|First UU Church of Austin - Sermons
Living Under Fascism
7 November 2004
First UU Church of Austin
4700 Grover Ave., Austin, TX
78756 512-452-6168 - www.austinuu.org
SERMON: Living Under Fascism
You may wonder why anyone would try to use the word
"fascism" in a serious discussion of where America is
today. It sounds like cheap name-calling, or
melodramatic allusion to a slew of old war movies. But
I am serious. I don't mean it as name-calling at all.
I mean to persuade you 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. That's what I am about here. And even if I
don't persuade you, I hope to raise the level of your
thinking about who and where we are now, to add some
nuance and perhaps some useful insights.
The word comes from the Latin word "Fasces," denoting
a bundle of sticks tied together. The individual
sticks represented citizens, and the bundle
represented the state. The message of this metaphor
was that it was the bundle that was significant, not
the individual sticks. If it sounds un-American, it's
worth knowing that the Roman Fasces appear on the wall
behind the Speaker's podium in the chamber of the US
House of Representatives.
Still, it's an unlikely word. When most people hear
the word "fascism" they may think of the racism and
anti-Semitism of Mussolini and Hitler. It is true that
the use of force and the scapegoating of fringe groups
are part of every fascism. But there was also an
economic dimension of fascism, known in Europe during
the 1920s and '30s as "corporatism," which was an
essential ingredient of Mussolini's and Hitler's
tyrannies. So-called corporatism was adopted in Italy
and Germany during the 1930s and was held up as a
model by quite a few intellectuals and policy makers
in the United States and Europe.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago (in "The Corporation
Will Eat Your Soul"), Fortune magazine ran a cover
story on Mussolini in 1934, praising his fascism for
its ability to break worker unions, disempower workers
and transfer huge sums of money to those who
controlled the money rather than those who earned it.
Few Americans are aware of or can recall how so many
Americans and Europeans viewed economic fascism as the
wave of the future during the 1930s. Yet reviewing our
past may help shed light on our present, and point the
way to a better future. So I want to begin by looking
back to the last time fascism posed a serious threat
In Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel "It Can't Happen Here,"
a conservative southern politician is helped to the
presidency by a nationally syndicated radio talk show
host. The politician - Buzz Windrip - runs his
campaign on family values, the flag, and patriotism.
Windrip and the talk show host portray advocates of
traditional American democracy as those concerned with
individual rights and freedoms as anti-American. That
was 69 years ago.
One of the most outspoken American fascists from the
1930s was economist Lawrence Dennis. In his 1936 book,
The Coming American Fascism a coming which he
anticipated and cheered as Dennis declared that
defenders of "18th-century Americanism" were sure to
become "the laughing stock of their own countrymen."
The big stumbling block to the development of economic
fascism, Dennis bemoaned, was "liberal norms of law or
constitutional guarantees of private rights."
So it is important for us to recognize that, as an
economic system, fascism was widely accepted in the
1920s and '30s, and nearly worshiped by some powerful
American industrialists. And fascism has always, and
explicitly, been opposed to liberalism of all kinds.
Mussolini, who helped create modern fascism, viewed
liberal ideas as the enemy. "The Fascist conception of
life," he wrote, "stresses the importance of the State
and accepts the individual only in so far as his
interests coincide with the State. It is opposed to
classical liberalism [which] denied the State in the
name of the individual; Fascism reasserts the rights
of the State as expressing the real essence of the
individual." (In 1932 Mussolini wrote, with the help
of Giovanni Gentile, an entry for the Italian
Encyclopedia on the definition of fascism. You can
read the whole entry at
Mussolini thought it was unnatural for a government to
protect individual rights: The essence of fascism, he
believed, is that government should be the master, not
the servant, of the people.
Still, fascism is a word that is completely foreign to
most of us. We need to know what it is, and how we can
know it when we see it.
In an essay coyly titled "Fascism Anyone?," Dr.
Lawrence Britt, a political scientist, identifies
social and political agendas common to fascist
regimes. His comparisons of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco,
Suharto, and Pinochet yielded this list of 14
"identifying characteristics of fascism." (The
following article is from Free Inquiry magazine,
Volume 23, Number 2. Read it at
See how familiar they sound.
1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism
Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic
mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other
paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag
symbols on clothing and in public displays.
2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights
Because of fear of enemies and the need for security,
the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human
rights can be ignored in certain cases because of
"need." The people tend to look the other way or even
approve of torture, summary executions,
assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc.
3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying
The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic
frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common
threat or foe: racial, ethnic or religious minorities;
liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.
4. Supremacy of the Military
Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the
military is given a disproportionate amount of
government funding, and the domestic agenda is
neglected. Soldiers and military service are
5. Rampant Sexism
The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost
exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes,
traditional gender roles are made more rigid.
Opposition to abortion is high, as is homophobia and
anti-gay legislation and national policy.
6. Controlled Mass Media
Sometimes the media are directly controlled by the
government, but in other cases, the media are
indirectly controlled by government regulation, or
sympathetic media spokespeople and executives.
Censorship, especially in wartime, is very common.
7. Obsession with National Security
Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government
over the masses.
8. Religion and Government are Intertwined
Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most
common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate
public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is
common from government leaders, even when the major
tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to
the government's policies or actions.
9. Corporate Power is Protected
The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist
nation often are the ones who put the government
leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial
business/government relationship and power elite.
10. Labor Power is Suppressed
Because the organizing power of labor is the only real
threat to a fascist government, labor unions are
either eliminated entirely, or are severely
11. Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts
Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open
hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not
uncommon for professors and other academics to be
censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts
is openly attacked, and governments often refuse to
fund the arts.
12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment
Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost
limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often
willing to overlook police abuses and even forego
civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is
often a national police force with virtually unlimited
power in fascist nations
13. Rampant Cronyism and Corruption
Fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups
of friends and associates who appoint each other to
government positions and use governmental power and
authority to protect their friends from
accountability. It is not uncommon in fascist regimes
for national resources and even treasures to be
appropriated or even outright stolen by government
14. Fraudulent Elections
Sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete
sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear
campaigns against or even assassination of opposition
candidates, use of legislation to control voting
numbers or political district boundaries, and
manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also
typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or
This list will be familiar to students of political
science. But it should be familiar to students of
religion as well, for much of it mirrors the social
and political agenda of religious fundamentalisms
worldwide. It is both accurate and helpful for us to
understand fundamentalism as religious fascism, and
fascism as political fundamentalism. They both come
from very primitive parts of us that have always been
the default setting of our species: amity toward our
in-group, enmity toward out-groups, hierarchical
deference to alpha male figures, a powerful
identification with our territory, and so forth. It is
that brutal default setting that all civilizations
have tried to raise us above, but it is always a
fragile thing, civilization, and has to be achieved
over and over and over again.
But, again, this is not America's first encounter with
fascism. In early 1944, the New York Times asked Vice
President Henry Wallace to, as Wallace noted, "write a
piece answering the following questions: What is a
fascist? How many fascists have we? How dangerous are
Vice President Wallace's answer to those questions was
published in The New York Times on April 9, 1944, at
the height of the war against the Axis powers of
Germany and Japan. See how much you think his
statements apply to our society today.
"The really dangerous American fascist," Wallace
wrote, is the man who wants to do in the United States
in an American way what Hitler did in Germany in a
Prussian way. The American fascist would prefer not to
use violence. His method is to poison the channels of
public information. With a fascist the problem is
never how best to present the truth to the public but
how best to use the news to deceive the public into
giving the fascist and his group more money or more
In his strongest indictment of the tide of fascism he
saw rising in America, Wallace added, "They claim to
be super-patriots, but they would destroy every
liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand
free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly
and vested interest. Their final objective toward
which all their deceit is directed is to capture
political power so that, using the power of the state
and the power of the market simultaneously, they may
keep the common man in eternal subjection." By these
standards, a few of today's weapons for keeping the
common people in eternal subjection include NAFTA, the
World Trade Organization, union-busting, cutting
worker benefits while increasing CEO pay, elimination
of worker benefits, security and pensions, rapacious
credit card interest, and outsourcing of jobs not to
mention the largest prison system in the world.
The Perfect Storm
Our current descent into fascism came about through a
kind of "Perfect Storm," a confluence of three
unrelated but mutually supportive schools of thought.
1. The first stream of thought was the
imperialistic dream of the Project for the New
American Century. I don't believe anyone can
understand the past four years without reading the
Project for the New American Century, published in
September 2000 and authored by many who have been
prominent players in the Bush administrations,
including Cheney, Rumsfleid, Wolfowitz, Richard Perle
and Donald Kagan, to name only a few. This report saw
the fall of Communism as a call for America to become
the military rulers of the world, to establish a new
worldwide empire. They spelled out the military
enhancements we would need, then noted, sadly, that
these wonderful plans would take a long time, unless
there could be a catastrophic and catalyzing event
like a new Pearl Harbor that would let the leaders
turn America into a military and militarist country.
There was no clear interest in religion in this
report, and no clear concern with local economic
2. A second powerful stream must be credited to Pat
Robertson and his Christian Reconstructionists, or
Dominionists. Long dismissed by most of us as a
screwball, the Dominionist style of Christianity,
which he has been preaching since the early 1980s, is
now the most powerful religious voice in the Bush
Katherine Yurica, who transcribed over 1300 pages of
interviews from Pat Robertson's "700 Club" shows in
the 1980s, has shown how Robertson and his chosen
guests consistently, openly and passionately argued
that America must become a theocracy under the control
of Christian Dominionists. Robertson is on record
saying democracy is a terrible form of government
unless it is run by his kind of Christians. He also
rails constantly against taxing the rich, against
public education, social programs and welfare and
prefers Deuteronomy 28 over the teachings of Jesus. He
is clear that women must remain homebound as obedient
servants of men, and that abortions, like homosexuals,
should not be allowed. Robertson has also been clear
that other kinds of Christians, including
Episcopalians and Presbyterians, are enemies of
Christ. (The urica Report. Search under this name, or
for "Despoiling America" by Katherine Yurica on the
3. The third major component of this Perfect Storm has
been the desire of very wealthy Americans and
corporate CEOs for a plutocracy that will favor
profits by the very rich and disempowerment of the
vast majority of American workers, the destruction of
worker's unions, and the alliance of government to
help achieve these greedy goals. It is a condition
some have called socialism for the rich, capitalism
for the poor, and which others recognize as a
reincarnation of Social Darwinism. This strain of
thought has been present throughout American history.
Seventy years ago, they tried to finance a military
coup to replace Franklin Delano Roosevelt and
establish General Smedley Butler as a fascist dictator
in 1934. Fortunately, they picked a general who really
was a patriot; he refused, reported the scheme, and
spoke and wrote about it. As Canadian law professor
Joel Bakan wrote in the book and movie "The
Corporation," they have now achieved their coup
without firing a shot.
Our plutocrats have had no particular interest in
religion. Their global interests are with an
imperialist empire, and their domestic goals are in
undoing all the New Deal reforms of Franklin Delano
Roosevelt that enabled the rise of America's middle
class after WWII.
Another ill wind in this Perfect Storm is more
important than its crudity might suggest: it was
President Clinton's sleazy sex with a young but eager
intern in the White House. This incident, and
Clinton's equally sleazy lying about it, focused the
certainties of conservatives on the fact that
"liberals" had neither moral compass nor moral
concern, and therefore represented a dangerous threat
to the moral fiber of America. While the effects of
this may be hard to quantify, I think they were
These "storm" components have no necessary connection,
and come from different groups of thinkers, many of
whom wouldn't even like one another. But together,
they form a nearly complete web of command and
control, which has finally gained control of America
and, they hope, of the world.
When all fascisms exhibit the same social and
political agendas (the 14 points listed by Britt),
then it is not hard to predict where a new fascist
uprising will lead. And it is not hard. The actions of
fascists and the social and political effects of
fascism and fundamentalism are clear and sobering.
Here is some of what's coming, what will be happening
in our country in the next few years:
1. The theft of all social security funds, to be
transferred to those who control money, and the
increasing destitution of all those dependent on
social security and social welfare programs.
2. Rising numbers of uninsured people in this
country that already has the highest percentage of
citizens without health insurance in the developed
3. Increased loss of funding for public education
combined with increased support for vouchers, urging
Americans to entrust their children's education to
4. More restrictions on civil liberties as America
is turned into the police state necessary for fascism
5. Withdrawal of virtually all funding for National
Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System. At
their best, these media sometimes encourage critical
questioning, so they are correctly seen as enemies of
the state's official stories.
6. The reinstatement of a draft, from which the
children of privileged parents will again be mostly
exempt, leaving our poorest children to fight and die
in wars of imperialism and greed that could never
benefit them anyway. (That was my one-sentence
Veteran's Day sermon for this year.)
7. More imperialistic invasions: of Iran and
others, and the construction of a huge permanent
embassy in Iraq.
8. More restrictions on speech, under the flag of
9. Control of the internet to remove or cripple it
as an instrument of free communication that is exempt
from government control. This will be presented as a
necessary anti-terrorist measure.
10. Efforts to remove the tax-exempt status of
churches like this one, and to characterize them as
11. Tighter control of the editorial bias of almost
all media, and demonization of the few media they are
unable to control as the New York Times, for instance.
12. Continued outsourcing of jobs, including more
white-collar jobs, to produce greater profits for
those who control the money and direct the society,
while simultaneously reducing America's workers to a
more desperate and powerless status.
13. Moves in the banking industry to make it
impossible for an increasing number of Americans to
own their homes. As they did in the 1930s, those who
control the money know that it is to their advantage
and profit to keep others renting rather than owning.
14. Criminalization of those who protest, as
un-American, with arrests, detentions and harassment
increasing. We already have a higher percentage of our
citizens in prison than any other country in the
world. That percentage will increase.
15. In the near future, it will be illegal or at
least dangerous to say the things I have said here
this morning. In the fascist story, these things are
un-American. In the real history of a democratic
America, they were seen as profoundly patriotic, as
the kind of critical questions that kept the American
spirit alive are the kind of questions, incidentally,
that our media were supposed to be pressing.
Can these schemes work? I don't think so. I think they
are murderous, rapacious and insane. But I don't know.
Maybe they can. Similar schemes have worked in
countries like Chile, where a democracy in which over
90% voted has been reduced to one in which only about
20% vote because they say, as Americans are learning
to say, that it no longer matters who you vote for.
In the meantime, is there any hope, or do we just band
together like lemmings and dive off a cliff? Yes,
there is always hope, though at times it is more
hidden, as it is now.
As some critics are now saying, and as I have been
preaching and writing for almost twenty years,
America's liberals need to grow beyond political
liberalism, with its often self-absorbed focus on
individual rights to the exclusion of individual
responsibilities to the larger society. Liberals will
have to construct a more complete vision with moral
and religious grounding. That does not mean
confessional Christianity. It means the legitimate
heir to Christianity. Such a legitimate heir need not
be a religion, though it must have clear moral power,
and be able to attract the minds and hearts of a
voting majority of Americans.
And the new liberal vision must be larger than that of
the conservative religious vision that will be
appointing judges, writing laws and bending the
cultural norms toward hatred and exclusion for the
foreseeable future. The conservatives deserve a lot of
admiration. They have spent the last thirty years
studying American politics, forming their vision and
learn how to gain control in the political system. And
it worked; they have won. Even if liberals can develop
a bigger vision, they still have all that
time-consuming work to do. It won't be fast. It isn't
even clear that liberals will be willing to do it;
they may instead prefer to go down with the ship
they're used to.
One man who has been tireless in his investigations
and critiques of America's slide into fascism is
Michael C. Ruppert, whose postings usually read as
though he is wound way too tight. But he offers four
pieces of advice about what we can do now, and they
seem reality-based enough to pass on to you.
This is America; they're all about money:
* First, he says you should get out of debt.
* Second is to spend your money and time on things
that give you energy and provide you with useful
* Third is to stop spending a penny with major banks,
news media and corporations that feed you lies and
leave you angry and exhausted.
* And fourth is to learn how money works and use it
like a (political) weapon as he predicts the rest of
the world will be doing against us. (from
That's advice written this week. Another bit of advice
comes from sixty years ago, from Roosevelt's Vice
President, Henry Wallace. Wallace said, "Democracy, to
crush fascism internally, must...develop the ability
to keep people fully employed and at the same time
balance the budget. It must put human beings first and
dollars second. It must appeal to reason and decency
and not to violence and deceit. We must not tolerate
oppressive government or industrial oligarchy in the
form of monopolies and cartels."
Still another way to understand fascism is as a kind
of colonization. A simple definition of "colonization"
is that it takes people's stories away, and assigns
them supportive roles in stories that empower others
at their expense. When you are taxed to support a
government that uses you as a means to serve the ends
of others, you are ironically in a state of taxation
without representation. That's where this country
started, and it's where we are now.
I don't know the next step. I'm not a political
activist; I'm only a preacher. But whatever you do,
whatever we do, I hope that we can Remember some very
basic things that I think of as eternally true. One is
that the vast majority of people are good decent
people who mean and do as well as they know how. Very
few people are evil, though some are. But we all live
in families where some of our blood relatives support
things we hate. I believe they mean well, and the way
to rebuild broken bridges is through greater
understanding, compassion, and a reality-based story
that is more inclusive and empowering for the vast
majority of us.
Those who want to live in a reality-based story rather
than as serfs in an ideology designed to transfer
power, possibility and hope to a small ruling elite
have much long and hard work to do, individually and
collectively. It will not be either easy or quick.
But we will do it. We will go forward in hope and in
courage. Let us seek that better path, and find the
courage to take it a step, by step, by step.
What does it mean, then, to call America under Bush
not merely a corporate haven but a burgeoning fascist
state? Is it merely name calling? Or is this the
plain and simple acknowledgment of reality?
Is this the first step to a fundamental paradigm
shift? How can Democrats win elections if the
elections are gamed, manipulated, or purely
fraudulent? Are Republicans the proper targets of
Democratic and Green Party ire, or is it the system of
which they are but a part and a symptom? Can we win
elections without first reforming them? Can we reform
elections without reforming the media? Can we reform
the media without limiting the political power of
corporations? Can we limit the political power of
corporations without severing the ties between
lobbyists and politicians? Can we sever those ties
without first winning a presidential election? Can we
win a presidential election without improving the
American education system and quality of media
reportage? Can we do either of those last two things
without first winning an election?
My point is that we are looking at a vastly
intermeshed system of power structures, and that
unless we begin to look at the underlying construct
and pattern, and critique them as what they are
(correctly identifying the elephant in the bathtub as
an elephant, and not merely a collection of body
parts), and begin to talk about how to evict it as a
whole and at once, our efforts may well be futile.
Are we living in a democracy, or nascent fascist
state? What do you think?