BOOKS/Alvena Bieri

American Theocracy

We know a writer is popular when he appears on the Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Kevin Phillips did just that recently, talking about his new book, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century [Viking, 2006].

The best definition of theocracy, Phillips says, is "a country where the rulers purport to speak for God." Because George W. Bush's policies involve the world and one of its most vital resources, oil, the word "petro-imperialism" applies very well to his governing philosophy too.

Kevin Phillips's knowledge of political history is vast. What he is worried about is that the US is following the path of other empires throughout history, empires that became too powerful for their own good.

The part that oil plays in a nation's history is nothing new. From the first oil discovered in Pennsylvania to the oil boom of the 1920s in Oklahoma, the prevalence of oil certainly affects the politics of the region. Phillips quotes Bill Richardson, former US secretary of energy and now the governor of New Mexico, who summarized the oil problem and its relation to power very well back in 1999: "Oil has literally made foreign and security policy for decades. Just since the turn of the century, it has provoked the division of the Middle East after World War I; around Germany and Japan to extend their tentacles beyond their borders; the Arab oil embargo and Iran versus Iraq, and the Gulf War. This is all clear." And yes, Phillips says oil was a main factor in our invasion of Iraq and that the Bush family has long had strong ties to oil.

Maybe it's a coincidence that the great oil fields of the world -- many of them at least -- are in the Middle East, sometimes called the Holy Land, bringing us to his second subject, religion. Phillips is afraid that the extreme religious fundamentalists are thinking that the end of the world may happen there.

Of course, if secular humanists or progressive populists ran the country, we would still need oil. But maybe we could get some national priorities right. President Jimmy Carter tried to get Americans to conserve energy. In the Reagan-Bush years all that went by the wayside. Now we have people like Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma who does not even believe global warming exists, so why worry about gasoline anyway? And Inhofe is chairman of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee. Pride and ignorance are both dangerous when it comes to natural resources.

Phillips's knowledge about the history of religion in America is as far-reaching as can be. He shows how inclusive churches such as United Methodists have declined in membership in the past 25 years and how fundamentalist churches have grown. I'm not sure these ought to be called "radical" as Phillips uses the word, because I thought "radical" means going to the root of a philosophy or problem.

As I read this, when I wasn't lamenting the lack of a new and articulate Thomas Jefferson to put forth a good old enlightened perspective, I was asking myself another question. Wouldn't it be great if America Christianity in all its many forms could concentrate on the ethical teachings of Jesus? But that would not be as exciting as planning for the last times, and it would be a lot harder.

The third subject is our excessive national debt. I'm not sure exactly how this relates to a theocracy. Maybe if you think the world is about to end, you don't need to worry about anything as mundane as spending more money than you take in, whether you are an individual or the richest country in the world. Anyway, the US national debt is now almost $8 trillion. It's so big a figure to most of us that we cannot even begin to imagine it. Individuals are not saving as much as they used to either. Phillips says that in 1990, savers put aside 4.5% of their income for savings, but by 2005 there was a negative savings rate. In other words people are simply spending more than they earn and falling deeper and deeper into debt. That is bad for individuals and for countries.

Toward the end of the book, he states, "I cannot help but think that the United States, like Spain in its day, has become something of a Judas economy for the average American, with Wall Street in the profitable bullion-handling role of early 17th-century Seville, the Asian central banks as uncertain Genoan financiers and George W. Bush as the dull and prayerful Hapsburg dynast."

Phillips describes himself as "a former Republican strategist." I think he is on the verge of saying he's "a former Republican," period.

Contact Alvena Bieri, 2023 W. 11th Ave., Stillwater, OK 74074; or email

From The Progressive Populist, July 15, 2006

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