Separation Anxiety: How Intertwined Should Religion and Politics Be in America? Authors of New Books Are Voting on the Issue

Article excerpt

THE NEW MILLENNIUM DID NOT USHER IN GOD'S reign with an apocalyptic bang, but the last decade has witnessed a worldwide explosion of faith-based politics that most diplomats and world leaders found as unexpected as the Second Coming. Today, however, everyone seems to understand that religion is a major political force at home and abroad. Around the world revolutionary or terrorist groups opposing globalization or American foreign policy identify themselves as religious and ground their politics or violence in sacred texts. Meanwhile, here in the United States religious groups have gained unprecedented access to Congress and the White House. Indeed, in America religion and politics have become kissing cousins, and many worry that the constitutional barrier separating church and state could soon--like the walls of Jericho--come tumbling down.

Political commentator and former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips sees the precipitous rise of religious influence in American politics as something of an apocalyptic event, signaling the demise or at least rapid decline of America's political and economic power. In American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (Viking, 2006) Phillips reports, "The world's leading economic and military power is also--no one can misread the data--the world's leading Bible-reading crusader state, immersed in an Old Testament of stern prophets and bloody Middle Eastern battlefields."

This is not good news for Phillips, who argues that the United States (like the Roman, Spanish, Dutch, and British empires) exhibits several signs of the religious fervor associated with a dying power, including: "widespread concern over cultural and economic decay," an intensifying "church-state relationship," a downplaying of reason and science, and a growing expectation of some apocalyptic event.

Phillips is deeply concerned that the rise of what he calls "radicalized religion" represents a shift away from reasoned, prudent, and tolerant politics, towards a crusading spirit that leads nations to ignore scientific evidence about evolution, reproduction, geology, and global warming, and to engage in military and imperial "overreach" that has America mired in costly and futile conflicts. He also worries about religious leaders taking over political parties, or about a major political party becoming sectarian.

Phillips' specific concern about the rise of religious influence in American politics has to do with the influence of the Religious Right on the Republican party and the Bush White House. He is not worried about liberal religious forces reshaping American politics, but that is largely because Phillips sees the mainline Protestant (and Catholic) churches that might challenge the Religious Right as losing ground and membership.

Indeed, in Phillips' view, more moderate or liberal religious voices have consistently failed to match the vigor, passion, and organizational skills of their more conservative opponents, thus ceding the American pulpit to Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and the Southern Baptist Convention. For many religious readers, Phillips' book is not a warning that America is getting too religious, but that American politics is only being shaped by one set of religious voices, suggesting the rise of a theological monarchy. …