2016-07-27
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.

Phillips quotes former Republican Senator and Episcopal minister John Danforth, who says that "Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians." How do you engage the former Senator on this question?

I disagree, and on a number of levels. First, let's look at the Republican Party in terms of their leaders. And then also their major funders and campaign contributors.

Clearly, many of the leading senators, including Danforth, but also the leading senator from Pennsylvania  today, Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee--they are nowhere near being evangelical Protestants.

Senator Specter being Jewish.

Exactly so. And he is a very articulate moderate on a host of issues, including being pro-choice. So, a majority of the leaders of the Republican Party are not evangelical Christians advocating what Phillips is so concerned about and what Danforth is concerned about.

Then, if you look at the major funders of the Republican Party, they are overwhelmingly from the corporate sector, hardly any evangelicals, and especially few in the financial sector or the oil sector.

The Republican Party itself is a coalition. It is a coalition between the few who give the money and the many who give the votes. It's a coalition between the country-club Republicans and the Main Street Republicans. Among the Main Street Republicans there are many evangelical Christians. They provide an essential part of the votes for the Republican Party. But, there's also the country-club Republicans, who are like the Arlen Specters: conservative financially, often quite liberal culturally or socially.

Tthe classic way that the Republican Party has handled this problem is to have its leaders promise the voters, the evangelical Christians, a great deal in the election. And then after the election is over for the most part the secular conservative Republicans get their way.

And today in the summer of 2006, this is exactly what the polls are indicating, that this is a concern of the social conservatives, the evangelical Christians. They are very disappointed with the Bush administration, including on such issues as the federal marriage amendment, and decisively moving forward to curb abortion. Again and again the things they're concerned about have somehow been blunted before they ever become law or policy.

It is evidence that the Republican Party has not been captured by evangelical Christians. Rather, the evangelical Christians have been bamboozled by the Republican Party.

The one exception to the evangelical Christians' disappointment with the party has been, of course, the recent Supreme Court appointments [of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito]. Evangelical Christians are delighted with those. But, the secular conservatives, the country club Republicans, are delighted with them, too, because these two justices both have track records of being social conservatives and also fiscal conservatives.

I think it was a brilliant stroke to nominate people who could appeal simultaneously to both parts of the Republican Party, which otherwise are growing in a mutual contempt for each other.

So, instead of having a theocracy within the Republican Party moving decisively toward a theocracy within the United States as a whole, what you have is a division in the Republican Party growing wider and wider and perhaps resulting in the debacle of the party if not in the 2006 congressional election, then the 2008 presidential election.


Recently, in The New York Times, conservative columnist David Brooks wrote that Phillips' argument is “paranoid nonsense.” He cites Phillips' contention that Bush is supported by "an end-times electorate," and that Phillips' conclusion that 50 to 60 percent of Republicans believe in a literal interpretation of the Armageddon described in the Book of Revelation, and they are influenced by the argument that the destruction of the “new Babylon” in Iraq will hasten the coming of the Messiah, is a gross misinterpretation of data on evangelicals in the United States. What do you say about David Brooks' contentions?

I believe that for the most part David Brooks is correct, especially in regard to Phillips' presentation of the end-times religion of evangelicals.
 
Phillips almost never quotes any conversation he had with an actual living, breathing evangelical. He refers to the famous novels in the “Left Behind” series, or to statements by purported representatives of evangelicals, or perhaps politicians. But, he almost never talks to and listens to evangelicals out there in America.

I have talked to such evangelicals, and I arrive at a very different conception of their understanding of end times. First, it is true that evangelicals will take the Book of Revelation to be inerrant, and that in the fullness of time there will be the end times as described in the Book of Revelation.
 
But of course--not only in the Book of Revelation, but in other books of the New Testament as well--it is made crystal clear that no man knows the time of the coming of Jesus, the Messiah.

In addition, however, we are to live as if it could happen tomorrow. And we are also to live as if no one knows when it will come. Therefore, we must be simultaneously prepared for it to come tomorrow, or indeed in the next instant, or to not come for generations. And it is presumptuous for any person to claim it's coming any day now or in our own lifetime. That is another form of heresy, of false prophecy.

That is what Bible-believing evangelicals believe. They have a humility about their knowledge of the end times. And they must pick up the burden of being ready simultaneously to receive the coming of the Lord and to still be in the world but not of it, working to carry out the Lord's will.

So, when Phillips says evangelicals are anticipating the end times coming very shortly, and this determines their policy on a wide range of things such as the environment and the Middle East and attitudes toward social or environmental problems, this is simply a falsehood. They assume the end times will come, but they in turn are still given the call for good stewardship, to tend the garden of the world, to be peacemakers.

You predict that evangelicals will be “blamed,” as you put it, for the failures of the Bush administration's foreign policy. And you imply that they are not responsible. Who is?

Any large and substantial foreign policy or defense policy is brought about not by one particular interest group, or by one president, but rather by a coalition of interests.

 
The coalition of interests in favor of war in Iraq are responsible for that war. One of those interests in favor of the war was the oil interests. Their representative in the administration is Vice President Dick Cheney.

A second interest is comprised of believers in robust projection of American power, what might be called American hyper-nationalists, often grounded in the defense industry. Their representative in the administration is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

A third group are those who believe in extensive U.S. support for democracy abroad, and more particularly for the one democracy in the Middle East, Israel. These are the neo-conservatives. Their principle representative in the administration was the former Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz.

Together, these three great interests pushed for the war and distorted the intelligence from the professional career intelligence and military officers who cautioned against the war.

The evangelical Christians were only present in the administration in one person, the most important person, of course, President George Bush. But, there was no substantial, organized evangelical Christian interest group pressing for the war. The evangelical Christians out in the congregations were not pressing for the war. A few of the leaders within Washington, the lobbyists, said, "Oh, yes, it would be a good thing to have Saddam Hussein's regime changed." But, that was not one of their top priorities.

When President Bush, for his own reasons and in response to the grand coalition in his administration as I described, chose to go to war, evangelicals supported him not because of his foreign policy but because of his social or cultural policies. They backed him because they thought he, in turn, was backing them on the things they really cared about.

But did it also have anything to do with the consonance of Bush's theological perspective with their own? 

Because the evangelicals hold certain views, they could see a war potentially congruent with or fulfilling them, and not contradicting them. But, they could have just as easily seen the war from a different perspective. Let me be specific: Evangelicals tend to be supportive of Israel. But, there were alternative arguments on how to support Israel other than going to war in Iraq. Indeed, one could have said--professionals in foreign policy did say--by going to war in Iraq you will destabilize that area so much that it actually will make Israel's situation more dangerous in the long run. That is what has happened.

So, the evangelicals who want to support Israel and to protect Israel could have arrived at a completely different view. And many of the people that I talked to at the time did. A few of their leaders in Washington supported the administration's interpretation, but the evangelicals were not condemned to the pro-administration interpretation by their faith.

And the same thing can be said about some of the other elements you've mentioned. I would say that the missing link between the evangelicals' belief on the one hand, and their support for the war on the other--is a particular group of evangelical representatives or officials in Washington who wanted to support the Bush administration for their own organizational reasons.


Can you cite examples of individuals who were the links between the evangelical community and the Bush administration?

I think the most prominent--and in some ways the most sober--leader who is the most responsible for representing a misguided view of what evangelicals think was Richard Land, who is the Washington representative of the Southern Baptist Convention. I think he did a great disservice to evangelical Christians by his misrepresentation of their views.

Can you expand on what you feel he did and what he said that was distortive?


I think it is important to note that, in the run up to the war, most religious leaders, certainly Catholic leaders, certainly many Protestant leaders opposed the war. And very few leaders actively spoke out in favor of the war. And he was the most prominent one of those. There were other people who claimed to represent Christian organizations, such as Gary Bauer and others, but they are not seen to be religious leaders.
 
Did Richard Land make specific theological statements that connected evangelical Christianity with support of the war?

I didn't mean to say that he made such statements. I'm saying that his support of the war and his position as the chief policy representative of the Southern Baptist Convention made people think, "Oh. Aha! There's a direct connection between being evangelical and supporting the war." But I didn't want to say that he made specific statements on theology.

You see no contradiction between having a robust interest in foreign policy, as you yourself do professionally and being a Bible-believing Christian?

That's right.

You are a leader of your Presbyterian church and a foreign-policy analyst. So, you see no contradiction between being an evangelical Protestant and being deeply engaged with world events. Yet in your article, “The Protestant Deformation,” you say that evangelical Protestants are "long skeptical of the efficacy of worldly politics."

That's right.

That would seem to bring you closer to Kevin Phillips' assertions about the distorted worldview of evangelical Christians, when it comes to formulating or even being concerned about foreign policy.

Evangelical Christians have a skeptical view of the political activities in the city of the world, the city of man, They're very skeptical of the efficacy of political efforts to reform the world. That means instead of being activists and reformists, many tend to be passivist, if you will. They withdraw from the world.

My own view is that certain Christians--and I consider myself one of these--are called to be engaged in the world of public policy, in my case foreign policy and defense policy, but their interpretation of what that means and how that is congruent with their Christian, Bible-believing faith is to have a prudential, conservative, realist, somber, sober view. Which means that one thinks many, many times before undertaking an activity to reform the world, but rather tries to preserve what is best within a fallen world.

Now, it is natural that there will be people inside the Beltway—lobbyists, representatives of political organizations, purporting to represent Christians—it's the very nature of their profession to be activist, to push for this and that. Their psychology has almost nothing in common with the vast mass of evangelical Christians out there in the real world.

I believe most evangelical Christians believe that they have not been drawn to the enterprise of reforming the world, but of preserving what had been given to them, their inheritance from their Christian forbearers. They are trying to defend that. And they believe that especially in the social and cultural arena that their world and their beliefs have been under relentless assault by secular liberals for the past three generations.


And so, of course, they will be active in politics, but only because they felt that they were being aggressively assaulted by secular liberals for a generation after generation, who were the original activists in politics.

And George Bush directly promised them a reversal of the erosion of social values?

That's right. George Bush promised them the reversal. That's what got their attention. In addition, he spoke in “code,” to use Phillips' term. He used biblical language.

So, you do agree with Phillips on that?

Yes. But, the difference is that Phillips wants to avoid the political reality that it was a grand coalition between the secular liberals and the secular conservatives that brought about the assault upon Christian values.

And of course, Phillips wants to avoid mentioning that because that would mean he would have to hold himself and other secularists responsible for the evangelicals’ actions and reactions. And so, instead of saying that that is what got the evangelicals energized and that is what they supported in Bush, he wants to say, "Oh, they supported him because of the code language that Bush used."

After all, Jimmy Carter used the code language. Even Ronald Reagan did. But, the real reason why evangelicals did not support Jimmy Carter was because he did not do anything to stop the liberal secular onslaught. Ronald Reagan gave rhetorical support, but did nothing practically to stop it.

Phillips is a secular conservative who tends to be an economic conservative. He represents the country-club Republicans against the Main Street Republicans that I have been talking about before. He and Arlen Specter, he and John Danforth have a lot in common. They loath all those people whose votes they have needed for so long and now Kevin Phillips says, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."
 
His book, like many religious books that contain much that is true and a few crucial things that are false, dare I say, is a heresy. Because his book contains much that is very true and then there are some fundamental things that are very false.

A moment ago, I mentioned that there was little evidence that Phillips had talked to any actual living, breathing evangelical outside the Beltway. I think he's utterly uninterested in those. And there is also no evidence whatever that he read what he purports to be an extremely important and dangerous book that, according to Phillips, shaped President Bush's views of dealing with Iraq. That book is Oswald Chambers' book of devotions, whose title which Phillips does not give, “My Utmost for His Highest.”

Phillips points out that Oswald Chambers was a preacher to the British forces stationed in Egypt in 1917 in the First World War, on the eve of going into Palestine and into Iraq. And he leaves the impression that this book was essentially a rallying of the British troops to carry a crusade into Palestine and to Iraq. And he, therefore, leaves the impression that when Bush was reading this book prior to the invasion of Iraq that that was--he was also being inspired by this evangelical Bible-believing Christian to a crusade.

Well, I happen to have read that book. It is a book of daily devotions. There is a one page entry for every day of the year. There is no reference whatever to anything in international politics or domestic politics or any region of the world, and certainly nothing whatever to do with the Middle East or Egypt or Palestine or Iraq in 1917. And to purport that that's what that book is an outrageous falsehood.

Phillips doesn't claim to have read the book. He cites an article in the London Times that makes the charge that Bush is reading this crusade-inspiring work. Yes, Chambers calls the reader and the believer to a great struggle. That is true. And the great struggle is with the sin and sloth within oneself. It is completely a book of personal devotions, urging personal spirituality and leading to personal actions.

You've said Phillips is an astute analyst and that he writes that America has seen repeated and intense revivals of Christian piety. Have these revivals had an effect on the great policy debates of this country, such as slavery, immigration, our involvement in foreign wars?
 

I can draw upon Phillips' own analysis to answer that question. Phillips makes clear in his account of the revivals that for the most part they occur in those parts of society that are not at its center but out on the periphery, for example, the frontier. That they are not in the upper classes but in the lower classes.
 
So, of course, you can have generation after generation of periodic revivals. But, policies, generation after generation, have been made by, as Alexander Hamilton said, "the rich, the well born, and the able." And so, of course you can have religious revivals that flair up and burn over, but for the most part do not affect policy. That's exactly what the history of the Republican Party has been ever since Phillips constructed the “emerging Republican majority” strategy [in his first book, published in 1969, which served as a blueprint for Republican Party strategy], which is that the Republican elites, as I've said before, gave the Republican base the rhetoric it wanted but not the policy it wanted.

There are times when the revivals do penetrate into the elites and may set not only the tone but sometimes the direction of a policy. The most famous case of course has been the first Great Awakening, shaping the American Revolution a generation or two later. And there was a later great awakening in the late 1850s that presumably helped shape the Civil War.

Most Southerners did not hold slaves--and on their own they probably would not have led to secession. But, it was the Southern elites who did hold slaves who brought about the secession. Overall, one can say that even when religion has had its greatest impact in some particular event, it was never the decisive influence in any event in American history since the founding of the United States. Other factors were far more important.

And one would only select religion as a decisive cause for the great and especially bad events in American history if one had a preexisting agenda to say that religion is a great and bad thing. And Kevin Phillips, as a secular Republican, now more secular than Republican, wants to say that.

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