Reviewed by Christine Rosen
Sunday, April 9, 2006
By Kevin Phillips
Viking. 462 pp. $26.95
Few political strategists have relied so extensively on history to understand the American political system as Kevin Phillips. Often identified as a former Republican strategist, Phillips has made a career of charting his disillusion with the GOP in books such as American Dynasty , a blistering look at the Bush family. His latest, American Theocracy , continues this scrutiny -- with mixed results.
American Theocracy is three books in one. He argues that a "reckless dependency on shrinking oil supplies, a milieu of radicalized (and much too influential) religion, and a reliance on borrowed money . . . now constitute the three major perils to the United States of the twenty-first century."
His first worry is oil. "Over the last several hundred years each leading global economic power has ridden an emergent fuel resource into the pages of history," he notes, citing Britain's 19th-century reliance on the coal industry as an example. But such reliance can prove disastrous if that resource dries up, which Phillips believes will happen. Citing the more pessimistic of geologists' projections about declining global oil reserves, he argues that our dependence on oil has ushered in an era of "petro-imperialism" that spawned the war in Iraq.
Phillips is equally pessimistic about the emergence of a "debt and credit-industrial complex" that endangers the U.S. economy's foundations. "Historically," he writes, dominance of an economy by the financial-services industry, as has now taken place in the United States, has been "a sign of late-stage debilitation, marked by excessive debt, great disparity between rich and poor, and unfolding economic decline." He's clear on who's to blame: the supposedly conservative Republican Party, which, rather than governing in a fiscally responsible manner, has compromised the country's future out of both "ignorance of history and a classic onset of greed."
But as the book's title suggests, it is the religious right that most occupies Phillips. He is not subtle in his descriptions of this group: "The rapture, end-times, and Armageddon hucksters in the United States rank with any Shiite ayatollahs." The GOP has been transformed into "the first religious party in U.S. history," Phillips argues, and it is ushering in an "American Disenlightenment" that rejects the separation of church and state and ignores the teachings of science.
Much of Phillips's focus is on the eschatology of evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal Christians, including their understanding of the prophecies in the New Testament book of Revelation that describe the events leading to the world's end, events that some evangelicals believe may be foreshadowed by today's turmoil in the Middle East. "Conservative politicians understood that for true believers their imminent rapture and the subsequent second coming of Jesus Christ were the only endgame," Phillips argues. "We can estimate that for 20 to 30 percent of Christians, this chronology superseded or muted other issues," such as economic self-interest and the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But Phillips provides no source for this estimate. He also asserts, rather than proves, that such ideas animate the Bush administration -- worrying, for example, about "White House implementation of domestic and international political agendas that seem to be driven by religious motivations and biblical worldviews."
This seems due in part to the low opinion Phillips has of born-again Christians, whom he sees as victims of a form of religious false consciousness. He argues that "Some 30 to 40 percent of the Bush electorate, many of whom might otherwise resent their employment conditions, credit-card debt, heating bills, or escalating costs of automobile upkeep . . . often subordinate these economic concerns to a broader religious preoccupation with biblical prophecy and the second coming of Jesus Christ."
But contrary to Phillips's claims, speculation about the doomsday-era "end times" -- which has been present among certain segments of America's Christian population for more than a century -- does not necessarily lead to the embrace of apocalyptic economic or foreign policy goals. It does not even guarantee sustained support for war; the percentage of white evangelical Christians who back the war in Iraq has dropped from 87 in 2003 to 68 in January 2006, according to Charles Marsh, an evangelical professor of religion at the University of Virginia. To suggest, as Phillips does, that the Bush administration, at the behest of born-again Christians, is intent on launching "international warfare to spread the gospel" is astonishingly simplistic.
This tendency for overstatement stems in part from Phillips's reliance on questionable sources, including partisan radio networks such as Air America and books (such as Esther Kaplan's With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W. Bush's White House ) that are far from balanced. He also cites statements by self-appointed evangelical spokesmen like Jerry Falwell as evidence of the religious right's extreme views. But a survey conducted last year by the PBS program "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly" found that most evangelicals themselves view Falwell unfavorably. Phillips is more successful with his summaries of religious history, where he relies on the work of well-regarded scholars such as Mark Noll of Wheaton College and George Marsden of Notre Dame.
Yet even Phillips must admit that in terms of concrete policies, the so-called theocracy he describes has been surprisingly ineffective at turning its agenda into law. "As of this writing," he concedes, "none of the half-dozen pieces of quasi-theocratic legislation drafted by the religious right . . . had achieved passage, but the time could come." In fact, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, white evangelicals' electoral influence is not on the rise; they constituted only 23 percent of the electorate in both 2000 and 2004. And the percentage of Bush voters who are white evangelicals remained constant at 36 percent in 2000 and 2004; as the Pew Center noted, Bush in 2004 "made relatively bigger gains among infrequent churchgoers than he did among religiously observant voters."
Still, Phillips sees the religious right's influence on nearly every major decision the Bush administration has made. He pins the invasion of Iraq not on the influence of advisers such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld but on the power of "the tens of millions of true believers viewing events through a Left Behind perspective." Whether discussing oil, the economy or American faith, when Phillips abandons his thoughtful explorations of history for the present, he produces polemics ill-suited to his talents -- seemingly written for an audience that wants its prejudices reaffirmed rather than examined. Years from now, historians studying the early 21st century will be able to judge how many of Phillips's dire predictions proved prescient. Lately, even the Bush administration has given lip service to the idea that the country needs to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. But in his disillusionment with the GOP, Phillips has allowed intemperance to infect his analysis. As a result, what could have been a thoughtful critique has become yet another book that caters to partisan passions. ·
Christine Rosen is a fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center and the author of "My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood."