At the Brink of Disaster

Book cover
American Theocracyby Kevin Phillips

Viking Press. 448p $26.95


Some people would characterize the past five years of the Bush administration as inconceivably distasteful and disastrous. For others, the administration’s policies are long awaited, perfectly logical and admired. Why such a discrepancy?

In American Theocracy, which reads like a cross between a mystery novel and a horror film, Kevin Phillips explains how several strange political, economic and geographic situations converged over the past 30 years, bubbled up in post-Sept. 11 pathos, and allowed the Bush administration the opportunity to pursue a crusade against evil through a war on terrorism, to expand executive powers and to advance a Religious Right political agenda.

After the 2004 election, some liberals soothed themselves with the purple-ness of America and the hope that Democrats would automatically capture the Congress in 2006 and the presidency in 2008. But Phillips shows how the outcome of the 2004 election was really more red than purple because, as polls indicate, religion has become the primary factor in selecting a presidential candidate.

And just what is that red agenda? Pro-life, pro-abstinence, anti-euthanasia, anti-homosexuality, anti-government, anti-science, anti-environmentalism; and the promotion of intelligent design, school prayer, tax cuts, consumerism, nationalism, unilateral and pre-emptive war, torture, eavesdropping and the sponsorship of faith-based programs.

Sounds like a Republican Party platform? Yes and no. It is a Religious Right agenda, to be sure, but Phillips’s real concern is that both parties are shifting their emphasis away from business, the economy and the environment and toward biblical interpretations of life, death, sex and family in a quest to capture this powerful constituency. Even corporate America is sending biblically oriented lobbyists to Washington to fight for deregulation and tax cuts.

America’s foreign policy has also been adversely reshaped. Listen to Dominique Moïsi, the founder and senior advisor of the French Institute for International Relations in Paris: The combination of religion and nationalism in America is frightening. We feel betrayed by God and by nationalism, which is why we are building the European Union as a barrier to religious warfare.

Phillips spares no details in showing how the Religious Right has influenced U.S. foreign policy (primarily through oil acquisitions) and finance over the past 30 years. That the author ties these seemingly disconnected arenas of our society together not only appears antithetical to the separation of church and state, but it reveals how successfully radical Christians have pulled off a theocratic ambush on a much broader agenda than just converting souls for Christ.

Phillips’s latest in a string of books on the effects of moving America to the right helps explain the history and effects of our country’s predilection toward religion, which goes back to our nation’s founding and has surfaced in times of critical change and moral decision-making.

It happened in the years preceding the Revolutionary War, with Americans divided over sticking with Britain or creating a new nation. It happened before the Civil War, when Americans agonized over the slavery issue. (This was also a time that nurtured biblical literalism and led a defrocked Anglican priest named John Nelson Darby to cook up the Armageddon myth, a story loosely based on the Book of Revelation.)

It also happened during the 1890’s, which were marked by a re-emphasis on religious revivalism, and in the 1920’s, when conservative Christians reacted to the first shock waves of modernism: radio, automobiles, short skirts and the jazz age. Reactions to the second wave of modernism occurred in the 1960’s and 70’s, during the rise of feminism and civil rights.

By the 1990’s the pollster George Gallup conceded that religious affiliation remains one of the most accurate and least appreciated political indicators available. Meanwhile, megachurches gathered audiences of 50 to 100 million people across the country and led them to consume books, videos and the television sermons of fundamentalist and charismatic preachers who promoted morality, salvation, biblical guidance and an end times theology of Jesus’ Second Coming.

Liberals, seculars, academicians and sophisticates have largely ignored and dismissed the influence of the Religious Right and have likewise been blindsided by its predictions of the world’s end. Phillips’s purpose in American Theocracy is to call these ardent, disbelieving souls to focus their attention on the Religious Right so that those who think blue can understand, respond, resist and bring the country back to sanity.

Phillips, a former Republican strategist who predicted the rise of the G.O.P. in his 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, is an ardent opponent of the Reagan-Bush policies. He unhesitatingly points out the serious perversions of our politics by comparing America’s rise to empire status to Rome, 15th-century Spain, 17th-century Netherlands and 19th-century Britain. All were gripped by radical religious fervor at the peak of their power. He cites the five symptoms of decay that subsequently led to their decline. They sound disturbingly familiar:

Widespread public concern over cultural and economic decay;

Growing religious fervor, insistence on a close church-state relationship;

Rising commitment to faith as opposed to reason and a downplay of science;

Popular anticipation of a millennial time frame that includes an epochal battle, emergence of the antichrist or belief in an imminent Jesus’ Second Coming and Armageddon;

Hubris-driven national strategic and military overreach, often pursuing abstract international missions that the nation can no longer afford, economically or politically.

Of course, every empire believes it is an exception to the rule, and the United States is no different, says Phillips. Belief that we are the chosen ones creates a certain national hubris that leads down a path of delusion and self-destruction. That, and the fact that our nation’s economic profile is riddled with trillions of dollars of debt and our energy resources are verging on peak capacity, only exacerbate the seriousness of our situation. One may wonder if the only hope for relief from the Religious Right’s thunderbolts of influence is economic decline.

Reading American Theocracy should not make those who despise the Bush regime feel good or justified in their criticism. And logic should remind those waiting for ferther missteps of the current administration that the nation can be devastated politically, economically, socially and morally.

Throughout the pages of Phillips’s book readers will find a consistent warning undergirded by hope. It is this: Americans who believe in civil liberties, the Constitution and democratic values, must pick up the leadership for the nation themselves. Relying on a savior, an antichrist or the Democrats to fill the void will not work. Without our commitment to reason, history and moral justice, we are surely doomed to be one more fallen empire in the annals of history.

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