Blogs > Cliopatria > Gil Troy: Review of Kevin Phillips's American Theocracy

May 3, 2006 11:23 pm

Gil Troy: Review of Kevin Phillips's American Theocracy

[Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.]

Something about George W. Bush drives opponents bananas. Especially many of America's "best and brightest" are reduced to sputtering madmen -- and women -- when discussing the president. This Bushophobia has produced dozens of hysterical jeremiads convincing to those already convinced Bush is a disaster but alienating to many, more neutral, Americans. Kevin Phillips' sad metamorphosis from visionary political analyst to dyspeptic partisan polemicist demonstrates just how self-defeating this blind hatred can be.

Four decades ago, the 29-year-old Phillips' prescient book "The Emerging Republican Majority" marked a remarkable public debut. Part analysis, part blueprint, the 1969 book charted Republicans' course in wooing the once solidly Democratic South, resulting in the Reagan Revolution. Twenty-one years later, with "The Politics of Rich and Poor," Phillips demonstrated a refreshing political independence and intellectual creativity that working in Washington usually destroys. In this iconoclastic analysis of the 1980s, and other books, Phillips revealed that, neither Republican nor Democrat, he was a populist, lambasting America's growing concentration of wealth.

Alas, George W. Bush, as a subject, has defeated this formidable thinker -- along with many others. Following and partially recycling his withering 2004 family history, "American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush," Phillips now claims the Bush pathology threatens all of America.

Bush does not dominate Phillips' new book, "American Theocracy." The president is more a nightmarish apparition haunting a work that claims that Bush's persona and policies epitomize and intensify the "three major perils" to the nation's survival: the religious right, ballooning debt and oil addiction.

Phillips roots his contemporary political analysis in an historical analysis of fallen empires. Yet his Bush-inspired hysteria consistently undermines his scholarly erudition.

The opening section "Oil and American Supremacy" discusses "fuel and national power." Phillips argues that America's thirst for oil distorted its foreign policy, making America unduly vulnerable to foreign suppliers, just as the Dutch trading empire of the 1590s to 1720s was, and the British empire of 1760 to 1914 proved to be.

The second section, "Too Many Preachers," simultaneously mourns radicalized evangelicals' rising influence and America's "Southernization." Here, he claims that modern America is plagued by the toxic combination of fear, cultural decay, "growing religious fervor," trusting faith over reason and hubris that led to the collapse of the Dutch, British, Roman, Spanish and Hapsburg empires.

Finally, the section on ""Borrowed Prosperity" warns that America's financial bubble is about to burst -- as others' have.

Unfortunately, Phillips' important warnings are lost amid an attack which is so undisciplined, frantic, excessive and amoral in its false comparisons as to lose credibility. For starters, the title, "American Theocracy," is simply stupid -- a word I have never before used in two decades of reviewing. Suggesting that modern America with its secular democratic political, economic and entertainment systems, its array of constitutionally protected freedoms, is in any way a theocracy reveals a stark ignorance of the term. Using it reinforces Phillips' false, malicious comparisons with the Taliban, the Iranian Khomeineists, Osama Bin Laden and other disreputable Islamicist jihadists, foolishly blurring together "Islamic, Christian, and Jewish fundamentalism."

When assessing the role of religion, particularly the evangelicals, Phillips simply gets unhinged. Linking "radical religion" with "oil and borrowed money" in his apocalyptic trinity makes his argument more readable and sellable. Most Americans prefer screaming about Pat Robertson's latest outrage or Terry Schiavo's right to die than thinking about oil depletion allowances and the prime rate.

But Phillips' analytical barometer seems broken as he jumps to more extreme -- and damning -- conclusions than his evidence, or realities, allow. True, historians have underestimated the role of religion in America, but that does not mean that either the American Revolution or the Civil War was "in many ways a religious war." True, Southerners enjoy growing national influence today, but to imply that somehow the South ultimately won the Civil War is the kind of characteristic rhetorical overkill that substitutes hysterical punch lines for historical truths.

And true, evangelicals exercise growing influence in the Republican party, but that does not prove that "a national Disenlightenment" has occurred or make America "the world's leading Bible-reading crusader state, immersed in an Old Testament of stern prophets and bloody Middle Eastern battlefields." Moreover, describing post 9/11 American policy as "seizing the fundamentalist moment" is crudely reductionist, disrespecting the thousands of innocent victims murdered that day in an unprovoked attack by the only lethal fundamentalists posing a major threat to the world today.

For good measure, and to feed his false, amoral comparison between Western entities such as the United States with its Islamicist enemies, Phillips occasionally clumps America with another evangelical favorite and, thus to Phillips, another foe, Israel. "The excesses of fundamentalism, in turn, are American and Israeli, as well as the all-too-obvious depredations of radical Islam," Phillips claims in his preface. Revealingly, amid hundreds of footnotes, the only citation even referring to Israel mentions an Israeli newspaper article about American Jewish voting. Nowhere does Phillips document his allegations against Israel or show upon what they are based, beyond echoing many intellectuals' prejudice against the Jewish state. This impression is reinforced by the claim that "Orthodox Jewish females cannot even study the Torah," an absurd assertion so incorrect and nasty as to impeach the author's integrity along with his credibility.

The sections on "Western fuelishness" and America's financial house of cards are more convincing. It is inexcusable that we remain mired in the same debates from the 1970s' oil crisis and that our scientific wizards have not invented synthetic alternatives to foreign oil. And it is unnerving that America has shifted from a nation that produced products on a grand scale, exported real goods worldwide and tried to balance a budget to a country filled with financial acrobats who juggle numbers all day, feed a growing trade deficit and ignore a national debt that seems destined to doom our spoiled lifestyles. Still, even in these more data-driven sections, Phillips overstates.

Alleging Richard Nixon was in the oil companies' grip because "Nixon had an oil-state childhood himself" makes as much sense as labeling all New Yorkers Wall Street brigands or all North Carolinians tobacco-addicted smokers. Phillips is too much the deterministic Chicken Little historian, convinced the sky is falling because other empires collapsed. It is one thing to point out that "Natural resources, religious excess, wars and burgeoning debt levels have been prominent causes of the downfall of the previous leading world economic powers." But history is not a crystal ball. Remembering how different empires fell will not guarantee America's demise.

America needs some wake up calls. We need an intelligent, critical conversation about how we devour resources, where our economy is heading, how much longer we can sustain gargantuan trade and budget deficits -- even when the supposedly fiscally responsible party rules. We also need an intelligent, critical conversation about religion's role in politics, America's broader values crisis and how politics have turned so ugly. As President Bush's administration winds down, perhaps the grip of Bushophobia will loosen and analysts like Kevin Phillips will be able to produce the prescient, incisive and balanced commentaries they once did. Until then, alas, the long awaited national consciousness-raising will be delayed by the ever more vicious partisan shouting matches.

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Tim Matthewson - 8/21/2007

Mr. Troy claims that Phillips honestly thinks that America is a theocracy. He makes that claim, but in doing so, he makes one wonder whether he has read the book. I doubt it. His language is so extreme that I it makes me wonder whether his conclusions are amenable to the facts.
Mr. Hamby has a related problem. He writes that Troy's review of Phillips ". . . is a good, honest piece of work." No Mr. Hamby, it is not. It is neither good nor honest and your claim to the contrary makes me wonder about your work and integrity.

Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/25/2006

Phillips book misses the mark badly. There is no theocracy in the US past, present or future. It is all a ruse to garner/secure votes and take money from dupes. GW Bush is no more religious or set in the convictions/teachings of the true Christ than a traveling elixir salesman. It's pure showmanship for the ignorant crackers who comprise the base. This act plays in Peoria where 40% sample cannot identify the USA on a globe. GW Bush is a master at speaking in simplistic/repeated/garbled sentences sprinkled with sacrilegious intonations that stun/mesmerize morons.

The Bush's, Frist's, DeLay's, Falwell's, Robertson's, Dobson's are rolling in money/ power and want more. They enrich their select few friends and feint mock conviction/concern to the base only when convenient. If this were not so why don't any of these sons-of-god live a life of poverty as prescribed by Christ. What a charade. Call out to a Christ who saved one from alcohol/cocaine addiction then murder hundreds of poor saps in record numbers in the US death penalty prison machine or by the 10's of thousand in some brown skinned godless Arab sand country. Boohoo Carla Faye Tucker whimpers the giggler for Christ. Bang-bang Abdul it's God's command because he told me to do it and I did. As the Jesus dollars keep pouring in... pass the collection plate and praise the Lord.

Phillip's does get it right in that the US is an oil glutton, that our wars of conquest are based solely on securing/controlling oil & petrodollars and that there will be a major paradigm shift within our country as this resources availability/access/cost dynamic morphs/changes/tightens.

As for Theocracy gambit it is the flavor of the month until something better comes along to woo the simpleminded.

Darren Michael Peterson - 5/16/2006

I would say that it does have to do with the money and more importantly, the power attained through the money.

Why do people end up being besides themselves when it comes to the President? Maybe it is because it is so outrageous that it boggles the mind and the flood beings and you don't know where to begin?

Have you seen the clip from "Thank You for Not Smoking?" where the tobacco person says that smoking has been shown to cure a disease? William H. Macy's reaction is the perfect example of someone being asked what they have against this President!

Bushphobia? Talk about minimizing the position of a person. That is like "whining". It reduces it to either a pathological problem or a matter of petulance.

Until we address the CONSUMPTION of our natural resources we cannot have a serious discussion of an intelligent conversation. Somehow people have equated conservation with being un-American (I wonder where that came from?) or extremist environmentalism.

This President's credibility to motivate or persuade America, little lone the other nations, is shot. All we can hope for is that the damage does not increase too much.

We need a President that can direct his message to the person. Intellectually. Not someone who talks at the people, like they are idiots. Then plays to their fears and emotions. Again, this President cannot do that.

Paul Mocker - 5/12/2006

So it seems that liberals and "true" conservatives are uniting under the principle that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend".

John Chapman - 5/11/2006

"...he'll return to the Republican party once Bush and his evangelical friends are out of the White House."

so may I

John Chapman - 5/9/2006

You are right. Religion (Christianity in this case) is just as inseparable from politics as is the written Torah from the Jewish religion, or Israel’s inseparable relationship with the United States. It’s also an inseparable thing if one is not religious or has a spirituality that influences a lifestyle. If America were to become a theocracy would you be happy with that? At this point no one knows exactly what kind of theocracy America could end up with. Would it include all religions? Judaism still awaits the original Messiah. Tricky. What would happen to secularists? How would it affect civil rights? And so on.

Maura Doherty - 5/9/2006

It might be what he "honestly" feels (which is different from revealing any "truth"), but it is not academic or intellectual. Few professor would be able to grade this above a B- since it really does not give us a synposis and lacks any balanced critique.

Rob Willis - 5/8/2006

What always amazes me about these conversations are the peculiar presuppositions of the pundits. How, may I ask, can a person with a real faith (versus "religion",) NOT allow their faith to influence their public policy, if to their core it is an inseperable part of who they are? Is it possible? How, then, can "religion" not play a role in a religious nation?

John Chapman - 5/8/2006

Troy’s review only shows that national Disenlightenment has also occurred in academia. Although Phillip’s book is about America’s dependency on oil, its "debt and credit-industrial complex" it emphasizes the "theocratic direction" American has taken but (Troy calls the title ‘stupid", an unusual scholarly term, but maybe he’s forgotten that in titling the process "locates" the work - or maybe it wasn’t even the author’s final choice.) Having read the book, I found it hardly the "sputtering" argument of a madman. Even if Phillips makes an overstatement about America’s theocratic direction, he also admits fundamentalists have not yet been successful in changing the laws and his point is well made in the book that religion plays a significant role in national politics when it should not (Rawlings is making the point with his "Intelligent Design and the Place of Religiously-based Ideas in American Politics" on this week’s line-up on HNN.

Alinda Lord - 5/8/2006

I agree with Tim. Troy spends so much energy in his rabid response to the book, I can't hear him (just as he claims Phillips' is doing).

I also wonder at Troy's statement, "Alas, George W. Bush, as a subject, has defeated this formidable thinker -- along with many others." If that many 'formidable thinkers' have found it necessary to speak against this president (cough, cough), doesn't it rather prove Phillips' point?

Paul Mocker - 5/8/2006

Over 35 Million copies of the "Left Behind" series have been sold as of September 2002. (

"with sales of more than 55 million copies, comprise the fastest-selling adult fiction series ever."

These facts help make the case that "a national Disenlightenment" has occurred and were cited by Phillips in a lecture he recently gave in Seattle a couple months ago.

I am surprised that the reviewer has accused Phillips of a lack of balance. Although he is a registered Independent, many of us in the audience that night sensed that he'll return to the Republican party once Bush and his evangelical friends are out of the White House.

Alonzo Hamby - 5/8/2006

Book reviewers should say what they think.
Troy gives us a good idea of what the book says--and says what he thinks about it.
This is a good, honest piece of work.

Tim Matthewson - 5/8/2006

A good way to review a book is to first provide a summary of the book. The author's conclusions may well be correct, but I am not at all certain that the author is correct because I don't know what the book is about. As is the author's review has failed because it degenerated into name calling.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/4/2006

"We liked him when he was saying nice things about us, but now that he's critical, he's a raving loony, as is anyone who agrees with him."

Just because someone is enraged, even hysterical, doesn't mean they're wrong: it might be just the right response to certain stimuli.

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