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Reviews of Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy

John on June 5, 2006 at 10:38 am

The other day I wrote a critical post about a new book called Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. Today, at NRO I came across a critical review of another, very similar, theocracy book called simply American Theocracy. Gil Troy (who has his own book out (Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today) focuses primarily on author Kevin Phillips discussion of Israeli Fundamentalism:

Phillips alleges that just as evangelicals dominate American politics, Israeli policy is equally held hostage by settler fanatics, causing Israel’s misguided, God-invoking aggressiveness, which helps make it a world menace. Of course, reality is more subtle and more complex. Both America and Israel are secular democracies with strong pockets of religiously motivated voters who have an impact on their political systems, but have not hijacked either. Religious right-wingers in both countries regularly lose political battles abortion remains legal in America while the supposedly omnipotent settlers failed to stop Israel’s Gaza disengagement.

Nowhere, amid hundreds of footnotes, does Phillips document his allegations against Israel or attempt to prove them, beyond telegraphing and assuming a general prejudice against the Jewish state. This impression is reinforced by the absurd claim in a riff against Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish sexism that “Orthodox Jewish females cannot even study the Torah.” This claim is so wrong and malicious as to impeach the author’s integrity along with his credibility, especially because the anti-Israel rants prop up his broader worldview.

Although the exaggerated claim about the “Israel Lobby’s” power is the Big Lie festering about the Middle East today, particularly on the Left, the many less noticeable little lies metastasizing need refuting too. No matter how many times critics lazily and blindly try to fit Israel into their clichéd, PC, postcolonial conceptual straitjacket, reality is messier.

Now if only someone would point out, in an equally long review, how American Theocracy is just as lazy in its treatment of evangelicals in this country as it is of Israelis.

Instead we have this New York Times review which describes the book as “extensively researched and for the most part frighteningly persuasive.” If you’re interested in what the book says about evangelicals that’s so frightening (to the NY Times readers, no doubt) here’s the meat:

Phillips is especially passionate in his discussion of the second great force that he sees shaping contemporary American life — radical Christianity and its growing intrusion into government and politics. The political rise of evangelical Christian groups is hardly a secret to most Americans after the 2004 election, but Phillips brings together an enormous range of information from scholars and journalists and presents a remarkably comprehensive and chilling picture of the goals and achievements of the religious right.

He points in particular to the Southern Baptist Convention, once a scorned seceding minority of the American Baptist Church but now so large that it dominates not just Baptism itself but American Protestantism generally. The Southern Baptist Convention does not speak with one voice, but almost all of its voices, Phillips argues, are to one degree or another highly conservative. On the far right is a still obscure but, Phillips says, rapidly growing group of “Christian Reconstructionists” who believe in a “Taliban-like” reversal of women’s rights, who describe the separation of church and state as a “myth” and who call openly for a theocratic government shaped by Christian doctrine. A much larger group of Protestants, perhaps as many as a third of the population, claims to believe in the supposed biblical prophecies of an imminent “rapture” — the return of Jesus to the world and the elevation of believers to heaven.

Prophetic Christians, Phillips writes, often shape their view of politics and the world around signs that charlatan biblical scholars have identified as predictors of the apocalypse — among them a war in Iraq, the Jewish settlement of the whole of biblical Israel, even the rise of terrorism. He convincingly demonstrates that the Bush administration has calculatedly reached out to such believers and encouraged them to see the president’s policies as a response to premillennialist thought. He also suggests that the president and other members of his administration may actually believe these things themselves, that religious belief is the basis of policy, not just a tactic for selling it to the public. Phillips’s evidence for this disturbing claim is significant, but not conclusive.

Once again, the boogeymen are Christian Reconstructionists and the Left Behind phenomenon. Here I think it’s worth pointing out that I essentially agree with Kevin Phillips about both things. What I disagree with him about is the actual level of influence either are having. Personally, I had never heard of Christian Reconstructionists until theocracy watchers like Phillips started making them into villains.

I also have no love for the left behind series, which I see as bad theology bordering on gnosticism. It’s true that the rapture — invented in the 19th century by a preacher named Darby — has helped sell a lot of books, but come on, Kevin, they’re novels. Trashy, silly novels. Get a grip, man. This is not the end of civilization!

In any case, what exactly is Phillips’ prescription for American evangelicals? Should we identify everyone who has purchased a Left Behind book and float them out to sea on a barge? Should we insure that no evangelical can be elected to office? This is what bothers me about this sort of book. It serves to spread the idea that people like me are dangerous to a healthy culture when in reality Southern Baptists are probably least likely of any group in America to be a threat to order. All one need do is look at the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Was it the secular state and local government or was it churches and Christian relief groups nationwide that did more to restore civic order in New Orleans? Who presents a greater threat to this country, Baptists or conspiracy journalists like Kevin Phillips whose latest contribution to the national conversation is little more than the hateful American left’s version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

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