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Democracy vs. Theocracy

Two books -- one by a liberal and the other from a conservative -- warn that America is in danger of becoming a theocracy.

American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century
By Kevin Phillips
New York: Viking Penguin, 2006
$26.95 (hardback)

Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism
By Michelle Goldberg
New York: W.W. Norton, 2006
$23.95 (hardback)

Not since the 1920s, when the attention of the country was riveted by the Scopes "Monkey Trial," has the United States seen such a clash between mainstream secular society and literalist interpreters of the Bible. Between a quarter and a third of all Americans today are self-described Christian fundamentalists, many of whom reject the separation of church and state. It has become common for conservative politicians and even state Republican parties to declare that the United States is a "Christian nation." Never before have far-right religious ideologues had such access to power in Washington -- indeed, never has the country come closer to a religious government than what we have today.

This is the conclusion -- a difficult one to disagree with -- of both Kevin Phillips, a key Republican strategist, and Michelle Goldberg, a writer for the liberal magazine Phillips puts it like this: "The excesses of fundamentalism ... in the United States rank with any Shiite ayatollahs, and the last two presidential elections mark the transformation of the GOP into the first religious party in U.S. history."

That is not to say that America is on the brink of full-fledged theocracy -- both Goldberg and Phillips are far too careful to leap to such a erroneous conclusion. But both of them fear that future societal shocks, ranging from war to economic crisis, could provoke a situation in which those who seek to impose a religious government could rise to the top.

Goldberg's short book, Kingdom Coming, is in many ways the clearer and better written of the two -- and it will likely interest more readers of this magazine because of the way she traces links between past American radical groups, from the John Birch Society to the militia movement of the 1990s, and what she terms today's "Christian nationalists."

Of particular interest is Goldberg's history of the influence of Christian Reconstruction, a radical theology whose backers seek to impose Old Testament law on the United States. Goldberg does a particularly good job of showing the connections that run from Reconstruction's founding thinker J. Rousas Rushdoony all the way to the Bush White House. She explores the "dominionist" take on Christianity, out of which Reconstructionism grew, and how it plays out in the far-right mega-ministries of men like D. James Kennedy and James Dobson.

"It makes no sense to fight religious authoritarianism abroad while letting it take over at home," Goldberg concludes. "Our side, America's side, must be the side of freedom and Enlightenment, of liberation from stale constricting dogmas."

Phillips has his differences with Goldberg, to be sure -- he argues, for instance, that the rise of the religious right is fundamentally a response to secular efforts to push religion out of the public square in the 1960s and 1970s -- and he also offers a more complex vision. Although his title is "American Theocracy," the book really makes a three-part argument: America has become over-dependent on oil, which now drives much of our foreign policy; radical Christianity, coupled with the "Southernization" of American politics, has led to the transformation of the GOP into a religious party; and soaring debt and imperial hubris are likely to lead to the collapse of American ascendancy.

At the core of the book, where he discusses the religious right, Phillips traverses much of the same ground as Goldberg. "No leading world power in modern memory has become a captive, even a partial captive, of the sort of biblical inerrancy -- backwater, not mainstream -- that dismisses modern knowledge and science," he concludes.

The latest parallel, he says, was Spain in the early 17th century, after it had abandoned religious tolerance and thrown out both Muslims and Jews. Although the church's inquisitors at that time doubtless rejoiced, it wasn't long before the once-great Spanish empire collapsed entirely. That, Phillips suggests unhappily, is the fate that could soon face America.