Kevin Phillips was promoting his new book “American Theocracy” on CNN the other nite. Summarizing his analysis in one sound byte, he said that his research indicates that the overwhelming majority of American evangelicals and other sects of the Religious Right no longer care about deficits, economics, the environment or even competent government. According to Phillips, this majority of voting Americans is now waiting in one form or another for the imminent End Times or Rapture. Alan Brinkley, reviewing Phillips in the Times, says:
If there is a single, if implicit, theme running through the three linked essays that form this book, it is the failure of leaders to look beyond their own and the country's immediate ambitions and desires so as to plan prudently for a darkening future.John Morris Roberts touched on this obliquely in his “History of the World” and the companion “A Short History of the World”. With events fractalizing increasingly rapidly, turning to works such as Roberts' can provide some altitude and perspective. For this post, the narrow issue is Roberts' brief summary of anthropological research on hominids' evolution giving rise to humans 2 million years ago in Africa.
Roberts, summarizing other experts, notes the opposing thumb granted our ancestors unquestioned evolutionary advantages. It was, however, the evolution of the mammalian brain that granted our ancestors the capacity to begin to plan ahead. The ability to plan allowed hunting, the family unit, and oddly enough led onwards to strip malls, Paris Hilton and PPV movies. He writes “Once prudence, forethought and skill made it possible for some of them [our ancient ancestors] to avoid disaster, a new force was at work in [genetic] selection.”
Olduvai Gorge in Africa is the first evidence of humans planning and making tools. We have come a long way since.
Now we seemingly want to go back. If Phillips is right, we as a society are rejecting outright the very essence of our humanity — our capacity for reason and forethought. We are essentially rejecting the very genetic selection that made humanity human. Perhaps not coincidentally, according to Phillips, we are doing so at a moment of comparative wealth and technological possibility. Similar tendancies and fates he warns befell Great Britain and the Dutch Republic.
We all know the contemporary evidence that Phillips refers to. Arianna Huffington picks up on Bush's answer Monday whether we are now in the End Times. The question presented to him was “Do you believe this, that the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism are signs of the apocalypse? And if not, why not?” His obviously evasive non-answer answer was — “first I've heard of that” — which convinced no one. And on to the NASA censorship, stem cell research, Creationism, etc.
What remains to be seen — haven't read his book yet — is whether Phillips (or anyone of that school of thought) has a solution. Diagnosing the problem, while important, begs the most important question: what can be done? If Phillips is correct about the demographics and their beliefs, reason and logic do not seem particularly useful. And perversely, the worse things get, the more it confirms the apocalyptic eschatology.
Phil Longman at New America Foundation has a simple if Malthusian solution — a baby race. He posits that so far, the Religious Right is outbreeding the rest of the country. Under this view, those committed to liberal democracy, the Enlightenment, reason and science simply need to turn Leno off, lose the birth control and get on it. If only it were that simple. Phillips on tv promoting his book suggests that it is not just popping out empiricists. Larger factors are at work. He offers apparently a materialist explanation: the very affluence of society promotes abandonment of Reason and encourages the irrational.
Is it too late? Are we past the tipping point? It would be interesting to see if Longman and Phillips debate these issues. In February 2006 some 86 evangelical leaders already split with the base and call for scientific rigor on climate change. They have announced the “Evangelical Climate Initiative.” Perhaps the analytical divide is not according to religious intensity per se, but the more simple question: do you support the Enlightenment, Reason and Rationality? If Phillips' materialist explanation is correct, it may not matter. But if more than materialism is at work, then perhaps our hope lies with a reformation here at home, just as one hopes for its equivalent within Islam.