Is the Tea Party a Christian Movement?
To borrow a more inflammatory phrase from George Will, Reverend Wallis becomes, when describing conservative Christians and conservative policy preferences, "a pyromaniac in a field of straw men." His argument against the Tea Party is a sterling example. Wallis felt caricatured when Glenn Beck reduced his vision of social justice to "forced redistribution of wealth, with a hostility to individual property." As Wallis wrote, "virtually no church in America, or the world, would support anything close to that as a definition of social justice." Yet Wallis himself is guilty of caricature. Virtually no Tea Party supporter would accept anything close to his definition of their movement.
The first sleight of hand comes in the phase, "Tea Party Libertarianism." Wallis poses the question: "Just how Christian is the Tea Party movement -- and the Libertarian political philosophy that lies behind it?" Yet not all Tea Party supporters are Libertarians, and Wallis twists the Libertarian "political philosophy" beyond recognition. It is better to think of libertarianism and statism as two warring political impulses. All agree that some amount of government intrusion is necessary to maintain order, protect the innocent, and defend the homeland. All likewise agree that some amount of government limitation is necessary in order to constrain government powers, protect private enterprise and preserve individual rights and freedoms. Tea Party supporters are convinced that we have gone too far in the statist direction, and thus there is need for a libertarian impulse to limit government powers. This does not make them Libertarians in the classical sense, and certainly not in the extreme sense that Wallis describes.
In other words, Tea Party supporters and detractors alike believe that government should be neither too small to discharge its essential functions nor too large to preserve a space for individual rights and liberties. They disagree on where "too small" and "too large" stand upon the spectrum. Arguing that government should be smaller than it presently is does not amount to advocating no government at all (as Wallis depicts "Tea Party Libertarianism") any more than arguing that government should be larger than it presently is amounts to advocating communism.
How, then, does Reverend Wallis describe the "political philosophy" of the Tea Party? Wallis likens the Tea Partiers to the murderous Cain, who believed or pretended to believe that he was not his brother's keeper. The philosophy underpinning the Tea Party represents an "enshrinement of individual choice" that rejects "loving the neighbor" in favor of "telling the neighbor to leave you alone." The Tea Party apparently rejects the very idea of government for the common good. It is an "anti-government ideology" that leaves no place for a government "preserving the social order, punishing evil and rewarding good, and protecting the common good." Finally (I will deal with the racism charge in the third part of this series), Wallis condemns the Tea Party's "preference for the strong over the weak" through its "supreme confidence in the market" -- indeed, in a "sinless market" that has no need for oversight or regulation. The values of the Tea Party do not honor "God's priorities" but "the priorities of the Chamber of Commerce."
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.