost twenty years before I would acknowledge that we had absolutely no business in Vietnam, that the lives of our soldiers were lost for no decent purpose, and that the million or more Vietnamese we killed were the victims not of a just war, but of ignorant and arrogant slaughter.
After the war, I was far more lost than I knew. I stumbled through college, acquiring a degree in music, owned a photography studio, and then took up carpentry and drinking. In 1978, I felt the first real “calling” of my life: to the ministry. Not to “serve God,” as it’s romantically and misleadingly put, but to serve the ideals that symbols like America, democracy, and God rely on for their dignity and nobility. Honest religion addresses the most important questions in life—perhaps I wanted the experience of being in those “front lines.”
I also wanted a good education. So rather than going to seminary, I got academic M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Chicago Divinity School. There, I found high ideals served with dedication and courage—which is pretty close to what is, for me, the sacred center of life. I knew I was an alcoholic, and that I wasn’t likely to get through a tough graduate school half-soused. A month before classes began, I quit drinking and smoking on my own, bolstered by the strength of this new calling.
I have always thought of orthodoxies of all kinds as the lowest common denominator of people who have not found a religion, but joined a potentially dangerous club. That makes me a natural-born heretic. People think heresy is a bad thing, but it’s not. It comes from a Greek word meaning “to choose.” Why is it seen as wrong to choose? The reason is that some arrogant little group declared that the choices were closed, because they had this “God” business all figured out. Those who aren’t through choosing are then, by definition, heretics.
I chose religion as a profession because it seemed to be the only discipline specifically concerned with articulating and serving life’s most enduring ideals, dynamics, and allegiances—symbolized as gods. I chose the ministry because, while I dearly loved the intellectual discussions at Chicago, academia often and easily becomes lost in thoughts about thoughts about thoughts. I wanted the thoughts dragged down to earth, where they had to survive testing by real people struggling in real lives.
Yet my interest in abstractions remains strong, and is the main reason I’m not involved in—and don’t like—politics. Politics is, by definition and necessity, the unending struggle for one partial vision to gain power over other partial visions. But the allegiance to partial visions is what I see as our problem, not our solution. Yes, religions have probably done as much harm as good—especially when they are given an army. Religions are routinely hijacked by dogmatic preachers and demagogic politicians who want to enslave people rather than empower them. Still, I think religion is the best place to start.
But I’m a heretic, through and through. If I were a Presbyterian, I would rail against Presbyterianism, and argue that we’re not meant to be Presbyterians, or even Christians; we’re just meant to love one another, and to work for justice—which can be defined as love at a distance. I considered entering ministry in the United Church of Christ, probably America’s most liberal Protestant denomination. But I have never been a Christian. I have been a fellow in the Jesus Seminar since 1991 because I like many of the teachings of the man Jesus. I like the religion of Jesus. But I have never liked the religion about Jesus, created by Peter, Paul, and the early Church Fathers.
So, while I ply my ministerial trade under the umbrella of the Unitarian Universalist Association, I describe myself as a religious liberal, but not a Unitarian Universalist. I see this tiny movement as a microcosm of what’s wrong with the social and political left in America. Its center is political rather than religious, and it seems to swallow whole every liberal fad that comes down the road. Still, it offers more freedom than any other religious association, and there is probably no other home as suitable for a heretic like me.
For the past twenty years, I have tried to help the people I’m privileged to serve become better people, partners, parents, and public citizens. We must try to create noble humans from the raw material we’re born with—material that can become good, evil, deep, shallow, a blessing, or a curse, depending on how seriously we take the challenge of reaching our fullest human potential and being a healthy presence in the world as we pass through it. Our job is to make a positive difference for ourselves, our family and friends, and our larger community.
If that doesn’t sound religious, it should; it’s just expressed in ordinary language, rather than cloaked in religious jargon. It can easily be translated into the club talk of any of the world’s religions. It is trying to realize our Buddha-nature, trying to grow the God-seed within us, as the Christian Meister Eckhart put it. It is trying to find, and become part of, the Tao—the Way. It is taking seriously the Hindu teaching that our atman, or soul, is most essentially part of Brahman, the creative and sustaining forces of the universe. Each bit of club talk is an idiom of expression peculiar to its home religion, and communicates most readily—sometimes only—with those who are “in the club.” Ordinary language, on the other hand, pulls back the curtain to see if we actually have any idea what we’re talking about, in ways that can communicate with the vast majority of humans in all times and places. Ordinary language is the language of the most honest religion, and it’s what I’ll try to use throughout this book of sermons.
Yes, sermons. But you might ask: Aren’t sermons just trying to trick you into buying something you shouldn’t buy? They preach from a “confessional truth,” which means one so small it can fit within the biases of this or that religion—right?
The answer to these questions is yes, if the sermons are expressed in jargon. But if they are done in plain talk and open to all questions and criticisms, then the answer is that sermons, honestly done, are trying to reconnect us with those deep and profound values that can help us grow more whole and authentic. In the same way, prayers are often little more than tacky requests for personal favors we haven’t earned, from a God we presume is too stupid to see through us. But done honestly, a prayer is a semipoetic effort to create an atmosphere of honesty and humility, as we stand aware of our failings and weaknesses, acknowledging our flaws and asking—asking ourselves—that we might become better people than we have been.
Religion isn’t about God; it’s about growing more whole and more authentic. I’m a religious liberal because it is the most honest and courageous of all religious styles—and has been for around 2,500 years.
This book isn’t so much a warning as it is an autopsy. The America that most of us loved has been cleverly and systematically murdered to feed the monetary and imperialistic hunger of some of our greediest people. The results of this death are easy to measure. The United States is 49th in the world in literacy and 28th out of 40 countries in mathematical literacy. Europe surpassed the United States in the mid-1990s as the largest producer of scientific literature. The World Health Organization has ranked us 37th in the quality of health care, and 54th in the fairness of health care; the United States and South Africa are the only two developed countries that do not provide health care for all their citizens. About 18,000 Americans die each year because they have no health insurance (that’s six times the number of people killed on 9/11). U.S. childhood poverty now ranks 22nd among 23 developed nations (Mexico ranks last). American women are 70 percent more likely to die in childbirth than European women. About 3.6 million Americans ran out of unemployment insurance in 2004; 1.8 million (one in five) unemployed workers are jobless for more than six months. One-third of all U.S. children are born out of wedlock, and one-half of all U.S. children will live in a one-parent household. Meanwhile, Americans now spend more money on gambling than on movies, videos, DVDs, music, and books combined. Nearly one out of four Americans believes that using violence to get what they want is acceptable. A related fact is that nearly 900,000 children were abused or neglected in 2002. (The above statistics came from various online sources, including the New York Times and an article by Michael Ventura called “No. 1?” in the Austin Chronicle, January 31, 2005.)
These and other statistics paint a picture of a nation whose money, heart, and soul have been hijacked by a coalition of those willing to enslave rather than empower us. The wholesale return to command-and-control governments is happening not only in America, but also in organized religions—with the rise of fundamentalism and the election of the former Hitler Youth member Cardinal Ratzinger as the new pope, and with our continued insistence on invading any country with oil or location we desire, killing hundreds of thousands of people along the way as though they were somehow less precious than we are.
It’s easy to lose hope. I remember the great American philosopher Lily Tomlin saying “No matter how cynical I get, I just can’t keep up!” But the antidote to cynicism is the combination of hope, vision, and courage, and that’s the only path worth considering.
We need honesty and courage now more than at any time in my life, because the fragile experiment in American democracy has been ended by three powerful forces—the manipulative perversions of money, power, and religion. Our economy is now defined by a rapacious form of plutocracy that robs the earners to give to the owners. Our government and our armies are driven by murderous dreams of worldwide domination. And the most profound enemy of honest religion and honest government is the literalistic form of religion known as fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism is always a natural ally of greed, brutality, and war, as it has now become in America. When you hear men like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell say that rich people shouldn’t be taxed, that there should be no welfare programs for the poor, and that we should hunt down terrorists and “blow them away in the name of the Lord,” you are as far from honest religion—and as far from simple human decency—as you can get. For the record, it is also not what Jesus would do.
All three of these powerful streams—plutocracy, imperialism, and fundamentalism—have brought us closer to protofascism, moving toward the full-blown thing.
By attacking the leaders in American politics, religion, and the media, I do not mean to attack the vast majority of Americans who have been misled by them. In all political and religious groups—and in the unmentioned majority of Americans who do not go to church regularly at all—we find equally intelligent, caring, and moral people. And we need them all, because on the whole, people are good. We come into the world with both original sins and gifts to offer. Our chief sin is taking ourselves and our views too seriously, and worshiping them. Our chief gift is a good heart, a good commonsense mind, and immense reserves of dedication and courage, once we have been awakened.
If this sounds like preaching, it’s because I’m a preacher. I want to convert you so we can move toward the more honest and empowering picture of America that has been stolen from us—brilliantly, brutally, almost completely—during the past few decades.
For all three streams that flow into the river of “America”—imperialism, plutocracy, and fundamentalism—have become too polluted to sustain life. We need to gain the insight and the courage to make different choices—heretical choices—that might once again lead us to see, love, yearn for, demand, and work toward what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” rather than the low, mean, thieving, and murderous ones that now define this country we love.
Today, the Democratic Party seems no more helpful than the other one. They both function like preowned vehicles to chauffeur around the special interests of large corporations and the greedy rich. So maybe the spirit of liberal politics will need to don a new costume—progressivism, perhaps. These are political debates that will be enriched by the inclusion of many voices.
But they are not just political debates. More fundamentally and profoundly, they are religious debates over the deep values and allegiances that really guide our country and our laws. Bad actions are the fruits of bad trees, and it is not so much our politics, but our religion that we need to reclaim. When gods die, their corpses aren’t buried right away. They linger on for centuries, as the hand puppets of the worst kind of charlatans and demagogues who know that by controlling a society’s most emotionally laden symbols, they can control much of society itself.
This isn’t a new insight. During the reign of the Roman Empire, Seneca wrote, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” Old Seneca would see little today that would surprise him.
The great German poet Goethe once said that those who know only one language don’t really know any language. That’s because when we only know one way to express things, we come to think that’s the way things really are. That’s why I believe only ordinary language—plain talk—can show us the differences and similarities among the many political and religious ideologies in our profoundly pluralistic world.
By appealing to those who are more comfortable discussing their ultimate values in ordinary language, I am not appealing to the fringes, but to the vast majority of Americans. For over sixty years, sociological studies have been assuring us that about 40 percent of Americans attend church regularly—which means 60 percent of Americans don’t. A study published in the Christian Century in 1998 has shown the serious overreporting on issues like these, and suggested the far more likely figure that 20 percent of Americans actually attend church regularly. And Kirk Hadaway, who has written a dozen books on congregational structures and dynamics, has told me that he estimates the average church attendance for all faiths in America to be 21 to 22 percent of the total population. That means four of every five Americans do not attend church regularly. They have become our new “silent majority.”
This book is written for them. But it is also written for all “believers” and those in the religious professions who wish there were ways to convert their institutions to the high, noble, and challenging visions of people like Lao-Tzu, Confucius, the Hebrew prophets, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Rumi, Krishnamurti, and the other greatest philosophers, sages, and poets of history. I think that’s a majority of those who consider themselves religious and those who consider themselves moral and ethical, though not religious.
Henry Kissinger once said the trouble with politicians is that 90 percent of them give the other 10 percent a bad name. Now much the same can be said of religious professionals. Even if they have not betrayed their religion by reducing their God to the level of their own bigotries or calling for the murder of people in God’s name—even if they haven’t actively betrayed their high callings, the vast majority of ministers have passively betrayed them, by sitting silently by, offering syrupy words rather than challenging ones. That is why the way back toward our fuller humanity now requires that decent people reframe and reclaim our highest ideals from both politicians and clergy.
This sounds radical, even revolutionary. It both is, and is not.
It is revolutionary, in the sense that restoring America to a democracy—if it can even be done—and holding professional clergy accountable to higher values than they are serving can only be done if ordinary people reclaim these in plain talk. If it were actually to happen, it would feel revolutionary.
On the other hand, the act of holding preachers and politicians to a higher standard than they want to serve—this has marked the entire history of both religion and politics. It is the conflict between the religion of the priests (ancient and modern) and the religion of the prophets. It is the vast difference between the religion of Jesus and the religion about him: the religion of the baby and the cross.
In the Hebrew Bible, this was the role taken by the prophets. Read them if you doubt it. Amos, Jeremiah, Hosea, Micah, and the others were all opposing the priests of their day, in the name of higher values. And they didn’t express the values in precious religious language, but in ordinary language. Amos said God would punish his people “because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes . . .” (Amos 2:6, RSV). He also declared that God would punish his people “because they have ripped up women with child in Gilead, that they might enlarge their border” (Amos 1:13). That’s not theological jargon; it’s plain talk that everyone can understand easily. Unless our preachers, politicians, and media apply these words to our illegal and murderous invasion of Iraq and the vicious economy inflicted on the world by our corporations, the WTO, and NAFTA, they are not serving any ideals worth serving, and the people must reclaim these ideals to keep them from withering and dying like raisins in the sun.
When a colleague suggested that my sermon “Living under Fascism,” which was listed on several hundred websites, was the most widely read liberal sermon of the past thirty or forty years, he meant it as a compliment. I heard it as a sad indictment of religion in our times, because it says that no one would even think of sermons as vehicles of relevance or truth.
When I delivered that sermon, several of our church’s members stayed away, as they stayed away from most sermons in which I talked about politics, the economy, and the war. Most ministers know the witty quip that a preacher’s job is “to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” Still, I don’t blame people for hoping their church will be a source of comfort rather than affliction. Life’s challenging enough without wondering if you’ll leave church feeling worse than when you came in.
But we must engage the spirit of our times and the gods being served by our society, or else religion is too cowardly to respect. The leaders of the church I serve supported my confrontational style, and absorbed the loss of thousands of dollars in pledges. Every minister knows how rare it is to have such church leaders—especially when they actually represent the church’s culture! So I begin by expressing my deep personal admiration and gratitude to the leaders and members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas. It is a privilege to serve you—all of you.
A “free pulpit” isn’t free, and honest religion is always heretical. Heresy isn’t a bad word. Sometimes it is the only place left where you can find the quality of spirit that was once rightfully called Holy.
See if I can persuade you.