An American devil's brew of oil, debt and religious fanaticism

Review U.S. Politics


American Theocracy: The Peril And Politics Of Radical Religion, Oil, And Borrowed Money In The 21st Century

Kevin Phillips

Viking / 428 pages / $26.95

If you consider yourself a Southerner, a born-again Christian fundamentalist, an oilman, a hedge fund manager, or even simply the driver of an SUV, Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy should make you hopping mad, because in it he describes with fervid cogency just why he thinks you're part of what's wrong with the country today. As for the rest of us, well, we might come away even madder.

Phillips has written a denunciatory examination of what he believes to be the three big threats to American peace and prosperity: an unhealthy reliance on oil, a political landscape dominated by reason-impervious believers who make war on biology and geology, and the "financialization" of the economy, by which he means the horrifying profusion of debt and the financial institutions that feed off it. You might think that oil, political Christian fundamentalism and burgeoning debt have little to do with one another. But they all come together, in Phillips' view, in the White House of George W. Bush.

He doesn't exactly argue that these three lamentable factors feed off each other, and there come moments when you might find yourself in the middle of a pages-long essay on arcane debt instruments like CDOs or CDAs (don't ask - just be assured that they will leave you and everyone else impoverished in retirement) and suddenly you're wondering to yourself, "What again does this have to do with the fight over creationism?" No matter: Phillips isn't weaving an argument so much as dabbing a lot of colors on a big canvas, like an Impressionist painter. It's an overall effect he's after - and one that he largely achieves.

Phillips was once a political strategist for Richard M. Nixon, and the author of 1969's The Emerging Republican Majority. But disgust with the Bush family long ago turned him against his old GOP colleagues, and today he is horrified to see what has happened to the Republicans. Phillips makes a very interesting argument that the old North-South split in this country is far deeper and more ingrained than most people realize, and that one way of looking at American politics today is to say that the South managed the aftermath of its defeat in 1865 so well that it is now the dominant section of the country.

To Phillips, the "South" is defined by a culture and a way of thinking that expanded out of Dixie in the successive migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries. Citing all sorts of demographic surveys, he maps a present-day South that reaches north to somewhere just below Cleveland and stretches to the Cascades of Oregon. Portland was settled by New Englanders in the 19th century, he notes, and today is secular and Democratic. Eastern Oregon was settled by Southerners after the Civil War, and today is religious and Republican. The North, by his calculation, makes one small dip out of Pennsylvania, encompasses Baltimore and Central Maryland and reaches into the District of Columbia about as far as, oh, K Street.

Southerners, in Phillips' uncharitable view, believe that they are God's chosen people and that they can burn as much oil and bomb as many small countries as they want - and put it on the tab, please, because nothing bad ever happens to America. He draws parallels with previous failed empires - British, Dutch, Spanish - where people also foolishly believed in exceptionalism, and wonders why anyone can think that America will be any different.

England was propelled to the top of the world by the power of coal during the Industrial Revolution, superseded by an oil-driven America after the two world wars. Now the oil is running out. A botched war in the Middle East, rather than securing supplies, has instead put them at greater risk. Heedless, the U.S. continues to finance its consumption-obsessed way of life with money borrowed from thrifty foreigners. Some Christians believe that the end times are coming, so it doesn't matter. And which threat, of the three, is the most dire? Check out the title.

The good news, in Phillips' view, is that pernicious religious revivals don't usually last long, and they rarely survive national falls from grace (see what happened to the Church of England after it enthusiastically and martially supported the slaughter that we know as World War I). Cold comfort? I'm afraid so - when our oil pumps run dry, and our mortgages are foreclosed, it can't be any other kind.

Will Englund is the associate editor of The Sun's editorial page.

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