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Monday, March 20, 2006

Phillips, Brinkley, and "Theocracy"

Sunday's New York Times featured this review, by Columbia historian, Alan Brinkley, of Kevin Phillips's new book, American Theocracy.  Now, I have not (and, I admit, probably will not) read American Theocracy.  That said, I found Brinkley's review -- and Phillips's claims, as Brinkley describes them -- tiresome and insular.  "Radical Christianity" . . . "Theocracy" . . .  "Harrowing picture of national danger" . . . etc.  Whatever. 

In my view -- "V for Vendetta" (link), "The Handmaid's Tale" (link), and even Roy Moore & Co. notwithstanding --  the idea that so-called "Christian Reconstructionists" (i.e., people who are said to believe that governments and policy ought to be constructed and implemented in strict accordance with certain versions of Protestant Christianity) do or ever will pose any threat of "theocracy" in the United States is not to be taken seriously.  The same is true, I think, of the idea that there is anything particularly "radical" about evangelical Christianity, as it is actually lived and believed in the United States today.  Brinkley is, I realize, an accomplished scholar, but it is not clear to me that he really has any idea who evangelical Christians are, or what they believe, do, and want.  (If one wants to know, read Christian Smith's, Christian America:  What Evangelicals Really Want). 

Now, obviously, there is plenty of room -- and there are plenty of good reasons -- to criticize, object to, and resist the religious claims and the policy / political agenda of politically conservative evangelical Christians.  But the "radical Christians are taking over the government and setting things up for the Rapture" line does not strike me as particularly helpful.

Here, by the way, are Martin Marty's (U. Chicago) thoughts on the Brinkley review:

In his new book, Baptizing America, Rabbi James Rudin speaks of a developing American "Christocracy."  Kevin Phillips, in American Theocracy, writes about a developing "theocracy."  Rudin is a moderate and Phillips has carefully detailed his own odyssey.  Reviews of Phillips are coming in furiously fast, so we will concentrate on the "Radical Religion" theme of his subtitle, which is linked with two others, "Oil" and "Borrowed Money."  Not swimming in oil or debt money, but recognizing that Phillips interweaves "theocracy" inextricably with these other two themes, I have to specialize on Sightings ground.

Phillips, once a Republican strategist and speech-writer, has read widely and well in the historical records and the political and social scientific works of our decades, and documents his work thoroughly.  Would that there were space to quote or even outline his case, which I hope our readers will "sight," sometimes if only to argue with the author.  My advance copy of the book is all highlighted and scribbled up with quotations and judgments, graphs and charts, that I will not be alone in using.  But here we have to hurry to a set of questions about "theocracy."

For whatever light it sheds on the subject, let me say that I tend, or try, to dampen hyperbole on subjects of this sort.  In the sixties and seventies, when it was the fashion among radicals to call America "Amerika," implying that European-style fascism was developing, my kind and I stepped back, contending that one can make a case about repression and its styles without invoking the extreme, even an often demonic aura of "the other."  The same goes for "theocracy."  Why give people a name they might savor and favor, or apply the term to near-miss phenomena?  Phillips quotes many leaders of far-right and near-far-right Christian groups who want Christianity to have privilege, status, and even a monopoly on the spiritual front of a lame pluralist society, and sees -- yes -- theocracy in their goals.

Advice to myself, after reading Phillips's counsel: 1) Don't assign to people a label and a position they don't exactly hold; 2) Don't lump all people called "conservative" or "born again" into the mix of the theocracy-minded; 3) Don't label anyone "theocrat" who does not bear most of the marks of the theocrat; 4) Thus remember that, for people of faith on left or right, to try to influence foreign or domestic policy is not by itself a mark of theocracy -- not by any means; 5) Do urge fellow citizens to be Madisonian (Federalist Papers X and LI), to work for the republic, against favor or privilege or establishment for particular religions (e.g., "Christianity" or "the biblical worldview"); 6) If you must blame, blame fairly, including the Republicans-not-on-the-right or Democrats-wherever-they-are for leaving a moral vacuum that exploiters can invade and exploit; 7) Make the point that theocracies have always corrupted communities of faith that favor them, noting that such polities are bad for religion; 8) Read and profit from Rudin and especially Phillips as they make their cases; 9) Be ready to link up with others, to see if at this late date the republic can be invigorated and survive; 10) Arrange with people you can trust to help you live with new strategies and old hopes, as you try to find a means of sleeping peacefully after you've read this unsettling script -- and then awaken, for thought and action.

Posted by Rick Garnett on March 20, 2006 at 11:42 AM in Religion | Permalink


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I suppose I am somewhat conflicted by your review of a review and your subsequent analysis. I do think you are right to caution us not to equate religious belief with a desire for theocracy. And in the end, you may be correct to say that such a scenario is unlikely to occur in the future. That being said, I do have a few observations that add weight to the other side of your argument. Perhaps most telling, from an experiential point of view, having grown up the son of a minister in a small Southern community with “a church on every street corner,” I can testify to the fact that in certain areas of the country, a kind of theocracy already exists. Once religion controls the school board in a community like this, it has the power to control in all essential ways how the community as a whole behaves. Obviously the television and internet have worked to undermine such communities since I was a kid, but only 12 years ago a jury convicted 3 teenagers of murder with absolutely no physical evidence, simply because they were accused of having an interest in witchcraft. All three remain in prison, one on death row. Further, I think that Bush has helped – deliberately or otherwise – to convince many Islamic countries abroad that we are opposed to them on religious grounds. He may not have asserted Christianity specifically, but by default I fear that is what is assumed. But most importantly, few thought that a fascist state like Nazi Germany could arise so quickly, and yet it did. There are some cynical, paranoid folks out there (I don’t tend to be one, but I understand them), who will argue that when the government invents a foe, and begins spying on its own people in the name of pursuing that foe, the possibility of a Nazi-style takeover of the government isn’t all that far-fetched.

Posted by: Vacuum Cleaner | Jul 12, 2007 3:16:07 PM

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