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Ever since former Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips published the bestselling "The Emerging Republican Majority" in 1969, the announcement that he's written a new book has typically been first met by political observers and the press with a kind of hushed awe, and then a mad rush to read it. Phillips' books tend to give comprehensive overviews of politics at the national level, and macro social phenomena that shape our national interest. His latest book -- his 11th -- is no different.
In " American Theocracy" (Viking), Phillips examines three crises affecting the country: The dangers that growing instability and shortages in global oil markets pose for our petro-dependent society; the threat that our massive debts and deficits may collapse the dollar and the American economy; and the growing power that the Christian Right has over the Republican Party.
I was curious to hear what Phillips had to say about the rise of the Christian Right, since he came into the Republican Party at a time when it didn't rely on the Bible Belt to keep its electoral pants on.
Jan Frel: You say the GOP has been transformed into the first religious party in the United States. Do you mean something like we've seen with the Christian Democratic Party in Germany or something else?
Kevin Phillips: Yes. Actually, the argument was used by John Green, a well-known political scientist with an expertise in religion at the University of Akron. He suggested in 1988 that things were moving in that direction as people who were high-attending believers of the different Christian denominations were generally more Republican and this tended to parallel in what you might see in the Christian Democrats in Italy or Germany.
Frel: Those religious parties in Europe have no tradition of being anti-democratic â€¦
Phillips: Oh no, they aren't. What happened in the sense of the United States, generally, is that the denominations in the United States have been on different sides. If you grew up in New York or New England in the 1950s -- at that point, the protestants were largely Republicans and the Catholics were largely Democrats. What you're getting now is that religious people now -- across the range of Christian, which is to say biblical denominations are Republican. The Democrats have these people who think in a secular way.
Frel: You also say in your book that 40 percent of the Republican voting bloc is made up of very religious Christian denominations. Who are the other 60 percent?
Phillips: Well, we have to be careful what description we're using. For example, if you take born-agains. The percentage of born-agains in this country is something like 42 or 43 percent. With Republicans, it's 10 points higher, and with Democrats it's 10 points lower. Just a guess. I would say that 40 percent of the Republican coalition is fundamentalist evangelical and Pentecostal. Now, there would be a larger group that would be born again, who wouldn't quite consider themselves in some of these dimensions.
Frel: Where do they diverge in terms of their political interests? Do you think there's enough distance between these groups to prevent some kind of takeover? You call it the "emerging Republican theocracy" at one point in your book.
Phillips: Well, I was just on an interview with Richard Land, and we were talking about the trends and what they represented. And as more and more people, should this happen, have a sense of end times approaching because of war in the Middle East or tsunamis or plagues or AIDS or anything like this, as that happens, people are going to pay less attention to things other than salvation, and they are going to be more concerned with having a churchly government that their preachers are telling them what's happening and what to do. So that could push things a bit further in the direction of a theocratic tendency on the part of the people who are really worried about where the earth is heading and thinking about things in terms of raptures, end times and Armageddon. And it's a large group of people.
Frel: It seems to me so far that at this point, though, this group of people who have these apocalyptic fantasies have been co-opted by more sophisticated business interests and political opportunists.
Phillips: There's certainly a widely held view on the part of people who are more liberal than I am that this religious thing is probably exaggerated, and some will go so far as to say that they think George Bush is pulling a political scam and that he's using these people. I think there's some evidence that a number of the more centrist or liberal evangelicals don't like what's being done with the corporations.
Now I think you can argue fairly convincingly that a good amount of what President Bush feels on this matter is sincere; that it's admitted by everybody that in 1999 that he thought God wanted him to be president. He has this sense that he's been "chosen." So you start to wonder what role he sees himself in, and to me that's the coming together of religion and politics.
Frel: You say that the resurgence and religious fervor of the Pentecostals, fundamentalists and so on wouldn't be so extreme if they hadn't been kicked out of the public square in the in 1960s.
Phillips: I think that liberals in the '60s and '70s vastly underestimated the importance of religion to the average American. We've always been a religious country -- our bible sales have been just huge, historically. And the notion that there was a new secular era coming in which we could overlook that was a great mistake. There were attempts to get prayer out of the schools completely, take the Ten Commandments off the walls of buildings and so on. All of this mobilized millions of Americans to take up the cudgels for these religious issues.
Frel: You write early on and repeat in your book that this religious transformation of the GOP couldn't have been possible without a peculiar lack of Democratic Party opposition. What were those circumstances behind that?
Phillips: It's a two-stage Democratic Party trend. Again, if you go back to the '60s and '70s, there was a great sense among liberals that the country was on a secular trend, and that religion was going to matter less. It was certainly said in many places, and it was one of the views, for example, of the people who took over the Democratic Party under the banner of George McGovern. Part of the upshot of this was to push religious people who had been in the Democratic Party into a neutral position, or in some cases over to the Republicans.
Then what happened in the '80s and '90s is that the growth of the conservative religions and the growth of the Republican Party in the South were bringing more and more religious folks into the fold. The last contributing factor was that Bill Clinton, by his behavior in the White House, offended the church-going South. Now by this point, the Democrats were nervous about the strength of the religious vote, and the last thing in the world they wanted to do was to accuse the GOP of being too involved with the church, too religious.
Frel: "The last thing in the world they wanted to do was accuse the GOP of being..." That sounds like a character summary for the recent attitudes of the Democratic Party establishment in Washington.
Phillips: Well, I think there's no doubt that for a lot of Democrats who have been used to thinking of themselves as part of the power structure, it's difficult for them to take an insurgent viewpoint. That probably is part of the problem for the Democrats. John Kerry, for example, sounded establishmentarian to the point of not being willing to criticize the administration, to take an independent view of the war in Iraq.