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American Theocracy

American Theocracy

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Published by mjgvalcarce

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Published by: mjgvalcarce on Sep 13, 2008
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'AMERICAN THEOCRACY,' BY KEVIN PHILLIPS
Clear and Present Dangers
Review by ALAN BRINKLEY
Published: March 19, 2006
Four decades ago, Kevin Phillips, a young political strategist for the RepublicanParty, began work on what became a remarkable book. In writing "The EmergingRepublican Majority" (published in 1969), he asked a very big question aboutAmerican politics: How would the demographic and economic changes of postwar America shape the long-term future of the two major parties? His answer, startling atthe time but now largely unquestioned, is that the movement of people and resourcesfrom the old Northern industrial states into the South and the West (an area heenduringly labeled the "Sun Belt") would produce a new and more conservativeRepublican majority that would dominate American politics for decades. Phillipsviewed the changes he predicted with optimism. A stronger Republican Party, he believed, would restore stability and order to a society experiencing disorienting andat times violent change. Shortly before publishing his book, he joined the Nixonadministration to help advance the changes he had foreseen.Phillips has remained a prolific and important political commentator in the decadessince, but he long ago abandoned his enthusiasm for the Republican coalition hehelped to build. His latest book (his 13th) looks broadly and historically at the political world the conservative coalition has painstakingly constructed over the lastseveral decades. No longer does he see Republican government as a source of stability and order. Instead, he presents a nightmarish vision of ideologicalextremism, catastrophic fiscal irresponsibility, rampant greed and dangerousshortsightedness. (His final chapter is entitled "The Erring Republican Majority.") Inan era of best-selling jeremiads on both sides of the political divide, "AmericanTheocracy" may be the most alarming analysis of where we are and where we may be going to have appeared in many years. It is not without polemic, but unlike manyof the more glib and strident political commentaries of recent years, it is extensivelyresearched and for the most part frighteningly persuasive.Although Phillips is scathingly critical of what he considers the dangerous policiesof the Bush administration, he does not spend much time examining the ideas and behavior of the president and his advisers. Instead, he identifies three broad andrelated trends — none of them new to the Bush years but all of them, he believes,exacerbated by this administration's policies — that together threaten the future of the United States and the world. One is the role of oil in defining and, as Phillipssees it, distorting American foreign and domestic policy. The second is the ominousintrusion of radical Christianity into politics and government. And the third is theastonishing levels of debt — current and prospective — that both the governmentand the American people have been heedlessly accumulating. If there is a single, if 
 
implicit, theme running through the three linked essays that form this book, it is thefailure of leaders to look beyond their own and the country's immediate ambitionsand desires so as to plan prudently for a darkening future.The American press in the first days of the Iraq war reported extensively on thePentagon's failure to post American troops in front of the National Museum inBaghdad, which, as a result, was looted of many of its great archaeologicaltreasures. Less widely reported, but to Phillips far more meaningful, was theimmediate posting of troops around the Iraqi Oil Ministry, which held the maps andcharts that were the key to effective oil production. Phillips fully supports anexplanation of the Iraq war that the Bush administration dismisses as conspiracytheory — that its principal purpose was to secure vast oil reserves that would enablethe United States to control production and to lower prices. ("Think of Iraq as amilitary base with a very large oil reserve underneath," an oil analyst said a coupleof years ago. "You can't ask for better than that.") Terrorism, weapons of massdestruction, tyranny, democracy and other public rationales were, Phillips says,simply ruses to disguise the real motivation for the invasion.And while this argument may be somewhat too simplistic to explain the complicatedmix of motives behind the war, it is hard to dismiss Phillips's larger argument: thatthe 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 — unusuallydominated by oilmen — has taken what the president deplored recently as thenation's addiction to oil to new and terrifying levels. The United States has embraceda 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 ademocratic facade, emphasizes freedom of the seas (or pipeline routes) and seeks tosecure, protect, drill and ship oil, not administer everyday affairs."Phillips is especially passionate in his discussion of the second great force that hesees shaping contemporary American life — radical Christianity and its growingintrusion into government and politics. The political rise of evangelical Christiangroups 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 andachievements of the religious right.He points in particular to the Southern Baptist Convention, once a scorned secedingminority of the American Baptist Church but now so large that it dominates not justBaptism itself but American Protestantism generally. The Southern BaptistConvention does not speak with one voice, but almost all of its voices, Phillipsargues, are to one degree or another highly conservative. On the far right is a stillobscure but, Phillips says, rapidly growing group of "Christian Reconstructionists"who believe in a "Taliban-like" reversal of women's rights, who describe theseparation 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 andthe elevation of believers to heaven.Prophetic Christians, Phillips writes, often shape their view of politics and the worldaround signs that charlatan biblical scholars have identified as predictors of theapocalypse — among them a war in Iraq, the Jewish settlement of the whole of  biblical Israel, even the rise of terrorism. He convincingly demonstrates that theBush administration has calculatedly reached out to such believers and encouragedthem to see the president's policies as a response to premillennialist thought. He alsosuggests 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 atactic for selling it to the public. Phillips's evidence for this disturbing claim issignificant, but not conclusive.THE third great impending crisis that Phillips identifies is also, perhaps, the bestknown — the astonishing rise of debt as the precarious underpinning of theAmerican economy. He is not, of course, the only observer who has noted thedangers 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 theenormous obligation, which Phillips estimates at between $30 trillion and $40trillion, that Social Security and health care demands will create in the comingdecades. The most familiar debt is that of the United States government, fueled bysoaring federal budget deficits that have continued (with a brief pause in the late1990'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, andconsumer debt (mostly in the form of credit-card balances and aggressivelymarketed home-mortgage packages). Taken together, this present and future debtmay 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 manydecades — among themAlan Greenspan, who, he acidly notes, blithely andirresponsibly ignored the rising debt to avoid pricking the stock-market bubble ithelped produce. It is most of all a product of the "financialization" of the Americaneconomy — the turn away from manufacturing and toward an economy based onmoving and managing money, a trend encouraged, Phillips argues persuasively, bythe 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 hefrankly admits by his frequent reference to the work of other writers and scholars.

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