By Kevin Phillips
Sunday, April 2, 2006; B03
Now that the GOP has been transformed by the rise of the South, the
trauma of terrorism and George W. Bush's conviction that God wanted him
to be president, a deeper conclusion can be drawn: The Republican Party
has become the first religious party in U.S. history.
We have had small-scale theocracies in North America before -- in
Puritan New England and later in Mormon Utah. Today, a leading power
such as the United States approaches theocracy when it meets the
conditions currently on display: an elected leader who believes himself
to speak for the Almighty, a ruling political party that represents
religious true believers, the certainty of many Republican voters that
government should be guided by religion and, on top of it all, a White
House that adopts agendas seemingly animated by biblical worldviews.
Indeed, there is a potent change taking place in this country's domestic
and foreign policy, driven by religion's new political prowess and its
role in projecting military power in the Mideast.
The United States has organized much of its military posture since the
Sept. 11, 2001, attacks around the protection of oil fields, pipelines
and sea lanes. But U.S. preoccupation with the Middle East has another
dimension. In addition to its concerns with oil and terrorism, the White
House is courting end-times theologians and electorates for whom the
Holy Lands are a battleground of Christian destiny. Both pursuits -- oil
and biblical expectations -- require a dissimulation in Washington that
undercuts the U.S. tradition of commitment to the role of an informed
The political corollary -- fascinating but appalling -- is the recent
transformation of the Republican presidential coalition. Since the
election of 2000 and especially that of 2004, three pillars have become
central: the oil-national security complex, with its pervasive
interests; the religious right, with its doctrinal imperatives and
massive electorate; and the debt-driven financial sector, which extends
far beyond the old symbolism of Wall Street.
President Bush has promoted these alignments, interest groups and their
underpinning values. His family, over multiple generations, has been
linked to a politics that conjoined finance, national security and oil.
In recent decades, the Bushes have added close ties to evangelical and
fundamentalist power brokers of many persuasions.
Over a quarter-century of Bush presidencies and vice presidencies, the
Republican Party has slowly become the vehicle of all three interests --
a fusion of petroleum-defined national security; a crusading, simplistic
Christianity; and a reckless credit-feeding financial complex. The three
are increasingly allied in commitment to Republican politics. On the
most important front, I am beginning to think that the
Southern-dominated, biblically driven Washington GOP represents a rogue
coalition, like the Southern, proslavery politics that controlled
Washington until Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860.
I have a personal concern over what has become of the Republican
coalition. Forty years ago, I began a book, "The Emerging Republican
Majority," which I finished in 1967 and took to the 1968 Republican
presidential campaign, for which I became the chief political and
voting-patterns analyst. Published in 1969, while I was still in the
fledgling Nixon administration, the volume was identified by Newsweek as
the "political bible of the Nixon Era."
In that book I coined the term "Sun Belt" to describe the oil, military,
aerospace and retirement country stretching from Florida to California,
but debate concentrated on the argument -- since fulfilled and then some
-- that the South was on its way into the national Republican Party.
Four decades later, this framework has produced the alliance of oil,
fundamentalism and debt.
Some of that evolution was always implicit. If any region of the United
States had the potential to produce a high-powered, crusading
fundamentalism, it was Dixie. If any new alignment had the potential to
nurture a fusion of oil interests and the military-industrial complex,
it was the Sun Belt, which helped draw them into commercial and
political proximity and collaboration. Wall Street, of course, has long
been part of the GOP coalition. But members of the Downtown Association
and the Links Club were never enthusiastic about "Joe Sixpack" and
middle America, to say nothing of preachers such as Oral Roberts or the
Tupelo, Miss., Assemblies of God. The new cohabitation is an unnatural one.
While studying economic geography and history in Britain, I had been
intrigued by the Eurasian "heartland" theory of Sir Halford Mackinder, a
prominent geographer of the early 20th century. Control of that
heartland, Mackinder argued, would determine control of the world. In
North America, I thought, the coming together of a heartland -- across
fading Civil War lines -- would determine control of Washington.
This was the prelude to today's "red states." The American heartland,
from Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico to Ohio and the Appalachian coal
states, has become (along with the onetime Confederacy) an electoral
hydrocarbon coalition. It cherishes sport-utility vehicles and easy
carbon dioxide emissions policy, and applauds preemptive U.S. airstrikes
on uncooperative, terrorist-coddling Persian Gulf countries fortuitously
blessed with huge reserves of oil.
Because the United States is beginning to run out of its own oil
sources, a military solution to an energy crisis is hardly lunacy.
Neither Caesar nor Napoleon would have flinched. What Caesar and
Napoleon did not face, but less able American presidents do, is that
bungled overseas military embroilments could also boomerang
economically. The United States, some $4 trillion in hock
internationally, has become the world's leading debtor, increasingly
nagged by worry that some nations will sell dollars in their reserves
and switch their holdings to rival currencies. Washington prints bonds
and dollar-green IOUs, which European and Asian bankers accumulate until
for some reason they lose patience. This is the debt Achilles' heel,
which stands alongside the oil Achilles' heel.
Unfortunately, more danger lurks in the responsiveness of the new GOP
coalition to Christian evangelicals, fundamentalists and Pentecostals,
who muster some 40 percent of the party electorate. Many millions
believe that the Armageddon described in the Bible is coming soon. Chaos
in the explosive Middle East, far from being a threat, actually heralds
the second coming of Jesus Christ. Oil price spikes, murderous
hurricanes, deadly tsunamis and melting polar ice caps lend further
The potential interaction between the end-times electorate, inept
pursuit of Persian Gulf oil, Washington's multiple deceptions and the
financial crisis that could follow a substantial liquidation by foreign
holders of U.S. bonds is the stuff of nightmares. To watch U.S. voters
enable such policies -- the GOP coalition is unlikely to turn back -- is
depressing to someone who spent many years researching, watching and
cheering those grass roots.
Four decades ago, the new GOP coalition seemed certain to enjoy a major
infusion of conservative northern Catholics and southern Protestants.
This troubled me not at all. I agreed with the predominating Republican
argument at the time that "secular" liberals, by badly misjudging the
depth and importance of religion in the United States, had given
conservatives a powerful and legitimate electoral opportunity.
Since then, my appreciation of the intensity of religion in the United
States has deepened. When religion was trod upon in the 1960s and
thereafter by secular advocates determined to push Christianity out of
the public square, the move unleashed an evangelical, fundamentalist and
Pentecostal counterreformation, with strong theocratic pressures
becoming visible in the Republican national coalition and its leadership.
Besides providing critical support for invading Iraq -- widely
anathematized by preachers as a second Babylon -- the Republican
coalition has also seeded half a dozen controversies in the realm of
science. These include Bible-based disbelief in Darwinian theories of
evolution, dismissal of global warming, disagreement with geological
explanations of fossil-fuel depletion, religious rejection of global
population planning, derogation of women's rights and opposition to stem
cell research. This suggests that U.S. society and politics may again be
heading for a defining controversy such as the Scopes trial of 1925.
That embarrassment chastened fundamentalism for a generation, but the
outcome of the eventual 21st century test is hardly assured.
These developments have warped the Republican Party and its electoral
coalition, muted Democratic voices and become a gathering threat to
America's future. No leading world power in modern memory has become a
captive of the sort of biblical inerrancy that dismisses modern
knowledge and science. The last parallel was in the early 17th century,
when the papacy, with the agreement of inquisitional Spain, disciplined
the astronomer Galileo for saying that the sun, not the Earth, was the
center of our solar system.
Conservative true believers will scoff at such concerns. The United
States is a unique and chosen nation, they say; what did or did not
happen to Rome, imperial Spain, the Dutch Republic and Britain is
irrelevant. The catch here, alas, is that these nations also thought
they were unique and that God was on their side. The revelation that He
apparently was not added a further debilitating note to the late stages
of each national decline.
Over the last 25 years, I have warned frequently of these political,
economic and historical (but not religious) precedents. The
concentration of wealth that developed in the United States in the bull
market of 1982 to 2000 was also typical of the zeniths of previous world
economic powers as their elites pursued surfeit in Mediterranean villas
or in the country-house splendor of Edwardian England. In a nation's
early years, debt is a vital and creative collaborator in economic
expansion; in late stages, it becomes what Mr. Hyde was to Dr. Jekyll:
an increasingly dominant mood and facial distortion. The United States
of the early 21st century is well into this debt-driven climax, with
some analysts arguing -- all too plausibly -- that an unsustainable
credit bubble has replaced the stock bubble that burst in 2000.
Unfortunately, three of the preeminent weaknesses displayed in these
past declines have been religious excess, a declining energy and
industrial base, and debt often linked to foreign and military
overstretch. Politics in the United States -- and especially the
evolution of the governing Republican coalition -- deserves much of the
blame for the fatal convergence of these forces in America today.
/Kevin Phillips is the author of "American Theocracy: The Perils and
Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st
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