How the GOP Became God's Own Party
By Kevin Phillips
April 2, 2006
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 Mideast.
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 Nixon Era."
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 debt.
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
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
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
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
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 hardly assured.
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
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
Kevin Phillips is the author of "American Theocracy: The Perils and
Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st