How Christian Is the Tea Party?
By Jonathan Merritt
January 4, 2011
The morning following Election Day is always filled with winners and losers. But this past November, a surprising winner could have delivered an acceptance speech: the Tea Party.
Of the 60 seats turned over in Congress, Tea Party-endorsed candidates made up more than 30 of them. President Obama called it a “shellacking.”
As the new Congress gets sworn in today and we enter a non-election year, it’s easy to forget—but hard to overstate—the influence and momentum of this political amalgam. Formed as a grassroots reaction to the election of Barack Obama and policies such as the health care reform bill and the bailout of the auto and banking industries, the Tea Party is flying high. Nearly four in 10 Americans claim to be a part of the movement.
“Tea Party influence is likely to extend beyond mere numbers,” the L.A. Times reports. “By stiffening the anti-spending bloc in the House and Senate, the Tea Party members will put new pressure on conservative Democrats as well as members of their own party, impacting future legislative battles and the climate for 2012.”
But who are these people? Are they truly a third party or just a reinvigorated Republican conglomerate? What do Tea Partiers believe, and what do they want?
Some have speculated that the Tea Party is actually a new expression of the old Christian right. According to an October 2010 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 47 percent of Americans who support the Tea Party also say they identify with the Christian right. Additionally, the study found that nearly half of Tea Partiers believe America is “a Christian nation” and the Bible is the literal word of God.
“If you took the Christians and their values out of the Tea Party movement, it would no longer be a movement. It would no longer be a factor on America’s political scene,” says Joseph Farah, editor-in-chief of WorldNetDaily and author of The Tea Party Manifesto. He notes that the movement recognizes America as a “self-governing Christian society” and points out that every Tea Party meeting he has attended began in prayer.
Additionally, some Christian leaders have fallen in line with the movement, and others have been quick to declare their affections for the party after the midterm results were counted. Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, held a post-election press conference and made it clear that the “Tea Party and evangelicals are not at odds.”
It’s what Robert Jones of PRRI has called a “shotgun wedding” between Christians and the Tea Party. “But these groups’ happy union is challenged by a classic relationship problem: misplaced worries that there are serious divisions where there are few, and blind confidence that there are no divisions where significant differences lurk,” he says. Christians need to ask just how “Christian” this movement is, so as not to rush off to the altar and wake up the next morning with regrets.
Who’s Throwing This Party?
The last time we saw a so-called “Republican revolution” was in 1994 when no Republican incumbent lost and America witnessed a 54-seat swing. In that year, Christian political leaders were among the most notable and vocal voices. Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, for example, was at its political peak and distributed 40 million copies of the “Family Values Voters Guides” in more than 100,000 churches nationwide.
But this movement is quite different in terms of leadership. “There are massive numbers of Christians, especially evangelical Christians, awakening as part of the Tea Party movement. Polls show a clear majority of them fit this category,” Farah says. “But, whereas the movement spurred by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell was an awakening led largely by Christian leaders, this movement arises in the midst of a vacuum of spiritual leadership.”
Rather than cheering for evangelical pastors on political talk shows, conservative evangelicals are now tuning into lectures from Mormon pundit Glenn Beck or downright offensive soliloquies from radio host Mark Williams (who was thrown out as a Tea Party spokesperson for making racially charged comments). Many Tea Partiers admit being influenced by the writings of philosopher Ayn Rand, who was both an atheist and anti-Christian and authored such best-sellers as Atlas Shrugged that de-emphasize humans’ moral obligations to others. And former U.S. Representative Dick Armey, who has been vocal over the years in his opposition to well-known Christian leaders such as James Dobson, is a prominent Tea Party leader.
Whether or not this movement can be called “Christian” may be up for debate, but we can say for certain that at least some of its leadership doesn’t fit the bill. And, as a result, not every Christian is falling in lockstep behind the ones throwing this party.
Sure, there are some evangelical Christians, including Sarah Palin, at the helm of this movement, but their involvement has often been eclipsed by others. It was Beck who delivered the commencement address this year at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, and his “Rally to Restore Honor” was seen by some as an effort to mobilize religious voters behind his headship. Gallup reports that the Fox News host is now admired by more Americans than the pope. His rising popularity as a spokesperson for evangelicals has incited a backlash from many Christian leaders.
“I was disturbed to see huge sectors of American Christianity willing to repudiate the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the sake of a political movement,” says Russell Moore, Dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Glenn Beck, who is a member of a church which denies that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, set himself up as a religious leader, leading a ‘revival.’ Some so-called ‘evangelical’ leaders empowered him to do so, and that is a scandal.”
This is not to suggest Christians should rush off to form their own political enclaves with their own self-appointed Christian generals. That’s an approach that was tried by previous generations, and the net effect on the Christian movement has been disastrous. Still, when evaluating any organization to which pundits apply the “Christian” moniker, we must ask whether the leaders are faithful to such a label. And in the case of the Tea Party, we find a mixed bag at best.
What’s Being Celebrated?
As with any party, you would want to know who (or what) the party is for before agreeing to attend. It seems the same principle applies here. So what exactly do Tea Partiers believe, and how does that line up with where Christians have stood historically?
When Tea Partiers were asked what most stoked their passions in a CBS News/New York Times survey, the top four responses were the health care reform bill, the government not representing the people, government spending and the economy.
They overwhelmingly see illegal immigration as a serious problem and doubt the impact of global warming. Ninety-two percent say America is on the wrong track, 88 percent disapprove of the president’s performance on the job and only 1 percent approve of the job Congress is doing.
In light of such things, Moore notes the Tea Party may have retained the tone and strategy of the religious right, but the emphasis has clearly changed. During the “Republican revolution” in 1994, the most pressing issues were the so-called “moral issues” dealing with traditional values. But those have been a non-factor in this new movement.
As Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith of Politico said before the November election, “At a moment that finds the Right energized and seemingly ascendant, the battles over morality-based cultural issues such as gay marriage, abortion and illegal drugs that did so much to drive the conservative movement and dominated the political conversation for more than 30 years have abated, giving way not just to economic anxiety, but to a new set of emotionally charged issues.”
“What the Tea Party movement is really about—fundamentally—is a desire to return America to its constitutional roots and its form of limited government and self-government,” Farah says. “Having spoken to tens of thousands of Tea Party activists and met hundreds and hundreds of them, I believe the mission statement that best represents this movement can be found in the Declaration of Independence.”
Such a sentiment would be a shift for those Christians who believe for better or ill that another document must guide us as people—namely, the Bible. But it also marks a change in the guiding narrative of Christian political engagement. Rather than being rooted in a personal faith that guides a political narrative, public discourse is now largely rooted in American historical narrative.
Perhaps the Tea Party agenda is made up of issues that Christians can, in good conscience, rightfully support. That’s a separate debate. But issues historically championed by most Christians have taken a back seat.
Who’s at the Party?
You can tell a lot about a movement by simply showing up, looking around and surveying the participants. When you sample the Tea Party, you find—to put it bluntly—middle-aged, angry, white people. Only 1 percent of Tea Partiers are black, 75 percent are 45 years old or older, and 53 percent describe themselves as “angry” about what is going on in Washington.
These are problems for a movement largely comprised of Christians, and one that needs the continued support of Christians to survive. Any organization with hopes for long-term viability must find new recruits. Every movement is either getting older or staying younger. But this movement doesn’t seem able to capture the heart of younger voters.
This goes back to the question of agenda. Not only does the Tea Party seem disinterested in traditional issues, but they also fail to address things many young people care about. Poverty, environmental care and global injustice are mostly absent in Tea Party discussions in favor of issues for which young people have rarely shown concern (i.e., small government and social security).
“I think you’re going to see the next generation of evangelicals, unlike the last generation, unwilling to be an interest group of either party or either movement,” Moore says. “Evangelicals will be concerned about the unborn, the orphaned, the widowed, the immigrant and enslaved, and [they] will be drawn to issues ranging from the right-to-life, to creation care to AIDS relief in ways that don’t fit the easy categorizations.”
After Moore wrote an article criticizing Glenn Beck’s rally, he said he received an onslaught of complaints. Interestingly, the responses were almost exclusively from angry baby boomers. “Those falling for this kind of hyper-politicized civil religion tend to be in the oldest wave of the baby boomers. Younger evangelicals tend to be more theologically and missiologically defined,” he says.
Perhaps there is some overlap between the conservative Christian movement and the Tea Party movement. But if it might be appropriately labeled “Christian,” it does so without Christian leadership, without much of the historic Christian agenda and without the support of an entire generation.
The After Party
As the dust settles from last year’s election, the Tea Party may just be getting started. Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, a national Tea Party group claiming 650,000 members, says their “long-term goal is to build a movement that is here to stay for decades and focus on our core issues.”
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn) newly formed Tea Party congressional caucus already has more than 50 members. A representative for Bachmann told FoxNews.com that they are expecting “a huge boost when the new Congress meets.”
The growing prominence of the Tea Party movement only intensifies our need as Christians to be prayerful and thoughtful in public engagement. We should be slow to enlist ourselves in any organization whose message could usurp the Gospel’s and cautious about any agenda other than Christ’s.
“The quest for political power (whether Left or Right),” Moore reminds us, “always diverts the Church from the Gospel of the Kingdom.” There’s no real reason the Tea Party might be called “Christian.” Like any political movement, it runs the risk of distracting Christians from things of first importance.
This article is excerpted from the brand new issue of RELEVANT. If you don't subscribe but want more stuff like this, you can subscribe here. Jonathan Merritt is the author of Green Like God (2010) and a faith and culture writer whose work has appeared in such outlets as USA Today, CNN.com and The Washington Post.