How the GOP Became God's Own Party
By Kevin Phillips
-- -- Now that the GOP has been
transformed by the rise of the South, the trauma of terrorism
and George W. Bush's conviction that God wanted him to be
president, a deeper conclusion can be drawn: The Republican
Party has become the first religious party in U.S. history.
We have had small-scale theocracies in North America before --
in Puritan New England and later in Mormon Utah. Today, a
leading power such as the United States approaches theocracy
when it meets the conditions currently on display: an elected
leader who believes himself to speak for the Almighty, a ruling
political party that represents religious true believers, the
certainty of many Republican voters that government should be
guided by religion and, on top of it all, a White House that
adopts agendas seemingly animated by biblical worldviews.
Indeed, there is a potent change taking place in this country's
domestic and foreign policy, driven by religion's new political
prowess and its role in projecting military power in the
The United States has organized much of its military posture
since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks around the protection of oil
fields, pipelines and sea lanes. But U.S. preoccupation with the
Middle East has another dimension. In addition to its concerns
with oil and terrorism, the White House is courting end-times
theologians and electorates for whom the Holy Lands are a
battleground of Christian destiny. Both pursuits -- oil and
biblical expectations -- require a dissimulation in Washington
that undercuts the U.S. tradition of commitment to the role of
an informed electorate.
The political corollary -- fascinating but appalling -- is the
recent transformation of the Republican presidential coalition.
Since the election of 2000 and especially that of 2004, three
pillars have become central: the oil-national security complex,
with its pervasive interests; the religious right, with its
doctrinal imperatives and massive electorate; and the
debt-driven financial sector, which extends far beyond the old
symbolism of Wall Street.
President Bush has promoted these alignments, interest groups
and their underpinning values. His family, over multiple
generations, has been linked to a politics that conjoined
finance, national security and oil. In recent decades, the
Bushes have added close ties to evangelical and fundamentalist
power brokers of many persuasions.
Over a quarter-century of Bush presidencies and vice
presidencies, the Republican Party has slowly become the vehicle
of all three interests -- a fusion of petroleum-defined national
security; a crusading, simplistic Christianity; and a reckless
credit-feeding financial complex. The three are increasingly
allied in commitment to Republican politics. On the most
important front, I am beginning to think that the
Southern-dominated, biblically driven Washington GOP represents
a rogue coalition, like the Southern, proslavery politics that
controlled Washington until Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860.
I have a personal concern over what has become of the Republican
coalition. Forty years ago, I began a book, "The Emerging
Republican Majority," which I finished in 1967 and took to the
1968 Republican presidential campaign, for which I became the
chief political and voting-patterns analyst. Published in 1969,
while I was still in the fledgling Nixon administration, the
volume was identified by Newsweek as the "political bible of the
In that book I coined the term "Sun Belt" to describe the oil,
military, aerospace and retirement country stretching from
Florida to California, but debate concentrated on the argument
-- since fulfilled and then some -- that the South was on its
way into the national Republican Party. Four decades later, this
framework has produced the alliance of oil, fundamentalism and
Some of that evolution was always implicit. If any region of the
United States had the potential to produce a high-powered,
crusading fundamentalism, it was Dixie. If any new alignment had
the potential to nurture a fusion of oil interests and the
military-industrial complex, it was the Sun Belt, which helped
draw them into commercial and political proximity and
collaboration. Wall Street, of course, has long been part of the
GOP coalition. But members of the Downtown Association and the
Links Club were never enthusiastic about "Joe Sixpack" and
middle America, to say nothing of preachers such as Oral Roberts
or the Tupelo, Miss., Assemblies of God. The new cohabitation is
an unnatural one.
While studying economic geography and history in Britain, I had
been intrigued by the Eurasian "heartland" theory of Sir Halford
Mackinder, a prominent geographer of the early 20th century.
Control of that heartland, Mackinder argued, would determine
control of the world. In North America, I thought, the coming
together of a heartland -- across fading Civil War lines --
would determine control of Washington.
This was the prelude to today's "red states." The American
heartland, from Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico to Ohio and the
Appalachian coal states, has become (along with the onetime
Confederacy) an electoral hydrocarbon coalition. It cherishes
sport-utility vehicles and easy carbon dioxide emissions policy,
and applauds preemptive U.S. airstrikes on uncooperative,
terrorist-coddling Persian Gulf countries fortuitously blessed
with huge reserves of oil.
Because the United States is beginning to run out of its own oil
sources, a military solution to an energy crisis is hardly
lunacy. Neither Caesar nor Napoleon would have flinched. What
Caesar and Napoleon did not face, but less able American
presidents do, is that bungled overseas military embroilments
could also boomerang economically. The United States, some $4
trillion in hock internationally, has become the world's leading
debtor, increasingly nagged by worry that some nations will sell
dollars in their reserves and switch their holdings to rival
currencies. Washington prints bonds and dollar-green IOUs, which
European and Asian bankers accumulate until for some reason they
lose patience. This is the debt Achilles' heel, which stands
alongside the oil Achilles' heel.
Unfortunately, more danger lurks in the responsiveness of the
new GOP coalition to Christian evangelicals, fundamentalists and
Pentecostals, who muster some 40 percent of the party
electorate. Many millions believe that the Armageddon described
in the Bible is coming soon. Chaos in the explosive Middle East,
far from being a threat, actually heralds the second coming of
Jesus Christ. Oil price spikes, murderous hurricanes, deadly
tsunamis and melting polar ice caps lend further credence.
The potential interaction between the end-times electorate,
inept pursuit of Persian Gulf oil, Washington's multiple
deceptions and the financial crisis that could follow a
substantial liquidation by foreign holders of U.S. bonds is the
stuff of nightmares. To watch U.S. voters enable such policies
-- the GOP coalition is unlikely to turn back -- is depressing
to someone who spent many years researching, watching and
cheering those grass roots.
Four decades ago, the new GOP coalition seemed certain to enjoy
a major infusion of conservative northern Catholics and southern
Protestants. This troubled me not at all. I agreed with the
predominating Republican argument at the time that "secular"
liberals, by badly misjudging the depth and importance of
religion in the United States, had given conservatives a
powerful and legitimate electoral opportunity.
Since then, my appreciation of the intensity of religion in the
United States has deepened. When religion was trod upon in the
1960s and thereafter by secular advocates determined to push
Christianity out of the public square, the move unleashed an
evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal counterreformation,
with strong theocratic pressures becoming visible in the
Republican national coalition and its leadership.
Besides providing critical support for invading Iraq -- widely
anathematized by preachers as a second Babylon -- the Republican
coalition has also seeded half a dozen controversies in the
realm of science. These include Bible-based disbelief in
Darwinian theories of evolution, dismissal of global warming,
disagreement with geological explanations of fossil-fuel
depletion, religious rejection of global population planning,
derogation of women's rights and opposition to stem cell
research. This suggests that U.S. society and politics may again
be heading for a defining controversy such as the Scopes trial
of 1925. That embarrassment chastened fundamentalism for a
generation, but the outcome of the eventual 21st century test is
These developments have warped the Republican Party and its
electoral coalition, muted Democratic voices and become a
gathering threat to America's future. No leading world power in
modern memory has become a captive of the sort of biblical
inerrancy that dismisses modern knowledge and science. The last
parallel was in the early 17th century, when the papacy, with
the agreement of inquisitional Spain, disciplined the astronomer
Galileo for saying that the sun, not the Earth, was the center
of our solar system.
Conservative true believers will scoff at such concerns. The
United States is a unique and chosen nation, they say; what did
or did not happen to Rome, imperial Spain, the Dutch Republic
and Britain is irrelevant. The catch here, alas, is that these
nations also thought they were unique and that God was on their
side. The revelation that He apparently was not added a further
debilitating note to the late stages of each national decline.
Over the last 25 years, I have warned frequently of these
political, economic and historical (but not religious)
precedents. The concentration of wealth that developed in the
United States in the bull market of 1982 to 2000 was also
typical of the zeniths of previous world economic powers as
their elites pursued surfeit in Mediterranean villas or in the
country-house splendor of Edwardian England. In a nation's early
years, debt is a vital and creative collaborator in economic
expansion; in late stages, it becomes what Mr. Hyde was to Dr.
Jekyll: an increasingly dominant mood and facial distortion. The
United States of the early 21st century is well into this
debt-driven climax, with some analysts arguing -- all too
plausibly -- that an unsustainable credit bubble has replaced
the stock bubble that burst in 2000.
Unfortunately, three of the preeminent weaknesses displayed in
these past declines have been religious excess, a declining
energy and industrial base, and debt often linked to foreign and
military overstretch. Politics in the United States -- and
especially the evolution of the governing Republican coalition
-- deserves much of the blame for the fatal convergence of these
forces in America today.
Kevin Phillips is the author of "American Theocracy: The Perils
and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the
21st Century" (Viking).
© 2006 The Washington Post Company