Debunking 'American Theocracy'
The Bush administration isn't too Christian, says politics professor James Kurth--it's not Christian enough.
BY: Interview by Alice Chasan
The publication of Kevin Phillips' latest book, “American Theocracy,” reignited the debate over the impact of evangelical theology on U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Phillips argues that the evangelical perspective has had a profound affect on the Bush administration's approach to everything from its energy policy to decision-making on issues of war and peace, particularly the war in Iraq. Phillips is but the latest among critics of the influence of evangelical Christianity on American society.
One of the most original responses to the Phillips critique and others like it comes from James Kurth, a professor of political science at Swarthmore College and an evangelical Christian, who argues that the Bush policies are not overly Christian—in fact, he says, they‘re not Christian enough, but an expression of a secularized, “heretical” Protestantism. Kurth believes that evangelicals, far from being an overwhelming force in American politics, have been “bamboozled” by secular Republicans who have promised to reverse policies that threaten their Christian values. The recent defeat in the U.S. Senate of the gay marriage amendment is only the latest example. Kurth recently spoke with Beliefnet senior editor Alice Chasan about Phillips’ book, and about the role of Protestantism in American policymaking.
What is the “Protestant Deformation” about which you've written, and how has it led to what you call “secularized Protestantism”?
America, during its founding period, especially in Puritan Massachusetts, was rooted in a particular form of Reformation Protestantism—the Calvinist or Reform version. But as it passed from one generation to another, the original spiritual meaning of the religion was transmuted. And in some ways, the religion conformed itself more and more to the world. This tends to happen with any religion—the spirit may begin to depart and the material aspects comform to the outer world and become more prominent.
I argue that there has been a series of these changes, which I call “declensions,” in the original Reform Protestantism. And in the later stages of the declensions, there was a full secularization, so you got not an Apostle’s Creed, but an American Creed, focused on liberal individualism, rather than God, as its most important element.
How does Bush's personal piety coexist with your thesis that the President is simply reflecting the radically secularized form of Protestantism?
We have to distinguish in George Bush what we have to distinguish within all Christian believers. There is their personal faith, and then, the implications of that for their relationship with fellow believers, with their neighbors, with other human beings.
Bush probably does have a personal faith that is not a heresy. Through his process of being born again, he arrived at a faith that I see as probably congruent with a Bible-believing, authentic version of Christianity.
Something happens, though, when he turns from his actions as a person to his actions as a president, and therefore is representing not just himself and his own actions, but the nation and its actions and policies. It was the nature of American politicians, beginning in the 19th century and continuing right down to the present, that when they had to represent in their political roles—not only their own church, but be able to speak to different faiths, then there's a tendency to replace the personal faith, which still may be vibrant in one's personal actions and beliefs, with something else: a faith that is a least common denominator.
One of those least common denominators has been the American Creed, a creed that makes no references to God.
Is it his application of the American Creed in his foreign policy that you think is bringing him--as you put in your article--close to a “debacle”?
That's right, exactly so. We would not be surprised from the Bible that when a prince, a king, as in Israel or perhaps a representative of the old Roman Empire as we have in the New Testament, that when they believe in something that is false and persist in it, that the Lord will bring a debacle or a disaster upon not only him, but upon his people. And I believe that is what we have here.
When George Bush has said that America is the light of the world, that is clearly a heretical paraphrase of the true statement that Jesus Christ is the light of the world. And that statement is a heresy. And to persist in that and act upon that belief can only bring about a debacle.
Phillips coins the term “American Disenlightenment,” in the midst of which, he says, America is currently languishing as a result of the fact that the Bush administration is beholden to a constituency with a "biblical worldview." He sees that playing out in debates over the teaching of evolution, over stem-cell research, the environment, and foreign policy. What do you think of this idea?
I reject it utterly. To take the Phillips account of the “disenlightenment:” American students lag behind their international equivalents in virtually every major industrial nation, and sometimes even developing nations. They lag behind their equivalents in understanding of math and science, and even their understanding of history and the social sciences. Those phenomena have existed for decades. Professionals in education have many explanations for this continuing lag of American students.
The fact that the majority of the American population believe in some version of intelligent design or creationism, or at least are skeptical of evolution has nothing to do with it. That is taking a trivial element and saying it is the major cause, and that simply is wildly opposed to all of the professional scholars of education.
Phillips writes that the U.S. is experiencing the emergence of what he calls "a Republican theocracy." What do you think?
We have not really had many theocracies in the modern era, so it's hard for us to know what an actual living, breathing theocracy is. The one we often think of is Old Testament Israel. But, there's really been nothing like that in the modern world.
Certainly Iran today is a theocracy, even though there's a struggle even within that country. But, within the West, there have been few examples.
If we look at what theocracies have been, the evidence is crystal clear that America is nowhere near a theocracy. We can see how far America is from that today, even though Phillips thinks that we are very close to that and that the Republican Party is already dominated by that.