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Volume 18, Issue 3: Ex Libris

American Theocracy By Kevin Phillips

Reviewed by Brendan O'Donnell

The full title, which speaks volumes about the coherence of this current-events bestseller, runs over to two lines: American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. Author Kevin Phillips, former Republican consultant turned NPR commentator, sets up the tension right from the front cover: Why, the reader asks, should the biggest letters on the cover be the ones that read "American Theocracy"? Phillips keeps us guessing until the very last page, where the book ends and the endnotes begin, and sustains this tension all the way through the index and the back flap of the dust jacket, where the accolades for his anti-Bush-dynasty book from Mother Jones and The New York Times' Paul Krugman are heaped in red, white and blue letters. But the most compelling reason for the big letters on the cover seems to be that the section called "Too Many Preachers" has more pages (165) than either "Oil and American Supremacy" (96) or "Borrowed Prosperity" (124).

So, American Theocracy got its title for quantity as opposed to quality—both the quantity of pages and the quantity of books that a title like that would sell. As for the cogency of its argument, the book is a rambling, shabby mess which shouldn't do much more than fuel the already fiery indignation of the anti-W crowd, for whom any stick is good enough to beat the President with. The broad thesis—that dependency on outdated fuel sources, the decline of manufacturing in favor of service economies, and the growing fervency of the religious impulse spells doom for the United States as it has for every other past Empire—is, to put it charitably, held together more by chewing gum and baling wire than it is by sober historical study. Phillips presents his slipshod screed like a man incapable of cracking a smile, using terse, grinding, didactic sentences that impress only how gravely he sees the world. His vocation is that of political commentator and, as he once said, "The secret of politics is knowing who hates who." Men like him tend to see politics as the fundamental structure and expression of human civilization; for Phillips, that view of life has bred a hardened cynicism that will not permit him to see beyond the dance between social antagonisms and the politicos who manipulate them.
Go no further than Phillips' surprising treatment of the War for Independence and the Civil War to see how myopically he views the world. He unapologetically asserts that the two wars were fundamentally motivated by theological and religious rifts within Christendom! To find one of his persuasion willing to admit this in a mainstream book is nothing less than stunning. But we read this in the section about "Too Many Preachers," in a chapter called "Radicalized Religion," and despite the fact that Phillips presumably liked the way those two wars turned out, he is only interested in his own finger-jabbing: he would rather consider the two wars as Exhibits A and B proving the long history of bloody violence that accompanies assertive conservative Christianity.
This sort of truncated thinking is typical of ardent democracitos, who always turn livid colors whenever demos exercises its democratic prerogative and votes for a guy like W. Despite broad-brush democratic statements like his preface-opener, "The American people are not fools," it is clear that, for Phillips, some Americans are more not-fools than others. He continues, "That is why Pollsters, inquiring during the last forty years whether the United States was on the right track or the wrong one, have so often gotten the second answer: wrong track." (his italics). Which Americans? we may rightly wonder. The ones getting arrested in Times Square during an anti-abortion rally? Or the ones tearing Seattle apart during the W.T.O. meeting? The ones boycotting Disney because it offers health benefits for queers? Or the ones who can't tell the difference between Rick Warren, the Mormons, and Pope Benedict XVI? Phillips' often breathtaking condescension toward the great populist mass of red-state humanity—everything from its suburban houses, its SUVs, its evangelical Christian tints and hues—draws his sneering commentary and leaves little doubt which Americans were consulted by his Pollsters.
Few books are completely worthless, and however much his jaundice-colored glasses distort the world, he gets at some worrisome big-picture items: the indebtedness of the average American household, and our economic dependence on that debt, bring to mind no end of Scriptural warnings about fiscal stupidity, let alone the warnings about camels and eyes of needles. Leaving aside his environmental chicken-littlism and suv tsk-tsking, his scenario of present and future oil-motivated American military excursions seems all too plausible in this era of undeclared wars with no honestly stated aims.
And, in more than a few places, he lands blows in the midst of our politically-minded evangelical brothers that explode on impact. It is at those moments that we need to remember who we stand with, even if we feel some have too closely aligned the Kingdom of God with the traditional-values Republican version of the U.S.A. We can't be ashamed to call them brethren, even if we think they're wasting their time praying to be seen by men on the Capitol steps, because, as feeble as we find their methods, the Left-Behindist, mega-church attending, Moral Majority torso of the American body of Christ nevertheless gets Phillips and his blue-statist ilk wetting their beds like nothing else.

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