Kevin Phillips’s American Demagoguery

Joseph M. Knippenberg

April 1, 2006

Kevin Phillips’s American Theocracy currently stands fourth on the New York Times bestseller list, largely, I think, because of its apocalyptic title, which appeals to the worst fears of our bi-coastal elites. I’m tempted to say that those who purchased the book got a good deal, since it’s really three books in one—extended analyses of the role played by energy, and above all by oil, in American politics and policy, of the influence of (conservative) religion on (Republican) politics and policy, and of the growing public and private debt load and its potential impact on the American position in the world.

Phillips tries to connect the three, but he’s not very persuasive, in large part because he’s carried away by his aversion to the conservative Christianity that in his view is perilously close to dominating the Republican Party. We can’t clear-sightedly address our problems, he seems to argue, because a significant Republican constituency is convinced that the Rapture is at hand, so that they don’t care if we’re running out of oil and into big-time debt. While most great powers get to dominate at least a century, we’re at risk of prematurely ceding our position to the Chinese, who study engineering texts religiously, rather than the Bible.

I didn’t need Phillips to convince me that we’re overly dependent on oil, especially from sources not particularly friendly to the U.S., and that our personal and public debt loads are problematical. I also didn’t need him to convince me that we’re not necessarily effectively competing with our Asian counterparts when it comes to cultivating technological brainpower. But to blame our failure effectively to confront these issues on the malign Christian influence on the Bush Administration and on America as a whole is more than a stretch.

Let me begin with a discussion of the relationship between education and our technological competitiveness. Yes, we grant a smaller proportion of our degrees in science and engineering than do many of our international competitors. Much of the lag is in the latter, where the international leaders grant over 20% of their undergraduate degrees in that field and we sit barely above 6%. In the natural and physical sciences, by contrast, we’re securely in the middle of the pack, comparable to Korea and ahead of Japan. This suggests to me that our problems are particularly in mathematics education, an absolute prerequisite for success in engineering, rather than in the natural sciences. In a recent comparison, U.S. fifteen year olds lagged far behind their Asian, and many of their European, counterparts in mathematics proficiency. This, unfortunately, is not earth-shattering news, and can’t be attributed to any alleged evangelical hostility to science. Indeed, my home state of Georgia, deeply red and highly religious, is comfortably above the national average in the proportion of degrees granted in computer science and engineering. Our political leaders, evangelical though they might (in some cases, at least) be, have bought the argument that education and economic development are intimately related and have poured money into institutions like Georgia Tech. Even the Baptists at Mercer University have gotten with the program, establishing an engineering school in 1985.

Perhaps we can say, following a clue offered by Phillips, that we’ve misapplied what mathematical ingenuity we have, devoting ourselves to complicated financial devices, rather than to their electrical and mechanical counterparts. Yes, there are a gazillion different kinds of mortgages out there, as well as innumerable ways of investing in our capacity to pay (or not to pay) them off, all invented by clever people who probably should have been engineers rather than financiers. Because we spend too much and don’t save enough, companies like GM can actually make more money from their financial operations than they do from selling the goods they manufacture.

This profligacy is not just personal, it’s governmental. Just as we borrow to finance this and that (all too much of it imported from abroad), the government borrows to pay for the global war on terror, Katrina rebuilding, drug benefits for seniors, and innumerable other expensive but arguably good things.

Phillips doesn’t offer any programmatic solutions, but his preferences clearly tend in a certain direction. We’re imperially and expensively overstretched because we’re too dependent upon foreign oil, he suggests. Address the latter issue and at least one significant element of the realist case for involvement in the Middle East and elsewhere goes by the board.

While I’m all in favor of being less dependent upon and sending less money to people who don’t seem really to like us, there are reasonable disagreements (having nothing to do with religion) about how best to accomplish this end. I, for example, tend to be a fan of the marketplace. As gasoline prices rise, people will begin to alter their behavior, driving less and paying more attention to the kinds of automobiles they purchase. In addition, alternative sources of oil (Alberta tar sands and Wyoming oil shale, not to mention ANWR) become more economically feasible and politically possible to exploit and alternative sources of energy (wind, solar, and—gasp—nuclear, for example) become more attractive and comparatively affordable. While of course there are political decisions to be made here, in some cases the obstacles to “progress” have come from liberals rather than, or as much as, from conservatives. NIMBYism and BANANAism cross party, ideological, and religious lines. And lots of people, regardless of their ideology, are eager to shift the costs of adjustment and change to “the other guy.”

So long as they have no particularly strong incentive to care about or shift their views regarding the common good, entrenched elites are likely to give into the temptation to stand their ground. Oil companies and automobile manufacturers have had a great run and don’t want to see it end. Environmentalists don’t want to give back hard-won victories with respect to things like nuclear power, oil refinery construction, and drilling in ANWR. Folks in the financial industry just love their profits. Phillips’s complaint, in some respects just a version of the beef Thomas Frank had with proverbial Kansans, is that a significant Republican constituency—religious conservatives—doesn’t share his desire to hold these interests’ feet to the fire. When they’re not enraptured by the Rapture, they’re consumed by what he regards as the insignificant sideshows of the culture war (which, by the way, wouldn’t bother them if they were really enraptured by the Rapture) than with his vision of the global big picture.

In part, however, culturally conservative Republicans have a perfectly respectable and defensible concern. If the price of sustaining America’s global preeminence were surrender to the moral agenda of the bi-coastal elites (represented by Phillips), then it wouldn’t be worth paying. To exaggerate for the sake of clarity, if maintaining the American “imperium” requires putting up with an American Caligula, then they’ll settle for less global influence.

But this strikes me as a false choice. I wish that in all his reading Phillips had paid more attention to Alexis de Tocqueville, who makes the case for a connection between self-interest rightly understood and religion. Phillips, it seems to me, is making a case for self-interest rightly understood (though of course one can quarrel with his conception of our long-range common interest). What he seems unwilling to concede, however, is that religion is an absolutely essential buttress for our capacity to look beyond our noses, either in terms of the future or in terms of a larger community. Apparently convinced that American evangelicals are willing to fiddle while Rome burns because they think that the conflagration is a sure sign of the End Times, he is, I fear, more enraptured with the Rapture than are most readers of Tim LaHaye’s fiction.

I would rather put it this way. The people most capable of answering Phillips’s call for national self-discipline are those he deprecates as deluded. Religion calls upon us to sacrifice for family, future, and community. With some notable exceptions connected with variants of the so-called gospel of prosperity, religion calls upon us to live within our means. As flawed and fallible human beings, we don’t always heed those calls.

Rather than cast aspersions from his perch in the most secular part of the country, Phillips ought to have greater regard for the relative weakness of human reason and for the ways in which human decency and self-restraint depend upon religious faith. Yes, there may be, as George Washington put it, “minds of a peculiar structure” who can be good without God, but that’s not true for most of us.

We live in perilous times. I didn’t need to read Kevin Phillips or Tim LaHaye to be convinced of that.

Heaven help us! I don’t have to be a purblind follower of Pat Robertson to say that.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.