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Conor Oberst on Religion and Politics

July 22, 2008  |  1:44pm
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I recently spoke with Conor Oberst about his new self-titled album that he recorded down in Mexico for our International Issue which just hit the newsstand. The focus of the story was on his trip, but the conversation strayed onto two of my favorite topics, religion and politics. I asked him about the numerous Christian references coming from an atheist. Here was his response:


"I guess I’m just conflicted. I mean, I want to find something like that. Badly. But in all the forms where it’s been offered to me, they seem fraudulent, you know? And so, yeah, I guess it’s one of those topics that keeps coming up. My family is Catholic. I went to a Catholic school, that kind of thing, so that was my childhood for sure. And not that I’m an expert on all these religions, but what I know about all the other major religions kind of all just fall a little flat in their—I guess, just in their kind of narrowmindedness. I feel like there’s something much more basic than what all these people are worried about. I find it really shocking that two groups that are, from an outsider’s perspective, almost identical—you know, Shiites and Sunnis, or Catholics and Protestants—can actually kill each other over these minor details. And dogma and all that stuff, to me it’s anti- whatever I would consider god-like. Which is, I think, a connectedness and an all-encompassing sort of love for things. I suppose that’s a lot of what Buddhism is, but I haven’t found anything that really hits the mark for me. But it’s fascinating—what people believe in.”
One of the songs on the album, "Milk Thistle," contains the lines "If I go to heaven / I'll be bored as hell  /like a little baby / at the bottom of a well." I asked him about that song.

“Well, I guess it’s, to me, you know, pretty much commonsense. You can only really understand good if you have bad, so the idea of heaven or anything that happens for eternity, even if it’s nice, I can’t imagine it being nice forever. Even the idea of forever is kind of ridiculous, which is unfortunate because it’s kind of a nice thing to say, you know. I think it softens the blow of mortality and having to say goodbye to everything you know and everyone you love and all that kind of thing. I think it’s a nice concept, and I wish it made sense to me, but I guess it doesn’t.”

We ended the conversation talking about politics. Oberst has been a vocal supporter of Barack Obama. I asked him about putting his faith in a political candidate.

“It's exciting. I mean, it’s a fine line because I think believing that it’s going to happen, you know that kind of positivity and faith that it’s all going to come together and he’s going to be the President, which is what I believe, but also—there’s always a bit of, ‘Is this too good to be true?’ kind of thing. Because from where it started to where it is now, it’s been really amazing to watch it all unfold. We did shows for him before the Iowa caucuses. He was speaking in a grade school gymnasium, basically, and the kind of intensity there was in that room [was unbelievable]. Fast-forward just a few months, [and you see him] in the paper him speaking to 75,000 people in Oregon. Just the idea of so many people—he’s really connecting with everyone. I don’t think you or I are likely to ever see anything like this again in American politics for the rest of our lives. I mean, hopefully we will, but it’s such an incredible moment to be watching it all happen. And something that we need so badly after these last eight years.”

“I mean, of course, there’s no way to know what someone’s gonna do once they get into office. Obviously, just because you’re President doesn’t mean you get to do everything you want, either, you know—although Bush tried to make it [that way]. There’s still a lot that goes into circumstances that really make the country better. I think there’s a danger to just being too cynical—to believe that in order to get to become President you already have lost all the virtues that we would want you to have. I have a lot of friends that take that position of extreme cynicism and I just can’t let myself go to that place. It’s just too easy, and it’s just too defeatist. I think that you've gotta believe it can be better, and, at this point, he’s by far the best thing that’s come along in such a long time. And I think the only thing you can do is wait and see what happens once he’s in there, but I’d so much rather have him there than anyone else. Comparing the situation we have now to 2004 when we were playing shows and doing stuff for the Kerry campaign, at that point it was just such a reaction against Bush. That’s the main point. Right now people are excited about someone, you know? It’s a positive thing, and his ideas—to be motivated by hope and be inspired by a person, compare that to voting out of fear and anger and rejecting something. To me it’s like night and day. It’s such a better position this time.”

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