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

Review of American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, by Kevin Phillips New York: Viking, 2006

In late 1969 the Nixon administration envisioned itself at a crossroads of national proportions. Having won the 1968 election in the wake of several social upheavals – both at home and abroad – President Nixon reflected to a group of advisers that the "real problem in [the] country" was not the burgeoning youth movement, but "rather [the] leadership class, the ministers…the college professors and other teachers, the business leadership class."1 By abdicating their social responsibilities, Nixon felt these middle class professionals were tacitly responsible for the crises that reverberated through the United States in the late 1960s.

Although Kevin Phillips was not in the Oval Office to hear this particular lament, he played an instrumental role in presenting Nixon's vision to the American public and outlining the parameters of the modern Republican Party. Serving as a senior Republican strategist in 1968 and later publishing The Emerging Republican Majority (1969), Phillips has been hailed over the years as the prophetic analyst who not only repositioned the Republican Party to capitalize on the seismic shifts occurring in the American electorate, but also the person who invented the "Sun Belt" and named the New Right. While political prophets have been a dime a dozen in American history, few have actually garnered a record of accuracy. Kevin Phillips is an exception.

American Theocracy (2006) represents the author's treatise against the political order he helped inspire. Like Nixon in late 1969, the author has become immensely disillusioned with America's leadership class and the current state of politics in the American Republic. Having become a strong critique of the Bush dynasty in recent years, Phillips' last three books have offered a series of interlocking criticisms about trends within the Republican Party. American Theocracy, in many ways, synthesizes his previous arguments into a cogent whole and blends historical analysis with political polemic.

In a word, Phillips believes that a "perfect storm" is on the horizon. In his mind, this coming maelstrom is linked with the burgeoning union between oil politics, grassroots fundamentalism, and the financialization of the national economy. His book is broken into three sections that systematically analyze the historic roots of these trends, how the current Bush administration has capitalized on them, and how events will likely unfold in the next several decades.

His prognosis is not encouraging. The author argues, in short, that the American South has successfully repositioned itself at the cultural forefront of U.S. society at the very moment when the country is facing a series of entrenched energy, geopolitical, and financial crises. Rather than having responsible and rational leaders to guide the United States through this difficult period, the American electorate has empowered a group of people indebted to religious fundamentalism and the oil-national security complex.

The first part of American Theocracy, along these lines, looks at the connections between American global hegemony and oil. According to Phillips, economic power has been historically derived from the ability of different nation-states to exploit single energy resources. Prefacing his argument with an overview of how whale oil shaped the fate of the Dutch Empire in the 1600s, the author charts the birth of oil geopolitics in the twentieth century and how American corporations replaced British imperialists in oil rich regions like the Middle East. America's unprecedented access to foreign oil reserves essentially fueled American affluence after World War II by strengthening the country's infrastructures and facilitating the rise of the automobile industry.

The problem with oil, however, is that it is a nonrenewable resource. With this in mind, Phillips castigates the Republican Party for not confronting this inevitable dilemma with long-term planning and allowing itself to become constrained by an "unholy" alliance with powerbrokers from the Texas oil industry. Placing precedence on the similarities between the United States and past single energy resource hegemons, the author concludes unflinchingly that the recent Iraq War was tied with America's increasingly obvious oil dependency.

The second part of American Theocracy places these events against the backdrop of the rise of fundamental Christianity in the United States. Positioning sect-driven religion as the irrational and anti-modern alternative to mainstream Christianity, the author looks at how radical religiosity gained traction in the wake of the 1960s. Drawing its strength from Southern Baptist preachers like Billy Graham, this emotional ideology spread rapidly through suburbia in the 1970s, promoted a literal interpretation of the Bible, and became politically active over cultural issues like abortion, sexuality, and feminism.

According to Phillips, as fundamentalism gained a wider audience it played a more vocal role in shaping the parameters of public discourse. Denouncing this trend, the author hearkens upon the historical examples of Spain and Britain to illustrate the connection between national decline and social polarization over cultural issues. In both examples, religious groups capitalized on social discord and presented dangerously simplistic explanations of international relations. Positing that the Republican Party facilitated the "Southernization" of American politics for selfish reasons, Phillips argues that a group of "Christian Reconstructions" are now similarly bent on redefining the boundaries between the church and state and redressing American social problems through Biblical literalism.

The final third of American Theocracy exposes why this development is so problematic. The central dilemma in American society, in Phillips' mind, is not the moral ramifications of sexual norms or abortion practices, but the burgeoning financialization of the national economy. Placing precedence on the decline of the American manufacturing sector and the expansion of national debt, the author argues that the United States is rapidly spiraling toward economic ruin.

Although the technology-led stock-market boom and the credit-industrial complex masked the depth of this problem during the late 1990s, the debt being accrued by the Iraq War and the dilemma of the real-estate bubble will soon expose the bankruptcy of America's economic practices. Again relying on precedents from Dutch and British history, Phillips asserts that hegemons have historically been unable to maintain their global dominance when their economies no longer produce wealth. The tendency for Dutch citizens to use credit methods to maintain affluent lifestyles, for instance, is presented by the author as an indicator of their looming economic decline. Caught in a web of mass consumption, household debt, and falling personal wages, America's willingness to outsource or automate its manufacturing core has placed the country in a similarly precarious situation. Rejecting the idea that the U.S. economy can survive with only a financial sector, Phillips concludes his book with speculations about America's geopolitical decline and the legacy of Republican leadership.

American Theocracy reads like an impressionist painting. As one thumbs through each individual page, it is easy to be consumed by the author's historical reductionism and conspiratorial assertions. For a trained historian, Phillips' tendency to portray Asia in terms of Otherness can be off-putting, his clear antipathy toward religious "irrationalism" is thinly veiled, and his explanation of economic theory is profoundly muddled. Nonetheless, when one steps back from the book it becomes abundantly obvious that the author has accomplished something important. By gracefully identifying the interrelationship between three broad trends in American society, Phillips has demonstrated (better than any pundit to date) why the United States should envision itself at a turning point in the twenty-first century. Divided by categories of "Left" and "Right" that reflect the political battles of a bygone era, America's leaders are woefully unprepared for the tangible economic and environmental realities of the post-Cold War world. Although our nation has existed in perpetual prosperity for over half a century, its wealth remains derived from an international system and set of natural resources that are in decline. Change is coming. And according to Kevin Phillips, the party he helped recreate in the 1970s is no longer fit for leadership.

1 H.R. Haldeman, Haldeman Diaries (New York: G.P. Putnams, 1994) 411.