I went to the bookstore last week with the intention of buying Kevin Phillips’ ostentatious new title American Theocracy. I was disappointed to learn the book is neither principally nor even predominantly about religion in public life. Phillips dedicated one of three sections — a little more than a hundred pages — to conservative Christianity. The rest of the book is about oil and government debt. Instead of offering anything new, Phillips has merely repackaged old obloquies about the president and his family. His book is worthy of, at best, a roll of the eyes. I left the bookstore empty-handed.
But Phillips’s op-ed in Sunday’s Washington Post, titled “How the GOP Became God’s Own Party,” contains a string of inexcusably Christianity-ignorant calumnies that must be dealt with.
To begin with, Phillips attributes the rise of the American South as an electoral force to “a high-powered, crusading fundamentalism,” by which he means evangelical Christianity. And yet modern evangelical Christianity, which is the real growing force in American politics today, is neither fundamentalist nor particularly Southern.
Southerners are not especially more likely to do things such as attend church weekly than Midwesterners and Westerners. For example, according to the Christian polling outfit the Barna Group, 48% of Southerners attend church on a regular basis, compared to 46% of Midwesterners and 41% of Westerners. It is only when we look at Northeasterners that the number falls to 35%.
Moreover, as pollsters Anna Greenberg and Jennifer Berktold observed in their 2004 study, “Evangelicals in America,” “White evangelicals are not overly concentrated in the South, despite popular assumptions. Rather, white evangelical Christians are evenly spread out throughout the country.” Twenty-eight percent of the nation’s population lives in the Deep South, 31% of evangelicals live there. Whereas 16% of the nation’s population inhabits the East North Central, 19% of evangelicals live there. And whereas 16% of the nation’s population lives in Pacific states, 14% of evangelicals call the West Coast home.
Conservative Christianity is an American religion, not a Southern one.
Secondly, Phillips charges that the GOP has fallen under the spell of “an end-times electorate.” Without a single reference, quote, or definitive tie to public policy, Phillips nevertheless asserts:
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.
Phillips here is talking about premillennial dispensationalism, the latest obsession among liberal pundits whose earlier efforts to marginalize conservative Christians on matters of public policy (abortion, evolution, etc.) have not borne fruit. Finding themselves fighting now from the business end of countless “80-20 issues,” liberals try to secure middle ground by attributing to all orthodox Christians the theological doctrine that believers will sit at the right hand of God while unbelievers suffer through the rapture.
Yet premillennial dispensationalism enjoys something far short of consensus among Christians. As Kyle Fisk, executive administrator of the 30 million strong National Association of Evangelicals, told me, “We don’t even talk about the end times because we can’t come to a consensus view about it.” Fisk seemed positively nonplussed in my presence that premillennial dispensationalism would rise to the level of anti-evangelical talking point. “It’s not even a majority view among evangelicals, certainly not pastors.”
Further, the only “proof” I have ever found to support the “many millions believe in premillennial dispensationalism” argument is the impressive sales figures of the Left Behind series of novels, which takes the rapture as its setting. And yet this same unscholarly approach can be used to conclude from the extraordinary sales of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code that Magdalene-worship is America’s predominant faith tradition. Absurd.
Worse still is Phillips’s jab about “George W. Bush’s conviction that God wanted him to be president,” again without any supporting reference. This is yet another oft repeated attack on the president. But Phillips either intentionally ignores what most Christians believe about predestination or he is himself ignorant of it. As a believing, born again Christian, President Bush sees God as the author of all things, not merely his presidency.
And so, of course God called George W. Bush to that high office, just as He, for reasons all His own, called Kevin Phillips to write such a mean-spirited, dishonest op-ed in the Washington Post.