Tea parties: scalding or soothing evangelicals?

Palin addresses the Tea Party

Either the religious right is cozying up to the “tea party” movement or it fears it. Depending which story you read, that is. The first article to hit our mailboxes this morning was the Los Angeles Times. “Social conservatives put religious twist on ‘tea party’ message” says that activists are working together based on a shared concern over growing government.

Reporter Kathleen Hennessey begins her article by characterizing the movement using theater terminology:

For most of a year, the small-government advocates of the “tea party” movement have stolen the spotlight from the Republican Party’s veteran performers: the Christian conservatives who have long driven voters to the polls for the GOP.

Now the veterans are stealing the tea partyers lines.

In news releases, mission statements and interviews, prominent social conservatives increasingly are using the small-government rhetoric popular with the tea party activists and long used by economic conservatives — but with a religious bent.

The rhetorical “shift” is evidence of how potent the growth of government is as a galvanizing issue on the right, she says. Now, I know that during the previous administration, social conservatives adopted a lot of the “compassionate conservatism” talk and its attendant increase in the size and scope of government but the article probably should have mentioned that this supposedly new rhetoric sounds very similar to what social conservatives have said during the 1980s and 1990s, at least.

In fact, as I was reading this article I kept thinking of how Grover Norquist has always said how the right should bill itself: The Leave Us Alone Coalition. And a few paragraphs into the article, we get this quote:

“The reason why social conservatives and economic conservatives can play well together . . . is the guy who wants to go to church all day just wants to be left alone. So does the guy who wants to play with his gun all day, and the guy who wants to make money all day,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “They don’t agree on how to spend their time, but they do agree on their central issue: They want to be left alone.”

Again, this is not a new formation. Norquist was talking about it at least 10 years ago.

Anyway, the piece shows how social conservatives are still active and effective (see: fight over federal funding of abortion in the health care bill) but also notes that social issues seem to be taking a back seat to constitutional principles and government spending.

Okay, now let’s go over to Politico where we learn that “Tea parties stir evangelicals’ fears.” It kind of does the same thing that the Times did — it throws out a possible narrative and then just includes lots of quotes from people who are trying to push that narrative. It just turns out that they happened to pick competing narratives.

Or maybe it just indicates some belated but necessary attempts by the media to get a handle on what’s driving the change in political moods. One of my favorite things about the competing narratives, by the way, is that they use the same picture for both stories!

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  • Peter

    The Times story hinges on Norquist, who infamously talks out of both sides of his mouth to whatever audience he us in front of. He likes social conservative firepower but is uninterested in the culture war. He is friendly with gay conservatives and has shown no passon for the pro-life agenda. Some context would have helped here if he is the lynchpin authority.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Agreed. At the very least they should have noted how invested he’s been in this narrative for DECADES.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    During the 2008 primaries I saw the blogging media highlight the sharp differences between fiscal conservatives and social conservatives. Secular fiscal conservatives do not play nicely with theistic social conservatives.

  • Paul

    It may depend on the religious ones, after Romney’s astounding statement to the Tea Party to vote his way, since he feels he is the GOP shoe-in, Mitts evangelical blogger’s may feel the Tea Party stands next to only the devil, there is where the fear is.


  • Jerry

    The reason why social conservatives and economic conservatives can play well together … is the guy who wants to go to church all day just wants to be left alone.

    This does not apply, of course, to issues such as stem cell research, abortion etc where the left is saying that people should be left alone to follow their conscience. Thus the statement is wrong on its face.

    I’m also waiting to hear something about how religion is playing in the larger (from a facebook friend perspective) pro-moderate Coffee Party although that might not have been settled yet.

  • dalea

    The Politico link goes to a story dated 3/02/2010 titled: How real is the Dems’ momentum? Did not find any mention of the tea partiers.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I noticed your comment and fixed the link. Should work now!

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Thanks — I fixed the link.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Whoops! It was already fixed. Now it’s doublefixed.

    Also, a reminder to avoid using derogatory terms when discussing tea partiers.

  • dalea

    Politico has some numbers:

    There’s little data on the disparate tea party movement. One small CNN survey of self-identified tea party activists found that 68 percent identify themselves as Protestants or other non-Catholic Christians, as opposed to just 50 percent in the general population. Only 9 percent of the activists say they’re irreligious, as opposed to 14 percent in the broader sample.

    But an in-depth study of 49 tea party leaders by the free-market oriented Sam Adams Alliance suggested that the leadership consciously avoids social issues and plans to continue doing so.

    “None of them chose social issues as the sole direction for the movement,” said the group’s marketing director, Anne Sorock, who oversaw the study.

    She said that while many of the leaders held conservative views on social issues, “they were completely adamant that [the issues] were not a part of their agenda for the long term.”

    If there is little data, how does the reporter know the movement is disparate? It seems that reporters should be gathering information on the participants before making declarations about them. I would really like to see in depth interviews with a number of tea partiers before making any journalistic descriptions of them.

  • Dave

    The Tea Party movement is amorphous enough that both the MSM and Republican niche leaders who want to corral it can see anything they want in it. It reminds me, paradoxically, of the lefty youth movement of the Sixties. The press never got a decent handle on that either.

  • Tyson K

    Politico has actually had some coverage of how some tea party leaders are consciously modeling their activism on that of leftist ’60s leaders like Saul Alinsky. Here’s one article; there are others. I know I read somewhere a tea-party strategist or maybe even conservative office-holder saying that though they completely disagree with Alinsky’s views, his tactics were spot-on.


  • Harris

    As an on-the-ground political participant, I found Politico’s take to be similar to what I’m seeing: the activists driving the GOP right now — the ones with the most energy — see to be much more self-identified economic/libertarian sorts.

    There does seem to be a gap, or at the least, a shift of energy and rhetoric: culture war issues lack the grip.

    I suspect what makes this so confusing is that the economic conservative often also has a religious identity, as well. Thus when reading comments in a comm box, writers will utilize evangelical or culture war language and so echo the usual cultural war themes. But what seems to get the base excited these days (at least hear in Michigan) are the economic issues.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    As a Tea Party watcher and sympathizer, there really is a disconnect between the religious and the secular side. It is true that a lot of religious are also Tea Party supporters, but it seems to be made up of mostly secular economic conservatives. Bring up issues of “gay marriage” and “anti-abortion” among the tea party and watch the sparks. If the MSM and liberals weren’t so blind I could see them pulling some kind of Alinsky stunts to pull the tea party apart. Luckily these two groups hate them both and so see them as the same thing; keeping a cohesion by shared enemy.