Book Review: Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (Viking 2006). 462 pp.

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at krausekc@msn.com.

Economically comfortable, politically anxious and, typically, well over forty, an appreciable crowd has grown up if not matured with the cleverly-timed political carps of Kevin Phillips.  In 1969, the Republican strategist prophesied an appetizing, southern-fried conservative majority.  In 1990, he turned on the GOP, torching the Reagan administration for its betrayal of the American middle class.  In 2002 and 2004, the menu to Phillips’ now semi-annual and eagerly anticipated barbeque was updated to feature Bill Clinton and both Bushes.  Alleged economic ineptitude, to that point, had fueled Phillips’s bi-partisan, but mostly Republican, razes.

In American Theocracy, however, Phillips argues as well that today’s “rogue” GOP has baked itself into “America’s first religious party.”  Radical religion’s recently ascendant power in both domestic and foreign affairs, he maintains, now threatens the United States with the same miserable fate suffered by earlier negligent empires, Christian Rome, Hapsburg Spain, the eighteenth-century Netherlands and Victorian Great Britain, in particular.

Phillips’s study of past imperial folly reveals five “critical symptoms” of decay, each religiously stimulated: common disenchantment with popular culture; mounting religious enthusiasm, church-state commingling or crusading resolve; growing commitment to faith at the expense of reason and science; popular millennialism and diplomatic and military arrogance.  Phillips reports each symptom’s presentation in the contemporary American consciousness as if he believed it were breaking news.  One wonders, of course, whether the author could specify a time when such symptoms did not present, and, indeed, more egregiously so.  Nevertheless, Phillips lives up to his almost legendary reputation for statistical compilation, presentation and analysis, always in favor of his argument.

Americans have grown increasingly willing, if not eager, to express some religious affiliation.  Only 17 percent of us did so in 1776, according to Phillips’s source.  But that share increased to 34 percent by 1850, 45 percent in 1890, 56 percent in 1926, and, finally, 63 percent by 2000.  For Phillips, however, it has been the character and temperament rather than the extent of our emerging religiosity that has engendered the “rise of the religious right and . . . the related transformation of national politics.”

By the end of James Madison’s first presidential administration, traditional mainline churches in America had already lost considerable ground to their populist, evangelical counterparts.  Baptist membership, for example, soared from 35,000 in 1784 to 173,000 in 1810.  By 1850, Baptists were 1.6 million strong, the second largest denomination in the country, and poised to overtake even the Methodists by around 1906.  By contrast, also by 1850, the Congregationalist and Episcopalian slices of the religious pie had shrunk from 20.4 to 4 percent and 15.7 to 3.5 percent, respectively.

While many mainline churches closed their doors between 1916 and 1926, primitive fundamentalist and revivalist sects opened new houses of worship at all but miraculous rates.  From 1926 to 1940, Southern Baptists generated 1.5 million new members and the Pentecostal denomination of the Assemblies of God improved four-fold.  United Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Congregationalists continued to stand helplessly by as, between 1940 and 1985, Southern Baptist and Pentacostal membership swelled, from 7.7 to 10.1 percent and .3 to 1.5 percent of the total religious population.  From 1960 to 1997, the Southern Baptist Convention claimed 6 million new adherents; Mormonism claimed another 3.3 million and Pentacostalism another 2 million souls.  By the end of the twentieth century, the fundamentalist SBC was the most prolific Protestant group in America with better than 40 million members.  The four leading mainline churches, by comparison, could claim a mere 15 million adherents combined.

Phillips emphasizes the SBC’s “unique, fundamentalist, missionary, independent, imperial [and] uncompromising” nature.  Prior to and during the Civil War, southern Baptists proved exceptionally racist, militant, and, when contrasted against their northern brethren, “much less interest[ed] in an educated ministry.”  The SBC was instrumental in publishing “The Fundamentals” between 1910 and 1915 and in the anti-evolution movement that began in the 1920s.  Now, Phillips concludes, Southern Baptism exemplifies “a conservatism of evangelical theology preoccupied with saving souls and dismissive of . . . liberal sociology or government-run social-welfare programs . . . [that] only get in the way of individuals’ assumption of personal responsibility and salvation.”

The Baptist mentality spread, unsurprisingly, as southerners migrated to the American west and mid-west during the 1920s through the 1960s.  While the SBC continues to dominate in southern territory, from Texas to Missouri, Virginia and Florida, it now ranks among the four most prevailing churches in many non-southern states, including Ohio, Illinois, Wyoming, Alaska, New Mexico and California.

Are Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists responsible for red-state creep and recently exacerbated political polarization?  A 2000 Zogby poll revealed that 57 percent of red-state voters were Protestant, compared to 23 percent Catholic.  Blue states were more evenly divided, 37 percent Protestant to 33 percent Catholic.  Red-staters, however, also tended more toward rural living, gun ownership, marriage, and, naturally, being born again, while blue-staters tended to be younger and more educated.  When asked in more recent polls whether political leaders should rely on religion when making public policy decisions, 62 percent of Republicans answered affirmatively compared to 27 percent of Democrats.  When asked if religious leaders should attempt to influence politicians, 48 percent of Republicans and 28 percent of Democrats agreed.

Does radical religion sway the Republican Party now more than it has in the past?  Phillips balanced voter totals from the 1984 and 2004 presidential elections.  He discovered that George W. Bush, “America’s preacher in chief,” performed better or almost as well as Ronald Reagan in only ten states. The first four, Alabama, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, Phillips writes, typify “fundamentalist and evangelical strongholds notable for their unimpressive rankings in education, mental health, child poverty, and homicide rate.”  More generally, federal voter turnout soared among southern churchgoers in 2004, when the top seven GOP Senate leaders earned perfect ratings from the Christian Coalition.

But can an American theocracy be reasonably inferred from the author’s data?  For Phillips, our current foreign policies suggest “connections among the war on terror, the rapture, the end of times, Armageddon and the thinly disguised U.S. crusade against radical Islam.”  But one need not be a Christian, less said a fundamentalist, to harbor serious misgivings about Islam.  And, while it might be true that both powerful Republicans and the Christian Right tend to “oppose regulation and justify . . . relative laissez-faire,” and that “Christian Reconstructionists go even further, abandoning most economic regulation in order to prepare the moral framework for God’s return,” politicians have always employed theological rhetoric as a means of developing or expanding popular support for their international and domestic agendas.

On the other hand, the GOP’s infamous anti-science, anti-gay, misogynistic, and pro-embryonic obsessions are much harder to defend on purely political grounds.  Such policies appear to have no rational objective beyond the manipulation and appeasement of the Party’s most loyal and religious constituencies.  Still, the American people and not church hierarchies have remained responsible for both expressing their preferences and effecting these platforms and policies.

Phillips has capably demonstrated the extent to which American government both resembles and represents its polity.  Such is the raison d’etre of any authentic democracy, after all.  The author has failed, however, to verify the existence of an American theocracy, at least insofar as theocracy is incompatible with popular rule.  Might a valuable lesson lie in this distinction?  If secularists are disappointed with the present course of their democracy, maybe they should sever their safe and antiseptic dependence upon intellectual and legal institutions, drop the hyperbole, and—perish the thought—pluck a page or two from Christian evangelism’s well-worn and sweat-soaked handbook: save the condescending smirks, hit the pavement, knock on some doors and join the fray.

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