American Theocracy – A Book Review

American Theocracy, written by Kevin Phillips, is an elaborate historical perspective of American culture and economy. Phillips, with his decadent choice of language, carries his readers through the pinnacles of the former Dutch and British Empire and their subsequent decline with an eerie parallel of the “Oil Empire” of the United States and Phillips’ predicted decline of US Hegemony. Despite being broken into many chapters, the American Theocracy can be read in three parts, the first being the United States’ petroleum driven empire, then Phillips’ sharp critique of the embedded Evangelical and devout Christian roots, and the last being the increasing debt culture that has been created within America’s democratic republic.

The first section of the book provides dense history for the reader. Phillips use of dry humor and eloquent language pulls the reader into his narrative of the United States’ oil dependency. Echoing the rise and the fall of the Dutch and British, Phillips foresees the same collapse of the US oil imperialism via its unsustainable output and overreach. He begins the section highlighting the embedded emphasis on Oil in the United State culture. Phillips humorously points out the “drive-thru” culture of dining and the dozens of fuel museums that have “popped up” across the country’s interstate system. Next, the Phillips engages the reader in an awakening dialogue of how oil executives gained control over America’s political system. The election of President Nixon was the launch of the America’s new oil dynasty, culminating with Texas’ Bush’s “Texas- God fearing, nationalist, and oil rich – was the gleaming clip on the three of the GOP’s principle ideological suspenders: the Sun Belt, the Petroleum Belt, and the Bible Belt” (42).  Lastly, Phillips highlights the progressive intertwinement of US politics, the Middle East, and politicians that emerged from oil money. Using the Bush’s political reign in the 1990’s and early 21st century as the epitome of US dependency, Phillips particularly focuses on the Bush and Cheney’s invasion of Iraq as the culmination of greed and fear (not of war, of oil shortages) and the impending crash of the oil market predicted in the early twenty-first century. In his historical perspective, geologists, financial executives, climatologists, even evangelicals were predicting the end of the US oil authority. Phillips writes that the invasion of Iraq was a last-ditch effort to prolong US “overreach” of the global market and attempt to secure the dollar as the supreme currency.

Kevin Phillips then transitions into the second component of his book – radical Christianity. Equally as embedded in America’s history, Phillips notes that the religiosity of Americans infects national politics and policy. Phillips questions whether the entrenchment of radical Christianity in America’s character is an asset or a liability. After dissecting the diverse religious sects that have rooted in the United States, Phillips draws a line between religion, America’s participation in war and the feeling of “American exceptionalism” that has become inherent to American culture.  Using the Civil War as historical evidence of the political cleavage between the northern and southern states, Phillips demonstrates that gap between the religious sentiments of the North and South is still very much alive and contentious. He focuses on the Southern Baptist Church and the strength the institution has in the political sphere, wielding fundamentalism and an emphasis on federalism. It is the Southern Baptist Church’s strength in conservatism and stress on individual salvation that causes the rejection of government aided social programs. In Phillips words, these social programs are viewed by Southern Baptists as “[getting] in the way of individuals assumption of personal responsibility and salvation,” (168.)

However, Phillips argues, Southern Baptism and fundamental protestant Christianity was never fully aligned with a political party until the second term of President George W. Bush. Although he highlights the almost natural development of the aligned GOP and Christianity – since the Gallup and the CNN polls of the 1970s – it was not until 2004 that the alliance emerged in full force.  Furthermore, this alliance between religion and GOP has labeled the Democratic Party as the party for the “secularism.”  The attacks of September 11, 2001 provided an opportunity for the GOP to capture the morality of conservative Christians, evoking a sense of “good versus evil” and justifying the politics of war and the removal of world-wide tyranny. Conflating preexisting Northern and Southern religious divide and an attack on the United States, Phillips argues that religion is responsible for overpowering US foreign policy and widening the Republican and Democratic gap. Phillips closes the section with an elaborate description of how America’s religious roots have produced an unrealistic exceptionalist mentality, a “disenlightenment” of modernity, theologically-based politics, and a debilitating hubris with regards to foreign policy. Compounded, these four consequences of our “American Theocracy” foreshadow disheartening decline to American hegemony.

Phillips closes the book with his third and final section, reflecting the exponential growth of the United States’ debt and his predicted decline of US influence around the world. The closure of Phillips’ book is difficult for the American reader, particularly due to the overwhelming amount of evidence Phillips offers. The final section is the culmination America’s fuel dependency and the intransigence of her interlaced politics and religion – all resulting in the repetition of the hegemony’s downward spiral. The selection of the financial sector over the manufacturing sector, Phillips notes, was one that secured the United States debt trajectory.  He then returns to the beginning and foundation of his whole book: history. Through the lessons of Spain and the Hapsburg Empire and observations of economic development, Phillips eerily asserts the imminent decline of America’s power. Citing the decay of the manufacturing sector and the consequences of post-industrial economics, Phillips offers little solutions for the United States to get off of the debt path.

Furthermore, the comparison of the United States against post-industrial powers such as Germany and Japan highlights the United States’ main flaw: lack of industry. Phillips notes that despite their strong financial sectors, Germany and Japan have equally weighted manufacturing sectors as an integral part of their respective economies. Additionally, Phillips points out that neither Germany nor Japan rely as heavily on imports as the United States does. Also, seeing the interactions between countries in an “unipolar” manner, Phillips emphasizes that the fall of one power, creates an opening for the emergence of the next. Contributing further to US debt, the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan only support Phillips’ historical perspective that engagement in war is the main factor in the rise and fall of hegemonies.

Lastly, the final section of Phillips’ book is the cherry on America’s declining icecream sundae. Phillips layers the historical perspective of the first section on top of America’s growing Christian-founded politics. Kevin Phillips’ conviction and excessive evidence as to the trajectory of the United States leaves the reader with a unpleasant dose of reality. Phillips’ fearlessness in approaching fuel, religion and debt – subjects held dear to the American heart and identity – generates an overwhelming desire to change the path of the United States for the American reader. Phillips (men once on the inside circle of the Republican Party) has lifted the veil of denial and projected the future of America as generic, antithetical to the unique history in which she emerged.

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