The “Menace” of Conservative Christianity
Kevin Phillips has three major concerns in American Theocracy: the American thirst for oil in the face of shrinking global reserves, a habitual reliance upon debt, and an overabundance of Christian zealots. Phillips, a former Republican strategist, believes that the Republican party is now dominated by representatives of all three groups. The unifying influence is the Christian Right, as an apologist for reckless oil consumption and borrowing. The GOP has become, Phillips says, “the first religious party in U.S. history,”1 and it is traditional, politically active Christianity that inspired the title for the book.
Phillips vs. Christianity
Phillips’ complaint about Christian influence may come as a bit of a surprise to Christians who note the removal of Christian references, symbols, and memorials from the public square, the expulsion of any overt Christian teaching from government schools, the steady advance of the feminist and homosexual political agenda, and the ejection of God’s law from courtrooms. Yet American Theocracy argues that conservative Christianity is excessively powerful, among the greatest “menaces to the Republic” (ix).
The book’s main objections to conservative Christianity coalesce around three themes: Biblical inerrancy, eschatology, and American exceptionalism. The idea of Biblical inerrancy must be highly irritating to Phillips, judging from the number of mentions in the book. What Phillips takes as clear-cut scientific conclusions about global warming, evolution, and oil resources are challenged by some Christians who check science against what is known from the Bible. The Bible may not say much about climate change or petroleum geology in particular, but many Christians draw inferences from Biblical chronology and the account of Noah’s flood. Also, conservative Christians argue that the government’s responses to allegedly looming environmental or resource disasters are constrained by Biblical limits on the civil magistrate (e.g., Romans 13). But Phillips rejects any attempt to subordinate science or policy to divine revelation, characterizing “evangelical religion” as “hostile to science.” With barely concealed derision, Phillips remarks, “Their biblically viewed world is at most ten thousand years old, not the millions of years established by scientists, whose insistence on this longer time frame is said to usurp God’s prerogative” (67). Elsewhere, Phillips mentions “claiming absolute truth” among the “principal perverse fundamentalist tendencies” (205). One wonders if Phillips is absolutely certain that claiming absolute truth is inappropriate.
Phillips is convinced that Biblical inerrancy is the enemy of progress. Startlingly, he writes, “No leading world economic power has ever maintained itself on the cutting edge of innovation and development with a political coalition that panders to Biblical inerrancy” (67). But Christianity has clearly been a friend of research and innovation. The nations with the most prominent Bible-believing groups led the Industrial Revolution. Even Phillips himself acknowledges this later in the book: “The three Protestant ‘Hebraic analogy’ and covenanting cultures—Dutch, British, and then American—just happened to produce the three successive leading world economic powers of the seventeenth through twenty-first centuries ... If any unusual lobby has guided Dutch, British, and U.S. attentions, clergy and readers of Scripture must be in the van” (126–127).
Phillips unleashes much of his anti-Christian sentiment on dispensational premillennialism. “The rapture, end-times, and Armageddon hucksters in the United States rank with any Shiite ayatollahs.” Hucksters there are, as well as millions of Left Behind series readers who read prominent roles for the modern Israeli nation-state into Biblical prophecies. But Phillips paints with too broad a brush, lumping dispensational eschatology in with the rest of the Christian Right. He complains about the lack of a response from old-line liberal denominations, but fails to mention the substantial Reconstructionist opposition to this eschatology. Many Reconstructionists are dismayed and embarrassed by the support dispensationalists have given to American imperialism in the Middle East. But Phillips ignores other eschatological views that look forward to Christ’s second coming but do not generate the same conclusions about American foreign policy or the significance of current events in the Middle East.
It is not as though Phillips is unaware of Christian Reconstruction, which attracts several pages of his attention. However, it does not suit his purposes to point out many of the key distinctions among Christians on politics and end-times ideas. Nor does he get his facts straight on groups he wants to condemn. Christian Reconstructionists, as far as I know, do not advocate the death penalty for drug users (240) or “believe a theocratic type of government must be built before Jesus will return” (65, cf. 67). (Having a mandate to pursue Biblical law in society does not mean that we can manipulate Christ into returning through political action.)
Phillips also takes on the idea of American exceptionalism, which he believes has encouraged Americans to ignore the consequences of overreaching foreign policy and debt. A Christian-influenced America relates to the rest of the world aggressively and heedlessly, he contends, assuming immunity from consequences as a supposed benefit of being identified as a Christian nation. Phillips does a decent job of pointing out that penalties for foolishness still come to God’s people, but does so with the sneering tone characteristic of much of the book.
In general, Phillips wants faith separated from politics. American Theocracy evidences the well-worn confusion between a separation of church and state and a separation of religion and state (213–215). Many Christians would agree that the church and state should be separate in their functions and jurisdiction. But Phillips labors under the impression that a civil government can be consistently agnostic or secularized. All policies have underlying ideas about what “good” and “evil” are, what a “person” is, what human nature is, and whether or not direction by a divine power is real or relevant. Deciding whether or not the God of the Bible exists and whether or not this is important for government are religious decisions. There can be no real religious neutrality. Phillips cannot ridicule “Bibles being brandished as public policy guides” (173) without making a religious presupposition about the role of government. If Phillips wants to make connections between conservative Christian groups and the path of politics in America, he has made a decent effort and has loads of statistics to offer. But he does not deal effectively with the Christian ideas themselves, providing scorn instead of careful argument. He scoffs at the “wild-eyed invocation of dubious prophecies in the Book of Revelation” (100) and refers later to “extreme interpretations of the Book of Revelation” (346), as though he were qualified to comment on Biblical interpretation or the plausibility of Biblical prophecy. “Extreme” is used throughout the book as a condemnation.
What should really be objectionable is not that the White House might be influenced by Christianity, but that the influence is so ill-informed, credulous, and so entranced by government power. Many on the Christian Right have serious misgivings about the expansion of the state under the Bush administration. Have Americans really given the federal government carte blanche to preemptively invade other countries, conduct warrantless searches, and treat airline passengers like prison inmates, all in the name of preventing terrorism? Although Phillips’ criticisms are often misguided and coarse, some Christians do behave like knee-jerk Republicans. Perhaps their judgment is swayed by the occasional lip service Bush pays to Christian “values.” But there is a pattern of ignoring or excusing transgressions of Biblical and/or constitutional boundaries. Nationalism is “in,” and criticism of Bush or the military is considered unpatriotic or even un-Christian.
Phillips on Oil
One third of American Theocracy is devoted to American dependence on oil. In the process, Phillips shows himself to be dismissive (or ignorant) of a free market’s ability to ration resources effectively. But if he fails to appreciate markets, Phillips is at least able to show that American intervention in the Middle East is not necessarily an idealistic pursuit of democracy. American oil companies stand to benefit enormously from contracts to exploit the largely untapped Iraqi oil fields, and their lobbying has had an impact. The U.S. military has become a protector of global oil resources on behalf of American oil companies, acting in tandem with diplomacy to exclude the companies of other nations. This is expensive and, some Christians might add, outside the Biblical responsibilities of government.
Other wars have had similar motives, in spite of propaganda efforts on the home front to drum up popular support. After World War I, Woodrow Wilson asked, “[M]y fellow-citizens, is there any man here, or any woman—let me say, is there any child here, who does not know that the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial rivalry? ... This war, in its inception, was a commercial and industrial war. It was not a political war.”2
Unfortunately, Phillips’ discernment of the influence of special interest groups is mixed with statism and bad economics. After pointing out the peak and decline of whale oil production in the nineteenth century, Phillips argues that we are likely to move “toward an inflammatory worldwide shortage” of petroleum (11). To Phillips, it is obvious that government intervention is required to discourage oil use. Yet the transition from whale oil to petroleum occurred simply as a response to higher whale oil prices, which prompted people to search for alternatives. Phillips does realize that prices and advancing technology play a role (21), but he clearly has more confidence in central planners than in a price system.
Phillips is stuck in a New Deal–era “price stabilization” mode, in which government is thought necessary to straighten out the market’s fumbling. “Because a boom-or-bust commodity like oil required some regulation to minimize gluts and price collapses, a degree of government involvement was critical,” he asserts (35). Phillips fondly recalls Carter’s energy conservation measures (which included the fifty-five miles per hour federal speed limit) (55), advocates increases in the federal fuel economy requirements (55–56, 351), and wants the federal government to spend more on solar energy.
Although oil is important, Phillips allows it to overshadow other, more important, contributors to a nation’s prosperity. For example, he believes that U.S. command of oil resources “played a major role in the U.S. displacement of Britain” as a world power (12). Yet other nations with little or no oil resources have found success in the twentieth century. We might also look to Britain’s six expensive years of war, its widespread rejection of Christian ethics, and its radical postwar socialism and unionism as factors in its relative decline.
Phillips on American Industry and Debt
Much of the last third of the book demonstrates what many readers of this review already know—that the United States is sinking under a load of debt. Government and household debt have both risen to alarming levels. Phillips attributes much of this to “policy favoritism” benefiting the financial sector. Bemoaning the decline of the manufacturing sector, Phillips argues that the accompanying rise of the financial services industry is an indicator of national decline. He employs historical examples and a barrage of statistics, but when it comes to policy analysis, sound economics are absent. Again, he objects to a free market, insinuating that “unfettered financial capitalism” and deregulation are bad news (288). Resorting to a straw man argument, Phillips characterizes Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” as the “inerrant guidance of the market” (316).
American Theocracy is an attempt to show that the modern Republican party has become a three-legged stool of interest groups—conservative Christians, oil, and the financial sector. Perhaps he is right. But if Phillips intends to correct the GOP’s course, he is not pointing in the right direction.
1. Phillips, vii. Hereafter cited in text.
2. John V. Denson, ed., Reassessing the Presidency (Mises Institute, 2001), 473.