Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy is divided into three parts held together, at times, only by the most tenuous of rhetorical threads.  The first deals with the perilous politics of Big Oil and American imperial overreach; the third, with the looming threat to American prosperity represented by out-of-control national debt and what Phillips calls the “financialization of the United States.”  Both of these sections of the book present some compelling, if familiar, arguments.  It is, however, the middle section, “Too Many Preachers,” that has catapulted it to the top of the best-seller lists.  Here, Phillips reveals his central concern or, rather, obsession: Under the leadership of a third-rate Cromwell, George W. Bush, the Republican Party has been transformed and radicalized by a New Model Army of Southern Baptist activists with the result that the American nation threatens to become a theocratic regime.  Of course, this, too, is hardly an original claim; heretofore, however, we have heard it preached largely from the precincts of the theophobic secular left.  To hear the same argument from Mr. Phillips, the erstwhile populist prognosticator of emerging Republican majorities—well, that would seem to be the oracular equivalent of the FDA Seal of Approval.  Once upon a time, he embraced the hog-fed, Bible-thumping, stock-car lovin’ multitudes of Dixie and welcomed them into the big Republican tent.  Now, gazing upon the American scene from his well-appointed study in Litchfield, Connecticut, he is appalled by the result.

The central argument unfolds as follows: Unperceived back in the late 60’s by Republican cognoscenti such as Phillips, a third Great Awakening of fundamentalist religious fervor was quietly on the rise.  At first, this revolt of the masses, which led to increasingly larger Republican sweeps of formerly Democratic strongholds, seemed acceptably “secular” in nature—initially a surge of populist resentment against the Democratic elites who were, for example, running roughshod over the sentiments of local communities and busing white children to distant schools in the name of racial equality.  Even after the Reagan landslide offered irrefutable proof that the Democrats had lost Middle America and that a major new political alignment was a fait accompli—even then, despite the troubling and inarticulate noises made by something called the “Moral Majority,” almost no one in the respectable media or in liberal academe recognized the looming threat for what it was.  After all, Ronald Reagan wasn’t much of a churchgoer (and Nancy dabbled in astrology); and the media, the academy, the courts, and the federal bureaucracy were all firmly in the hands of secularists.  Jerry Falwell was a clown, one who must be put in his place, but he was not a serious threat to the Wall of Separation that could be depended upon to keep the religious vandals out of the secular parlor.  The so-called Culture Wars seemed to be about something Phillips calls “social values,” not about theology.  Only with the election of George W. Bush, a self-proclaimed “born-again” Southern Baptist, and the appearance of “Bibles being brandished as public policy guides” by the likes of John Ashcroft—only then did the secular elites begin to grow seriously alarmed at the possibility of a “theocratic” takeover of key American institutions.  And, in Phillips’ considered view, they were and are right to be alarmed.  In the Preface, he claims that

strong theocratic pressures are already visible in the Republican national coalition and its leadership, while the substantial portion of Christian America committed to theories of Armageddon and the inerrancy of the Bible has already made the GOP into America’s first religious party.

Wedded to this argument is the further claim that the rise of a fundamentalist-dominated GOP is part and parcel of the historical emergence of the Southern Baptist Convention (and its “sectarian” brethren: the Pentecostals, the Mormons, et al.) as the predominant expression of American religious populism.  Phillips provides an admirably succinct overview of the growth of the Southern Baptists since the Civil War.  Both during and after Reconstruction, according to this analysis, the Southern Baptists embraced the Lost Cause of the Confederacy with a fervor akin to that of no other Southern denomination, snatching victory from the jaws of ignominy and defeat by a “postwar theology that reconciled defeat with the will of God and Confederate righteousness.”  By the end of the century, they had “achieved a hegemonic position within the South,” their numbers growing steadily as they siphoned off membership from the less-aggressive mainline Methodists and Presbyterians.

Despite the setback presented by the Scopes trial and the subsequent ridicule of fundamentalist belief that became commonplace across much of the nation, the Southern Baptists and other “radical” Protestant sects (most of them Southern in origin) continued quietly to expand.  Between 1940 and 1960, the Southern Baptists’ numbers doubled from 10 million to 20 as their leadership focused on evangelism and remained politically quiescent (for the most part).  The turn toward a more aggressive political activism, in Phillips’ view, may have been in 1979, when the “moderate” wing of the Convention was effectively purged.  By the end of the Reagan years, the “Church of the Southern Cultural Memory was on its way to becoming a newly fledged Church of Biblical Inerrancy and Republican Ascendancy.”  One must also note a significant demographic shift.  Though the original states of the Confederacy remain the bastion of Southern Baptist and other fundamentalist churches, the second half of the 20th century saw their expansion well beyond the Mason-Dixon line into the Midwest and the West—in short, into most of the states now designated as “red” by pollsters.  Phillips argues that this expansion coincides with, and is in part responsible for, the Dixiefication of Middle America.  He effectively demonstrates how this demographic spillover of the fundamentalist ranks was seized upon by Republican strategists to shape the electoral majorities that elected Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, and the current Republican majorities in the House and Senate.  This confluence of expansionist fundamentalism and Republican ambition has resulted in a political party driven by a theocratic worldview shaped by Old Testament morality and end-times prophecy, especially as articulated for the born-again masses in such blockbuster best-sellers as the Left Behind series and its premillennialist visions of imminent Rapture.

While Phillips’ historical account of the rise of the Religious Right is generally accurate, the conclusions he draws are flawed.  We may begin with the claim that the GOP has become America’s “first religious party.”  Let us assume for the moment that the Republican Party really has become the political instrument of a cabal of preachers and blindly obedient born-again activists.  Would this, in fact, be unprecedented in American history?  It is curious that Phillips says virtually nothing about the Abolitionists and their role—under the leadership of the Northern Baptist William Lloyd Garrison—in the formation of the Republicans as the antislavery party.  Most historians would agree that abolitionism was, in large part, the result of the crusading moral fervor generated by the Second Great Awakening, and it is well known that Garrison himself repeatedly invoked divine sanction for his radical agenda.  True, Lincoln did not, like George W. Bush, host Bible studies in the White House, but it is certainly arguable that the religious Abolitionists were the driving force in the original incarnation of the Grand Old Party.

In truth, however, the Republicans today are not a “religious party.”  Though the religious right is an important part of the Republican electoral base, and has been enthusiastic in support of the Iraqi venture (until recently), the real power brokers in the White House and in the party generally have been the neoconservatives, about whom Phillips has virtually nothing to say.  Most of these men (and women) are, by all appearances, driven almost exclusively by “secular” concerns.  Of course, their influence has been most evident in the crafting of foreign and military policy.  On the domestic front, the power of the Religious Right has been more evident; even here, however, its agenda has been pursued by Republican leaders in lukewarm and sporadic fashion at best.

Another problem with Phillips’ argument is that he fails to define his key terms adequately.  “Theocracy,” for example, is not defined until halfway through the book, and then only briefly as “some degree of rule by religion.”  That’s impossibly vague and allows for so wide a range of interpretation that the term becomes virtually meaningless.  And then there is Phillips’ understanding of the separation of Church and state.  He uses the Jeffersonian phrase “Wall of Separation” as though it were enshrined in the Constitution, though he well knows that it isn’t.  Republican attempts to chip away at existing abortion law, to impose Intelligent Design instruction upon public-school curricula, to prohibit “gay marriage”—all of these and more Phillips regards as threats to the separation of Church and state as intended, he implies, by our deist forefathers, who would no doubt be card-carrying members of the ACLU if they were alive today.  In fact, Phillips never once attempts a serious discussion of what the Framers intended on this vital point.  He does not even acknowledge that the issue (where to draw the line, what the Framers intended) might be debatable.

All of this imprecision and evasion suggests that Phillips isn’t really attempting to persuade.  He is, rather, preaching to the choir.  Had this so-called populist any sympathy at all for the simple faith of the millions of Americans who make up the rank-and-file of the Religious Right, he might have told a very different and more interesting story.  He might have provided some insight into the hijacking of that faith by a globalist neoconservative elite for whom the American nation is little more than a vast reservoir of bodies, blood, and tax revenue to fuel the spread of democratic capitalism over the face of the earth.  This is not to say that many of the leaders of the Religious Right have not been complicit in these imperialist designs (as Phillips notes), but they are at best second-stringers in a party that has long since abandoned all but the pretense of “allegiance to the flag . . . and to the Republic for which it stands.”


[American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, by Kevin Phillips (New York: Viking Penguin) 480 pp., $26.95]