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American Theocracy: Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, Borrowed Money

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American Theocracy

American Theocracy

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The power and influence of America's Christian Right is an important story, but it's not the whole explanation for the political success of the Republican Party — nor is it the whole problem for America when the GOP is in power. There are other important factors at work and a thorough understanding of what's going wrong in America requires an ability to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. This requires more historical understanding than most Americans seem to have.

Summary

Title: American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21stCentury
Author: Kevin Phillips
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 067003486X

Pro:
•  Brings together lots of disparate information to reveal how they are connected
•  Explains complex history and economics in a way most readers can understand

Con:
•  None

Description:
•  Analysis of the connections between the Christian Right, the debt industry, and Big Oil
•  Argues that the Republican Party's success depends on an alliance of these three forces
•  Argues that the power of all three represent a serious threat to American liberty

 

Book Review

Fortunately, people don't all need to have degrees in history and economics because there are writers who are able to put the pieces together and present us with a case for what they think is going on. That's what Kevin Phillips has done in his book American Theocracy. Although the title gives the impression that he's simply providing another critique of Christian Nationalism and the Christian Right, the truth is that he's explaining how Christian Nationalism has combined with other forces within the Republican Party to create a serious danger to America's long-term future.

Phillips argues that there are three basic principles behind the coalition of interests which constitute the Republican Party: heavy reliance on oil as an energy force; radical and nationalistic Christianity; and a debt industry which keeps both individual Americans and the nation as a whole in debt to others. Any one of these alone could develop into a serious problem, but all three combined constitute a massive threat to American liberty, prosperity, and independence. One has to wonder about the sense and patriotism of anyone who doesn't oppose them and work to reduce any threat they might post.

When it comes to oil, Kevin Phillips explains how other nations of the past were able to build their greatness on their ability to use or monopolize particular energy resources: Britain and coal, the Dutch on whale oil, etc. Each nation seriously declined when that resource ran out and/or a better resource was found and exploited by someone else. America's exploitation of oils is thus the latest in a long line of historical developments and there is no reason to think that the same couldn't happen to us. If another nation is able to better exploit another energy resource as the supply of oil declines and/or the price sharply rises, America's economic prospects are poor at best.

The politics of oil are hard to underestimate. Phillips argues that much of America's foreign policy during the latter half of the 20th century has been driven largely by maintaining access to oil — and given it's importance to the American economy, it's hard to fault that. It's also no coincidence that the more oil a person uses, the more likely they are to support Republican politicians — the same politicians who support policies for maintaining access to cheap oil rather than a search for alternatives.

All of this is done on the basis of more and more debt. The "debt industry" is larger than most industries that actually produce anything of substance. Financial services institutions don't really add much to the nation's bottom line and do not offer any strong prospects for future prosperity. There are powerful interests which need Americans to stay in debt rather than actually save and invest.

Then we can add religion into the mix. Nearly half of Republican voters are conservative fundamentalists, evangelicals, and Pentecostals, many of whom have adjusted their theological beliefs to better accommodate the need to maintain access to oil — including, for example, narrow-minded support for Israel no matter what and belief that Armageddon is coming to the Middle East. They also fail to find any moral fault with the large amounts of consumer debt; because of their political coalition with the debt industry, there is no conservative movement to provide relief to the working-class families who owe more than they earn.

American Theocracy

American Theocracy

Fortunately, the political successes of the Christian Nationalists are few and far between. They are successful in providing popular support for the other two partners in the Republican coalition, but they in turn aren't able — or perhaps willing — to help push through a radical religious agenda. Abortion is still legal, if harder to obtain. Equality for gays continues to progress, even if slowly. Culture and politics continue to grow more secular or at least less Christian, despite rear-guard success on issues like the Pledge of Allegiance.

Unfortunately, the only thing stopping the Christian Nationalists from being more successful is themselves. They would have achieved more by now if it weren't for how they are so absolutist and uncompromising. If they were more willing to accept half-measures and small advances, they'd be well along to achieving their agenda. Absolutism is a major reason why they are so scary, but also why the worst hasn't happened. If only the other partners in the Republican coalition were as much of a threat to their own agenda as the Christian Right has been, then the overall threat they pose would be lower.

This is a good book for anyone interested in American religion or the Christian Right in particular. Most such books focus narrowly on the beliefs and goals of the Christian Right, but this one goes beyond that to look at how it connects with other movements behind the success of the Republican Party. Many books on this subject repeat a lot of what the others say, but this has enough unique information to be worth adding to your bookshelf.

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