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The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century
By Kevin Phillips
462 pages. Viking. $26.95
Kevin Phillips may not be the angriest man in America, but he's among the gloomiest. He's pessimistic about the radicalization of American Christianity, the unhealthy relationship between foreign policy and oil interests, and about how deeply into debt America has fallen.
Phillips worked on Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign and is credited with helping the Republican Party permanently capture the middle-class populist vote from the Democratic Party. With an uncanny ability to identify Middle America's attitude toward those who largely run the country, he's long been a political bellwether.
The erosion of America's middle class is, for Phillips, linked to the country's impending decline. He worries about class polarization, the elite's irresponsibility toward working people, and - in this, his 13th and latest book - about the Bush administration's dangerous manipulation of religion for profane ends.
How would you characterize yourself politically?
I would not, really, try too much. In some ways I'd be a progressive, in other ways a conservative - never a liberal.
You started out in 1967 wishing for a more traditional - more Christian - America. Now, you're arguing that American Christianity has become radicalized.
What's changed is that a third of the population now believes in a coming Rapture. Religion wasn't central when I wrote The Emerging Republican Majority. I had no problem with challenging the secular extremes of the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, traditionalists were rightly feeling aggrieved.
Lately, however, radical secularism hasn't won many battles. The excesses are mostly among the religious. For instance, the idea of teaching creationism in the schools - that's not conservative; that's radical. So too is the infatuation with the Book of Revelations.
You argue that oil interests drive US foreign policy.
Yes. The US Army has basically become an oil protection service. If you want to know the real cost of a gallon of gasoline, you'd have to factor in the budget of the Defense Department.
Why don't US policy makers tell Americans that if they want cars they may need to fight for oil?
You don't want to acknowledge petro-imperialism, which Europeans have been pointing to all along. [Former US Secretary of State] James Baker and [former President] Bush Senior did openly talk about it. But also, for a considerable percentage of Americans, everything that is unfolding is biblical. Forty-five percent believe in Armageddon. So it's just easier to mobilize support using religion.
And Bush himself?
He may well subscribe to this theological framework, too. But it's [Vice President Dick] Cheney who's the driving gun of American oil policy.
You're also worried that America spends far more money than it has and is falling ever deeper into debt. The current US debt is $8 trillion caused by repeated budget deficits.
We've become a financial services economy. By 2000, 21 percent of the economy was devoted to finance, compared to 14 percent for manufacturing.
The big reason was the huge growth of debt. The total credit market debt is $40 trillion - three times the GDP.
Everything runs on debt and credit. But if you're in the debt and credit business - which Wall Street is - this makes you happy.
America's elites once put the national interest first. Now they seem to put profits first.
Yes, absolutely. There is a level of self-interest that views itself as entitled. You saw the same thing in the Roman and Spanish empires. Also among the Dutch and British when their elites dominated the world. They, too, thrived on the "financialization" of the economy. But such reliance becomes conducive to class tensions.
Still, why does it seem that capitalism has never been more obsessed with profit to the exclusion of everything else?
There's been a deification of capital in the market place; taxes are seen as the major determinants of behavior. And intellectual frameworks now exclude other economic factors.
Meanwhile, elements on the Christian Right have become cheerleaders of this kind of capitalism. Some fundamentalists say that people should be preoccupied with salvation, not the economy, and others teach that God wants you to be prosperous.
So if neither communist state-planning nor pitiless capitalism work, what would?
Unfortunately, the US is too far down the path of over-financialization. History shows that only societal upheaval is going to change things. Empires become chastised by losing their position. You saw this with the British after World War I as their power dissipated. It was a wrenching experience.
What would such a wrenching transformation mean for American Jews?
The historical parallel should be what happened when the 18th-century Dutch and 20th-century British empires declined. Jews were identified with capital but were not singled out. That's not to say that some American elements wouldn't scapegoat Jews.
But if you read the histories by Jonathan Israel [The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806] and Simon Schama [A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire 1776-2000] there's little evidence of economic scapegoating in Holland, and the same is true of Britain.
How does Israel fit into your paradigm?
Israel is what you get with the Bible. And one of the characteristics of radical Protestantism is that there's an intense biblical focus, as well as the idea of biblical inerrancy. Contemporary events are seen as the fulfillment of the Bible.
So just as Israelis have to be concerned about the Jewish fringe that wants to rebuild the Temple, they have to be similarly concerned about Christians aligned with those Jews searching for the pure Red Heifer [a biblical sign of the coming of the messiah]. It's the same fundamentalist mindset.
It's also interesting to ponder how they're using each other. Who's gaming whom?
So, you don't necessarily agree with John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt in their study of the Israel lobby - that Israeli interests drive US foreign policy? For you policy is driven, largely, by oil interests and the manipulation of radical Christianity.
What I am suggesting is that ardently pro-Israel forces and Christian true-believers are locked together. So what you have is a common outlook, on the West Bank, for instance. My assumption is that AIPAC is one of the most aggressive lobbies around. But the real enabling power base comes from the huge population of end-of-time Christians.
Are you yourself religious?
Not by any yardstick could you call me religious. I am a nominal Protestant. I go to church maybe a couple of times a year.
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