'American Theocracy,' by Kevin Phillips - The New York Times Book Review - New York Times
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Clear and Present Dangers
Published: March 19, 2006
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And while this argument may be somewhat too simplistic to explain the complicated mix of motives behind the war, it is hard to dismiss Phillips's larger argument: that the pursuit of oil has for at least 30 years been one of the defining elements of American policy in the world; and that the Bush administration — unusually dominated by oilmen — has taken what the president deplored recently as the nation's addiction to oil to new and terrifying levels. The United States has embraced a kind of "petro-imperialism," Phillips writes, "the key aspect of which is the U.S. military's transformation into a global oil-protection force," and which "puts up a democratic facade, emphasizes freedom of the seas (or pipeline routes) and seeks to secure, protect, drill and ship oil, not administer everyday affairs."
Featured Author: Kevin Phillips
Reviews of Phillips's books, including "The Emerging Republican Majority" (1969), "Wealth and Democracy" (2002) and others.
The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century.
By Kevin Phillips.
462 pp. Viking. $26.95.
Forum: Book News and Reviews
Phillips is especially passionate in his discussion of the second great force that he sees shaping contemporary American life — radical Christianity and its growing intrusion into government and politics. The political rise of evangelical Christian groups is hardly a secret to most Americans after the 2004 election, but Phillips brings together an enormous range of information from scholars and journalists and presents a remarkably comprehensive and chilling picture of the goals and achievements of the religious right.
He points in particular to the Southern Baptist Convention, once a scorned seceding minority of the American Baptist Church but now so large that it dominates not just Baptism itself but American Protestantism generally. The Southern Baptist Convention does not speak with one voice, but almost all of its voices, Phillips argues, are to one degree or another highly conservative. On the far right is a still obscure but, Phillips says, rapidly growing group of "Christian Reconstructionists" who believe in a "Taliban-like" reversal of women's rights, who describe the separation of church and state as a "myth" and who call openly for a theocratic government shaped by Christian doctrine. A much larger group of Protestants, perhaps as many as a third of the population, claims to believe in the supposed biblical prophecies of an imminent "rapture" — the return of Jesus to the world and the elevation of believers to heaven.
Prophetic Christians, Phillips writes, often shape their view of politics and the world around signs that charlatan biblical scholars have identified as predictors of the apocalypse — among them a war in Iraq, the Jewish settlement of the whole of biblical Israel, even the rise of terrorism. He convincingly demonstrates that the Bush administration has calculatedly reached out to such believers and encouraged them to see the president's policies as a response to premillennialist thought. He also suggests that the president and other members of his administration may actually believe these things themselves, that religious belief is the basis of policy, not just a tactic for selling it to the public. Phillips's evidence for this disturbing claim is significant, but not conclusive.
THE third great impending crisis that Phillips identifies is also, perhaps, the best known — the astonishing rise of debt as the precarious underpinning of the American economy. He is not, of course, the only observer who has noted the dangers of indebtedness. The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, for example, frequently writes about the looming catastrophe. So do many more-conservative economists, who point especially to future debt — particularly the enormous obligation, which Phillips estimates at between $30 trillion and $40 trillion, that Social Security and health care demands will create in the coming decades. The most familiar debt is that of the United States government, fueled by soaring federal budget deficits that have continued (with a brief pause in the late 1990's) for more than two decades. But the national debt — currently over $8 trillion — is only the tip of the iceberg. There has also been an explosion of corporate debt, state and local bonded debt, international debt through huge trade imbalances, and consumer debt (mostly in the form of credit-card balances and aggressively marketed home-mortgage packages). Taken together, this present and future debt may exceed $70 trillion.
The creation of a national-debt culture, Phillips argues, although exacerbated by the policies of the Bush administration, has been the work of many people over many decades — among them Alan Greenspan, who, he acidly notes, blithely and irresponsibly ignored the rising debt to avoid pricking the stock-market bubble it helped produce. It is most of all a product of the "financialization" of the American economy — the turn away from manufacturing and toward an economy based on moving and managing money, a trend encouraged, Phillips argues persuasively, by the preoccupation with oil and (somewhat less persuasively) with evangelical belief in the imminent rapture, which makes planning for the future unnecessary.
There is little in "American Theocracy" that is wholly original to Phillips, as he frankly admits by his frequent reference to the work of other writers and scholars. What makes this book powerful in spite of the familiarity of many of its arguments is his rare gift for looking broadly and structurally at social and political change. By describing a series of major transformations, by demonstrating the relationships among them and by discussing them with passionate restraint, Phillips has created a harrowing picture of national danger that no American reader will welcome, but that none should ignore.
Alan Brinkley is the Allan Nevins professor of history and the provost at Columbia University.
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