I love a good conspiracy theory, whether from the right or left. Not because they’re true, but because they weave a tale of connected dots — and often manufactured dots — that purport to reveal how the world really works.
And now I can add Kevin Phillips’ new book, "American Theocracy," to that pile.
The basic theme of the book is straightforward, and highlighted in the subtitle: "The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century."
Phillips argues that:
- Big Oil has played a long and influential role in American politics, but especially with President George W. Bush;
- Religion and Christianity, and most recently the Religious Right, have played a long and influential role in American politics, but especially with President George W. Bush; and
- Congress’ penchant for overspending has led to huge debt that threatens global financial stability and the U.S. economy, but especially with … well, you get the picture.
What Phillips does is take assertions about which there would be little scholarly disagreement and weave them together to assert a thesis that few knowledgeable people could accept. That’s what a conspiracy theory does.
Phillips believes that the Republican Party has been co-opted by the Religious Right (i.e., conservative Evangelicals, Pentecostals, etc.), whose politics and policies are guided by a biblical vision that includes a world conflict leading to Armageddon. And that vision is taking the country down a disastrous path politically, economically and socially. "In Republican politics, theological correctness — call it TC — became a policy-shaping force in determining Middle Eastern geopolitics, combating global AIDS, defining the legal rights of fetuses, pretending that oil was not the cause of the invasion of Iraq, and explaining geopolitical controversies in language compatible with the Book of Genesis."
And because President Bush claims to be a born-again Christian, Phillips thinks that must mean he, too, is a tool of the Religious Right — people such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, the Council on National Policy, even the Christian Reconstructionists — to implement their view of a government influenced, if not expressly guided, by Christian theology. Hence, the emerging "American theocracy."
The President, Phillips complains, even alludes to biblical themes in his speeches! Phillips seems unconcerned that Reagan’s "city on a hill" and just about all of Martin Luther King’s speeches and sermons did the same thing.
The three major sections of the book look at the history and influence of oil, religion and deficit spending in the U.S. They are long and largely superfluous to his argument, but reader friendly and well documented. But there are glaring problems.
How does one seriously argue that President Bush is a tool of Big Oil when the President has come out saying the country is "addicted to oil" and ought to get off it?
Phillips is also exorcized over the growing federal debt. He won’t get much argument from conservatives there. He sees it, in part, as a result of Republicans’ blind "faith" in tax cuts. Of course, recent numbers show that the President’s tax cuts have made the economy better, not worse. Projected deficit spending is declining because a roaring economy is churning out so much tax revenue.
And to be fair, while the President may hold some of the blame for the growth in federal spending, Congress — and most recently the Senate — has been willing to see the President’s budget increase and raise it by thousands of earmarks.
Phillips is not, we should add, similarly exorcized over the explosion of those earmarks that are driving up federal spending.
But Phillips’ central thesis is that the Religious Right holds a profound influence over the Bush Administration and the GOP. (Full disclosure: I am one of them — I even got my master’s degree from the largest Southern Baptist seminary.)
Phillips devotes a lot of ink retracing the history of Christianity and its influence on the U.S. But he missed the real crux of what got Evangelicals re-energized in politics in the 1970s, after years of sitting on the sidelines.
Hal Lindsey (mentioned only once in the book) published "The Late Great Planet Earth" in 1970. Lindsey took the dispensationalism (a view of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, preceded by the taking up of all Christians in the "Rapture") taught by Dallas Theological Seminary and turned it into an interesting, well-written exploration of world politics. All of a sudden, Evangelicals who previously had no interest in geopolitical events were enthralled, thinking they were seeing the end unfold before their eyes.
Then, once Jimmy Carter’s disastrous domestic and foreign policies were implemented, inflation skyrocketed and America looked weak and indecisive. It was Carter’s policies that provided the real momentum behind the Religious Right.
Phillips also thinks the Religious Right is driving Republicans and U.S. policies toward Armageddon. And he worries that Bush has adopted the dispensationalist view of the end of the world. He seems to believe Reagan’s Christianity was less influenced by such thoughts. And yet, one of the biographies of Reagan quotes him as saying he enjoyed being a student of Bible prophecy and liked to invite people out to the ranch to discuss it.
However, in working to get Ronald Reagan elected in 1980, the Religious Right changed the paradigm. Ironically, the Religious Right’s support for pro-growth economic policies (including lower taxes and limited government) and a strong national defense helps keep the U.S. out of an end-times type of cataclysmic war, not lead us into it. As a result, the expectation that the end is near has actually retreated in the last 15 years.
Had Phillips published "American Theocracy" a decade ago, it might have been a little more persuasive. The Christian Coalition and Family Research Council were at their pinnacle. And conservative Republicans seriously thought twice before challenging the Christian agenda. Although FRC still has some influence, those organizations no longer drive the congressional agenda, and no one has stepped in to fill Ralph Reed’s shoes at the Christian Coalition.
To sum up, Phillips’ fear that the Religious Right is somehow co-opting the Republican agenda and infiltrating the government is ridiculous. Christians may be more involved in politics and government than they used to be, and they bring their values with them — just as secularists and liberals do.
But why would the Religious Right want to take over something as inefficient as the government? What conservative Christians really want to do is shrink it and reduce its impact on our daily lives. If Phillips were accusing us of that, we would have to say: guilty.