Empire Falls


American Theocracy

The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century

Kevin Phillips

Viking, $26.95, 428 pp.
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Augustine composed The City of God sixteen centuries ago, but its scathing survey of Rome’s waning imperial culture still seems fresh, especially his central indictment of libido dominandi-the love of domination, that ugly and relentless desire for power that perverts and destroys all our blessings. Augustine’s picture of Rome captured a populace content “so long as it enjoys material prosperity and the glory of victorious war.” Lacking a common good because “anyone should be free to do as he likes with his own, or with others, if they consent,” the people sing a mercantile hymn of praise: “we should get richer all the time, to have enough for extravagant spending every day.” Rome’s leaders rely on the “docility of their subjects,” and with death as the highest sacrifice, encourage those subjects to divinize war as a hallowed furnace for forging and purging their souls.

Sound familiar? With a few tweaks here and there, The City of God could double as a prophecy of twenty-first-century democratic capitalist America. And indeed, American Theocracy, Kevin Phillips’s report on the state of the empire, portrays an impending imperial turbulence that anyone versed in Augustine will recognize. With a political economy inseparable from oil and delirious with debt, and a civil religion that increasingly fuses avarice and apocalypse, the America that emerges from Phillips’s pages is a colossus in denial, bestriding the earth in a mercurial craze of powerlust and enchantment.

Phillips ranks among our foremost practitioners of populist journalism. He has spent the last two decades charting the landscape of American plutocracy, denouncing the venality of politicians and the corporate rich in such books as The Politics of Rich and Poor, Boiling Point, Wealth and Democracy, and American Dynasty. It’s worth noting that these works represent, in Phillips’s outlook, a turnaround so total it would seem to approach a penance. Way back in 1968, working for Richard Nixon’s campaign, Phillips emerged as a chief architect of the Republican Party’s “Southern strategy” that linked working-class frustration, conservative religion, racial resentment, and Sunbelt capitalism in a dreadnaught electoral coalition. His landmark 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, codified that strategy into doctrine and established him as the Republicans’ leading electoral guru. Forty-plus years later, seemingly appalled at the Frankenstein monster he helped to create, Phillips now warns that the Republicans have become a band of nutballs, thieves, and theocrats.

As Phillips explains, the Republican coalition gathered over the 1970s on a three-legged platform: a resource base of plentiful and relatively inexpensive oil; an industrial manufacturing economy; and a traditionalist religious culture of evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics. Outraged by abortion, repulsed by gays, leery of feminists, and put off by liberals whom they considered secular and disdainful, this new popular Right grew in strength and vehemence over the next two decades. On the basis of such cultural issues, the largely working-class constituency joined an “unnatural cohabitation” with Southern and Western businessmen to elect Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, and the Republican Congresses that have leveraged Washington since 1994.

But now the platform has grown rickety. For one thing, oil is getting harder to find. Phillips provides a lucid narrative of U.S. oil dependence, showing how it has indelibly stained our culture, politics, and diplomacy. Since at least the 1920s, oil has been for Americans what the renowned adman Bruce Barton dubbed “the juice of the fountain of youth.” From 1945 to 1973, the United States was the world’s unrivaled oil gargantuan. Cheap gasoline, electricity, natural gas, and oil were the elixir of the American Way of Life, sustaining economic growth, social stability, and eventual cold-war victory.

Faced with the prospect of dwindling supplies (Phillips warns that even the most optimistic industry analysts expect world oil production to peak around 2030), Americans are feeling the first tremors of oil withdrawal. As the oil wells dry up, the United States-spurred by competition from industrializing nations like India and China-will be forced to rely on military intervention to protect its supply lines. Phillips demonstrates that the invasion of Iraq was indisputably a case of petro-imperialism. Relying on an enormous amount of evidence (including maps used by Vice President Dick Cheney’s National Energy Policy Task Force, released by court order), Phillips shows that U.S. officials have been quite candid about their need for a “liberated” Iraq to supply oil, provide military bases, and buttress the dollar. He predicts more such candor in the future, since despite periodic soul-searching about our oil “addiction,” middle-class Americans, bred into an incorrigible sense of entitlement to the world’s resources, show little or no interest in curbing their fuelish ways.

If oil is running out, money at least still flows freely; but for how much longer? American capitalism is awash in government, corporate, and household debt-the total of which, as of 2004, was three times the size of the Gross Domestic Product. Medicare, Social Security, a bloated military establishment, and profligate personal spending have boosted our indebtedness to “a Himalayan altitude” Phillips notes “generally associated with dizziness and nosebleeds.” The nosebleeds may become a steady hemorrhage in the next two decades. With real wages stagnant, more Americans now live on more borrowed money than ever, becoming in effect indentured servants to banks and credit-card companies. A jubilee erasure of debt would help in mitigating the crisis, but that would require challenging the libido dominandi of finance capital. So, as with the oil crisis, the alternative to painful but inevitable change is denial-at ever-higher rates of interest.

Denial is the other side of credulity, and Phillips locates the largest fund of both in evangelical Protestantism. The most fascinating chapters of American Theocracy trace the rise of a fiercely politicized evangelicalism, heaven-bent on reconstructing a globally dominant “Christian nation.” Heirs to the Puritan-Protestant “covenant theology” in which America is a nation charged by God with a special mission, Evangelicals, Phillips claims, aim to do more than criminalize abortion and ban gay marriage. Suspicious of all forms of critical intelligence, they push not only “intelligent design” but “faith-based” forms of everything, from social policy and foreign affairs to gynecological medicine. Indifferent to the separation of church and state, they call for the imposition of “biblical law.” They advocate a fiercely libertarian economics, an aggressive new Gospel of Wealth that combines the scrappy self-help of bootstrap capitalism with the consumer bravado to “name it and claim it.” Finally, since many are “premillennialists” who long to be “raptured” in the final days, they are unwavering advocates of military intervention in the Middle East, especially to protect Israel, whose creation, they believe, started the clock a-ticking toward the second coming of Christ. In this grisly eschatological wargame, dead Muslims become the collateral damage of redemption.

Phillips marshals convincing evidence that “Christian Reconstructionism” or “dominionism” has spread through the Southern Baptist Convention and many Presbyterian churches. Founders of the home-schooling movement, “Reconstructionists” advocate a patriarchal-capitalist regime of Old Testament law and unregulated business. And Reconstructionism isn’t the only grotesquerie in American evangelicalism. The vogue of “intelligent design” reflects a broader fundamentalist hostility to science which, Phillips maintains, has both lamed a collective response to climate change and crippled efforts to find alternative sources of energy.

Phillips sees little chance for escape from our harrowing descent into ignominy. Rather, like Hapsburg Spain or Edwardian England, petro-financial-fundamentalist America will sink into a slough of despond, mortgaged to Asian banks, bedazzled by end-times speculation, and narcotized by pabulum about hard work and uplift. In a dispirited conclusion, Phillips implies that the best we can hope for is probably a skillful management of demise. But what if decline turned out to be a blessing? Far too many American Christians conform to the current dogmas of venality, belligerence, and pride. Christians who really mean what they say about the redemptive power of weakness would welcome the ebbing of American strength as a genuine gift of Providence. Disabused of the delusion that the world can’t be saved without America’s money, computers, and gunships, a nation less selfish and arrogant would certainly be weaker, by the standards of the world, but it would also be a wiser homeland, freer to measure its common life by a saner calculus. And a Christianity relieved of civil-religious duty would be weaker but wiser as well.

As I finished American Theocracy, Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical had appeared. Its bold and radiant restatement of the good news serves as a powerful antidote to the meanness and paranoia of fundamentalist “prophecy.” “Love is possible,” Benedict reminds us, “and we are able to practice it because we are created in the image of God.” Love, the Holy Father informs us, is no elusive and impractical ideal, but the clearest and most powerful realism. When the arc of American power slopes downward, that’s a message American Christians will need to remember as we set out to achieve another country.

Published in the 2006-05-05 issue: 
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Eugene McCarraher is associate professor of humanities and history at Villanova University. He is completing The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.

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