by Allen Dwight Callahan
Abraham Lincoln said this of the Republican Party -- and I quote him, because he probably could have said it during the last week or so: "It was composed of strained, discordant, and even hostile elements" in 1858. -- Barry Goldwater, 1964 Republican National Convention acceptance speech
AMERICAN THEOCRACY: THE PERIL AND POLITICS OF RADICAL RELIGION, OIL, AND BORROWED MONEY IN THE 21st CENTURY (Viking, 2006) is the third of what author Kevin Phillips, the veteran Republican analyst and Bush family critic, calls "a trilogy of indictments," following his reportage in AMERICAN DYNASTY (2004) and WEALTH AND DEMOCRACY (2002).
As the subtitle suggests, Phillips's latest book is a tripartite critique. He leads off with "Oil and American Supremacy," making his case against big oil and its in stranglehold on the executive branch, and he concludes with "Borrowed Prosperity," documenting how the United States has become both the biggest debtor and the biggest ongoing borrower in the world.
But Phillips's case against the religious zealotry in his once-beloved GOP is at the center of the book. For the ancient Romans, "religio," formed from the Latin "ligare" -- "to bind" -- signified those sacred rites that bound people together. Phillips argues that fundamentalist evangelical religion now binds together the coalition in control of the Republican Party. "Religious voters cast close to half or the nation's votes," he notes. "Among whites, some 70 to 75 percent supported George W. Bush and represented by far the largest portion of his electoral coalition." In a 2003 Pew Research Center survey, 63 percent of white evangelical Protestants called the state of Israel a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of the second coming of Jesus, and in another Pew Center survey published in 2004, 55 percent of white evangelical Protestants said they considered "following religious principles" a top priority for foreign policy. Phillips also cites political science professor John Green's observation that "religious conservatives were absolutely critical to President Bush's re-election," and he quotes with approval Washington bureau chief Susan Page of USA TODAY, who wrote about a 2004 poll in that paper, "Forget the gender gap. The 'religion gap' is bigger, more powerful, and growing."
But as the 1990s rap group Public Enemy used to say, don't believe the hype. Phillips concedes that by 2004 "some 43 to 46 percent of Americans described themselves as born again in Christian faith, although perhaps half of those would not have passed a strict set of three or four follow-up criteria," and he explains in a footnote, "Pollster George Gallup and others have commented that roughly half of those who call themselves born again do not fit the strict definition of the term, based on follow-up questions about their personal experience and commitment to leading others to Christ. Thus, Gallup finds that although two-fifths of Americans call themselves born again, only one-fifth fit the strict definition." So, according to one of America's most distinguished pollsters, 50 percent of those who say they are born again actually aren't. Half of the religious constituency on which political analysts lavish so much attention turns out to be a figment of their own imagination.
Though Phillips shows that the religious right is not right, it doesn't seem to occur to him that there is much to suggest the religious right is not all that religious, either. He takes at face value, and so has been taken in by, the Bible thumping and the pulpit pounding in the public square. But "everybody talkin' 'bout heaven," as the Negro spiritual puts it, "ain't goin' there": it is evident that the religious right is not representative of all religious people in America. In several of the polls Phillips cites, church attendance is a benchmark of religious commitment, and commentators have emphasized that those who attend church regularly cast more votes for Bush than not in the last two elections. But this crude generalization is, to say the least, misleading. Church attendance is a reliable indicator of voting practices as long as one brackets African Americans. Note that the above-mentioned surveys do precisely that when reporting on the religious electorate. Black support for Bush was a pusillanimous 8 percent in 2000 and 11 percent in 2004, and this support was strongest among 22 percent of those who reported frequent church attendance. "Much of this gain," explains Phillips, "pivoted on the gay marriage issue, which was emphasized by many black pastors."
African Americans are notoriously loath to lend their hard-won and waning political clout to support legal recognition of gay and lesbian unions as marriages. The reasons are complex, but the math isn't. Twenty-two percent of the black electorate that frequently goes to church voted for Bush. This means that the overwhelming majority of African Americans who regularly attend church -- more than three out of four -- didn't. Most African Americans, notwithstanding the opposition of many to so-called gay marriage, were still opposed to Mr. Bush in 2004 by a factor of 9 to 1. Small wonder the Republic Party resorted to all means fair and foul to suppress the franchise of black people in Florida, Ohio, and elsewhere during both the 2000 and 2004 electoral cliffhangers.
The politics of presidential elections in the latter half of the twentieth century, a leitmotiv running through Phillips's book, tell another story. In 1980, the religious right unceremoniously dumped Jimmy Carter, the born again incumbent, a lifelong Southern Baptist, Annapolis graduate, former governor of a southern state, and former Sunday School teacher who attended church as regularly throughout his tenure in the Oval Office as he had all his life as a peanut farmer in Plains, Georgia. Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye, and other conservative evangelicals who had campaigned for Carter in 1976 repudiated him to embrace Ronald Reagan, a divorced former California governor and B-movie actor who never claimed to be born again and never claimed any denominational or confessional affiliation.