The Long View: American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century

Peak Oil

Peak Oil

There was a minor panic over theocracy in the United States during the George W. Bush presidency. We'll get to Damon Linker's book on the subject soon, but he was far from the only one to perceive the national mood had shifted from the post-Cold War relaxation that characterized the late 1990s. 

John Reilly's point here was to remind his readers that the "City on a Hill" mode of politics is a perennial in America. It waxes and wanes, but it never leaves us. There has been an effort to retcon contemporary secularism into the Deism of the 18th century, but this attempt very much misses the point of a movement that would seem pretty conservative and religious by modern standards.

One point where I will object to John's critique of Kevin Phillips' book is this:

God’s Peculiar People of Dixie, however, have traditionally been inclined to isolationism, even xenophobia. The recent American attempts to recast the international system are distinctly unsouthern.

By my reading of history, most of the crackbrained exhortations to invade and annex Mexico and Canada in the antebellum era came from the South. The South provided lots of eager soldiers in the the wars of the twentieth century too. The real home of isolationism in the US, at least in the twentieth century, was the heavily German Midwest.

As for Peak Oil, it continues to be the case that God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.

American Theocracy:
The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century
By Kevin Phillips
Viking Penguin, 2006
462 Pages, US$26.95
ISBN 0-670-03486-X


Addressing the nominating convention of the Progressive Party in 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt told the audience, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!” John Kennedy, in his inaugural address 49 years later, expressed a similar sense of a transcendent dimension in American politics: “And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” And of course, in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson began with a statement of principles of natural law and political legitimacy that Thomas Aquinas would have approved. The fact is that Americans have always thought of their country as in some sense elect, even if only as an Awful Example. There has never been a time when theology and morality have not informed the rhetoric of American politics, and sometimes its substance.

With this in mind, we can appreciate the full novelty of the campaign over the past 40 years to laicize the operations of government and to extirpate religion from the common culture. The latest specimen of this endeavor is American Theocracy. The author is Kevin Phillips, a Republican political strategist who achieved fame in 1969 with the publication of The Emerging Republican Majority. That book correctly pointed out that the South was tending Republican, and predicted that the Republican Party would soon have a lock on the presidency and a good chance of taking control of Congress. In American Theocracy, however, Phillips admits that there are features of the Republican ascendancy that he had not anticipated. Indeed, he sometimes sounds like the horrified couple in “The Monkey’s Paw,” who use the last of three wishes to “put it back the way it was!”

The book uses a critique of political religion to tie together parallel critiques of US oil policy, particularly Bush family oil policy, and a set of alarming observations about the growth of public and private debt in America. The upshot is a prediction of national decline. The forecast differs from the similar predictions made in the late 1980s (by people like Paul Kennedy, for instance) chiefly in suggesting sudden and catastrophic decline. To make his macrohistorical points, the author employs lengthy and stunningly inapposite analogies from the histories of Habsburg Spain, the Dutch Republic, and Great Britain. With regard to the last, for instance, he argues that the evangelical revival in Victorian Britain was a symptom of national senescence that promoted irrationality and provoked an apocalyptic climax in the First World War. In fact, of course, religious revival of one sort or another inspired Victorian Britain’s greatest scientists (Faraday, and Darwin in mirror image), its art (the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, whose echoes continued through 20th-century Art Deco), and its remarkably successful social reforms (let’s just cite Gladstone). The interpretation that Phillips gives Victorian religion sets a high standard of historical obtuseness from which the book rarely retreats.

The author makes useful points when he discusses matters he knows something about. He notes that the accident of the Watergate Scandal, which forced Republican President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974, temporarily discredited Nixon’s party and delayed the Republican ascendancy that Phillips had predicted. However, during those years, there was also an offensive by the cultural left that included the constitutionalization of abortion rights, the campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (which would have made it illegal for governments to recognize any gender differences), and a drive to ban religious expression from all public institutions. The artificial Republican eclipse ensured that all these developments would be intimately associated with the Democratic Party. The Republican Party, in its revival, naturally attracted the opposition to them. The result was that the Republican Party became something new in American history: “an ecumenical religious party, claiming loyalties from hard-shell Baptists and Mormons, as well as Eastern Rite Catholics and Hasidic Jews. Secular liberalism had become the common enemy.”

This is interesting, though perhaps not incontrovertible. At various times in American history there have been important confessional differences between the parties, sometimes nationally and very often at the state level; and of course, as I write this, the Democratic Party is making mighty efforts to prevent its being branded the Party of Unbelief. However, even if we accept the thesis in the strong sense, the development it describes is not self-evidently objectionable. Most Western countries have some kind of “Christian Democratic Party,” after all. Phillips thinks otherwise, though, despite the fact he knows that political Christianity was not the first aggressor:

“In the 1960s and 1970s, to be sure, liberals grossly misread American and world history by trying to push religion out of the public square, so to speak. In doing so, they gave faith-based conservatism a legitimate basis for countermobilization. But in some ways the conservative countertrend has become a bigger danger since its acceleration in the aftermath of September 11.”

The danger is magnified, in his estimation, by the pervasiveness of petroleum economics and the nature of the Bush dynasty, which benefited from the larger cultural trend. America does not have just a petroleum economy, but a petroleum culture that is both inflexible and stultifying. The Bushes are its avatars:

“The war to expel Iraq from Kuwait was oil-related, undertaken in part to protect the American lifestyle, as President George H.W. Bush acknowledged. Once military power had secured Middle East oil supplies again, television news clips showed the forty-second president roaring along the Maine coast at the wheel of his rakish, high-speed cigarette boat, Fidelity. The broader symbolism leaped out: guilt complexes and hair shirts were gone, and with a Texas Republican at the helm the United States was back practicing gunboat diplomacy and taking what it wanted.”

Kuwait had, of course, been annexed by the Baathist regime in Iraq for the unforgivable offense of lending Iraq more money than the government there was inclined to repay; the characterization of the liberation of Kuwait as “gunboat diplomacy” is what leaps out from that paragraph.

We will not dwell here on the book’s account of the “Peak Oil” scenarios, or on the long, very long, history of the oil business. What struck this reviewer far more was the self-refuting nature of the author’s explanation of the Iraq War of 2003. Phillips does not argue that the war was merely “oil related”: he says the Bush Administration was in cahoots with the major Anglo-American oil producers to seize and privatize Iraq reserves in a short-term scheme to release a flood of oil onto the world market. Most of his sources for this hypothesis date from the run-up to the war. Even when they were new, some people might have been inclined to dismiss them as mere polemics. They look especially fishy in retrospect, since neither the Bush Administration nor the oil companies have seemed much interested in exploiting Iraqi oil. Phillips characterizes the lack of a post-invasion oil boom as another Administration failure. That might be plausible, if the Administration had actually attempted what Phillips says it failed to do.

Phillips may well be right when he says that popular interest among Americans in the Middle East stems in large part from the Bible. For several centuries, a sympathetic predisposition toward Zionism has not been unusual among people familiar with the Old Testament. However, Phillips focuses on people with a keen interest in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, particularly as these are redacted through the eschatology of premillennial dispensationalism. Again, these views are widely and strongly enough held to have some electoral weight, but nowhere do we get an explanation of exactly how. The author repeatedly cites Tim LaHaye and Phillip Jenkins’ Left Behind series as an incitement to a crusading and interventionist policy, but the fact is that the series itself contemplates no such thing. Neither does any other apocalyptic novel of which I am aware. Almost without exception, these books foresee a time in the near future (rather like Phillips himself, oddly enough) when the United States is in decline. The Antichrist conquers or deludes America. One could argue that this eschatology maintains a baselevel of popular American support for Israel, but American crusades just are not part of the scenario.

In The Emerging Republican Majority, Phillips predicted a “southernization” of the United States as electoral heft and economic growth flowed to the South. What surprised him later, he says, was the amplification to national dimensions of the southern versions of patriotism and religion. The United States as a whole has some sense of national election, but the South is a special case because of the Civil War. That war, and the Reconstruction period that followed, created the South. This new subnationality, according to Phillips, joined a very small class of political cultures:

“The reason for spotlighting history’s relative handful of covenanting cultures is the biblical attitudes their people invariably share: religious intensity, insecure history, and willingness to sign up with an Old Testament god of war for protection. To use a modern-day analogy, they are proud, driven people, not ones who would find it easy to get risk insurance. Besides comparing the Boer, Ulster, and Hebrew covenanting mentalities [historian David] Akenson finds other parallels in their shared Old Testament moralities of tribal purity and sacred territoriality. The reasons for the elaboration in these pages have less to do with Ulster and South Africa and more to do with the United States and particularly the South. Israelis and, to an extent, Scripture-reading Americans are on their way to being the people of the covenant.”

To the extent that this is true, it contradicts Phillips’ thesis that the Bluish Administration has harnessed apocalyptic mania for the purpose of conducting crusades. There is a crusading streak in the old elites of the northeast, though it owes less to the Puritan tradition than to Immanuel Kant’s Democratic Peace: that is in fact the logic that chiefly underlies the Bush Administration's foreign policy. God’s Peculiar People of Dixie, however, have traditionally been inclined to isolationism, even xenophobia. The recent American attempts to recast the international system are distinctly unsouthern.

Phillips thesis about the southernization of American religion, and particularly the new importance of the churches associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, simply does not hold water:

“By the late 1980s, after ten years of conservative appointments had remade the bureaucracy, the eighteen-million-member Church of the Southern Cultural memory was on its way to becoming a newly fledged Church of Biblical Inerrancy and Biblical Ascendancy—an extraordinary metamorphosis full of national and even global implications.”

As an example of this importance, we are reminded that in 1996 the President of the United States, the Vice President, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives were all Southern Baptists. But surely the inference is not that the Baptist denomination is hegemonic, but that it is irrelevant. Any denomination that can include Vice President Gore and Senator Strom Thurmond must be a tent as wide as the sky.

Phillips is aware that the premillennialism of many evangelicals militates against casting any social project in theological terms. Historically, the great reform movements of the modern English-speaking world were underpinned by postmillennialism, which holds that the Second Coming will not occur until after Christians have perfected the world in history. In America, postmillennialism has to a large degree melted into the principle of progress. However, there are some theological postmillennialists still. Phillips duly reminds us that some of these are genuine theocrats, with plans for a Christianized world that bears comparison with the Islamist project for a universal caliphate.

Views of this kind are variously called Reconstructionism, Dominion Theology, or theonomy. The problem is that the people who espouse these things are awfully thin on the ground. We are reminded again of the work of the late Armenian-American-Presbyterian R.J. Rushdoony, of his son-in-law Gary North, of the fact that one of George Bush’s favorite social critics, Marvin Olasky, sometimes quotes theonomist writers with approval. As Phillips himself notes, this is all a matter of “ties” and “influence” that are “difficult to measure.” He acknowledges that his description of the shadowy kingdom of Reconstructionism is reminiscent of conservative journals 50 years ago and their exposés of the great Communist conspiracy, but he also points out that the opening of Soviet files after the Cold War proved that many of these conspiratorial ties were perfectly real. That’s a good point. However, the Communist conspiracy was a menace not because of its own aims and powers, but because it existed to support the Fatherland of Socialism that was the Soviet Union. If ever there is a foreign Fatherland of Theonomy, then we should worry.

Then there is Phillip’s treatment of theologically informed social doctrine and its public reception:

“The belief that society can be seriously reformed only by saving souls, not by embracing government welfare or manipulation, has become a tenet of evangelical religion, not just a mere ‘value.’ Values are what society holds; what churches hold is theology and belief.”

How churches and societies, or values and beliefs, could ever be hermetically sealed off from each other is a mystery too great for human understanding. Be that as it may, we should note that the friendlier social-policy reception accorded religion in recent years results from the wide acceptance of the hypothesis that culture counts. The welfare reforms of the 1990s and the successful implementation of the “broken windows” strategy of policing have confirmed this hypothesis about as securely as any sociological hypothesis has ever been confirmed. Similarly with “abstinence education,” which the author repeatedly cites as an example of theocratic obscurantism. In fact, it has empirical support. Studies in the US show that it is helpful, but not a panacea, in preventing teen pregnancy. Similarly, the US promotion of abstinence-based AIDS prevention in Africa is based on the moderately successful AIDS-prevention program developed by Uganda. The author repeats the complaint of international AIDS bureaucrats to the effect that they are not in the business of promoting morality. Surely these are the last people in the world not to get the memo explaining that morality has survival value.

The author alludes to a supposed anti-scientific-bias of religion, and its deleterious effects on public policy:

“The evidence that natural-resource issues are taking on theological as well as political overtones is mounting. As we will see, theology is creeping into ever more nooks and crannies of the national debate. Although the exact portion of the GOP electorate taking an end-times view is unknowable, polls suggest that close to a majority of those who voted for Bush believe the Bible to be literally true.”

We don’t get any actual examples of how evangelicals or pentecostals are undermining the practice of geology, except a report that a visitor-center bookshop at the Grand Canyon sells a book promoting a Young Earth dating of the canyon. The important point about religion and environmental issues, however, is that almost all the mystification has come from the cultural left, by way of the New Age Movement. Public skepticism on these matters has less to due with the Scofield Bible than with the unending parade of food phobias and other alarms that the environmental movement has been promoting for the past 35 years. Most Christians of all descriptions persist in regarding environmental issues as prudential questions, even when their leaders urge them to theologically based “stewardship.”

The author notes correctly that there is quite a lot of junk-science in government circles these days, much of it religiously motivated. He recites the litany of alleged Bush dogmas that includes neglect of global warming, opposition to embryonic stem-cell research, and support for Intelligent Design. These accusations have varying levels of justice. However, we should note particularly the canonization of embryonic stem-cell research as the model of cutting-edge science. This could be a tactical mistake for ideological secularists: the opposition to the research is indeed metaphysical, but there are empirical grounds to suspect the whole approach, already badly tainted by fraud, will turn out to be a dead end. In any case, nothing the Bush Administration has proposed is likely to do as much damage to education as the “self-esteem” campaign of the 1990s.

Evangelicals, to take one loosely defined confessional category, tend to be slightly richer and somewhat better educated than the population as a whole. Their professional degrees are likely to be in engineering and other science-related specialties. The postmodern humanities, in contrast, are not just antireligious but profoundly antiscientific. Skepticism and reason in the early 21st century have become alternatives.

At least for this reviewer, the most disappointing part of this book was its treatment of American debt. The Bush Administration’s fiscal policies makes even its supporters foam at the mouth. Bizarrely, however, Phillips has relatively little to say about the federal budget. Rather, he collects 30 years of warnings about finance bubbles and stock market instabilities without quite taking in the fact that they warn against bubbles that have long since burst and instabilities that stabilized a generation ago. These warnings serve as a backdrop for a critique of the deindustrialization of America. Despite a blizzard of statistics, however, one would never learn from this account that the US industrial sector grew by a third between 1990 and 2005. The finance and service sectors grew by much more, maybe too much more, but then the relative growth of services is characteristic of all advanced economies. This book praises the Japanese and German industrial policies. I don’t think any American has done that since the early Clinton Administration.

No doubt the world really is heading for a period of turbulence as the era of petroleum fuel draws to a close. There are elements of the national financial system that are under-regulated and even abusive. For that matter, the alliance between God and Mammon that we see in the Republican Party really is unstable and will probably prove ephemeral. Does any of this unfit the United States to maneuver through the 21st century? Not at all.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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