Is the Tea Party a Christian Movement?
Finally, Tea Party supporters are not very extreme in their social views. Fifty-five percent believe the gun laws currently on the books are perfectly acceptable, 57% are in favor of granting marital or civil union status to gay couples, and 65% believe that abortions should remain available at least in some circumstances. Only 7% believe that blacks have a better chance of getting ahead in society today, compared to 16% who believe that whites are still advantaged. Moreover, as a recent Gallup poll showed, the demographics of Tea Party supporters are not much different from the demographics of American society at large. These are not extremists who took their jeeps from the militia ranch. These are ordinary Americans, mostly middle class, with justified concerns about the unaccountability and profligate spending of our government.
I find little merit in Wallis' argument that the Tea Party movement contradicts Christian virtues of compassion and social responsibility. Ultimately, then, is it a Christian movement?
I can only answer yes and no. If Wallis means to ask whether the vision of government that lies behind the Tea Party is the only sensible expression of biblical values, then I would say that the answer is no. By that standard, however, the progressive vision of "social justice" is not Christian either. Both conservative and liberal visions of government can draw upon different biblical passages and principles for support.
The Bible is not a civics textbook. It tells us that we should love the neighbor, yet it does not tell us which policies best express that love. It tells us to protest injustice and stand with the oppressed, yet it does not tell us whether liberal or conservative policies best respond to injustice and oppression. How simple and easy it would be if one political philosophy were the clear deliverance of scripture, and all Christians could give themselves wholeheartedly to its advocacy. Instead, Christians are left with the hard task of discernment. And if I believe the whole counsel of scripture is better honored by the conservative vision of society, animated by compassionate love and guided by biblical principles of justice, honesty, accountability, and stewardship, I do not accuse my more liberal brethren of scorning the poor just because they disagree.
In the New York Times poll, 39% of Tea Party supporters identified themselves as evangelicals or "born again," and 83% identify as Protestant or Catholic. If Wallis were correct in his description of the philosophy that undergirds their movement, then these conservative Christians would be abandoning the essential ethical principles of their faith. Yet this is hardly the case. What separates Jim Wallis from the Tea Partiers is not a difference of moral quality, or the presence and absence of compassion, but a different vision of the society that biblical love and justice require.
I am weary of the battles between conservative and liberal Christians. Even in our disagreements, we should represent one another with honesty and charity. I am happy to grant that liberals who engage in social-political movements, even when they are mistaken in the policies they prefer, are generally inspired by honest concern for the greater good. Can progressive Christians acknowledge the same of conservatives? Can they accept that the Tea Partiers are not motivated by ignorance, anger, and bigotry, but by sincere concern for the good of their country?
If so, then they should reject the caricature of the Tea Party movement, and reject the caricature of their Christian brothers and sisters within it.
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.