God and the Tea Party

Whatever else might be said of the current political climate, there’s no doubt that it’s interesting. No one quite knows what might happen in the coming election but we do know that we’ve seen a pretty dramatic shift from 2008, when Democrats seemed unstoppable. Most of the excitement right now is happening in the Tea Party.

But what is the Tea Party? I remember when I was at the first 9/12 rally in Washington, D.C., tmatt asked for a report on what the media missed in terms of religion coverage. The fact was that I saw almost no religious signage, even if the attendees included a fair number of churchgoers. The T-shirt worn by the girl in this picture was one of the few exceptions.

But then there was Glenn Beck’s March to Restore Honor on August 28. That had heavy religion messages, although it was more civil religion than Mormonism. We looked at some of the coverage of the religious overtones of that event at the time. Barbara Bradley Hagerty has a piece for NPR that accurately reflects the tension within the Tea Party movement along religious lines.

She visits a local Tea Party event where concerned citizens are given updates on what’s happening nationwide:

On the one end of the spectrum, Stacey Hagga says that religion and socially conservative issues are simply not a factor in the Tea Party movement.

“I personally don’t know the last time I was at church,” she says, shifting her toddler from one hip to the other. “I think people are just generally concerned about the economy and the direction of our country. I have my 2-year-old here and I’m just concerned about his future.”

Nearby, Sandy Smith, a registered nurse, sees some religious undercurrents to the Tea Party movement.

“It’s a movement about the Founding Fathers and what their faith was to this country, and how they brought faith over to this country,” she says.

Smith is describing a “civil religion” that seems to appeal to many Tea Partiers: the idea that America was a divine experiment, that the Founding Fathers were Christian men who created a nation on biblical principles. She says America in 2010 has lost that.

One reader who submitted the story noted one problematic aspect to the story. Immediately after a discussion of evangelicals and the Tea Party movement, a quote from Glenn Beck is slipped in. His actual religious affiliation, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, isn’t mentioned in the story.

Anyway, Hagerty doesn’t just use anecdotes or quotes from one Tea Party meeting in Northern Virginia. She also looks at the data, which shows that Tea Partiers are more likely to be weekly churchgoers and conservative Christians than the population as a whole. She looks at how some conservative Christian groups are trying to pressure prominent Tea Party folks into elevating social conservative issues — something that isn’t happening.

And yet, there’s still tension between these two groups. For example, [Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association] recently interviewed Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, on his nationwide radio program. Fischer told her that evangelicals want some signal that the Tea Party movement supports their views on abortion and marriage.

“Can we hear that message from the Tea Party leadership?” he asked.

“You’re not going to hear it from me,” she responded. “I’m sorry, I’m going to disappoint you.”

The piece goes on to explain that the Tea Party includes atheists, libertarians and others who are primarily motivated not by social conservatism or religion but on concerns about the size and scope of government.

I was hanging out last night with some other journalists who live on my block and we were talking about how some reporters try to force a particular angle, tone or narrative into a story. As journalists, we know that it’s pretty rare that a story can be told simply or that a source will give the perfect quote.

What I like about this story is that it explores the tension and includes a variety of viewpoints without forcing a particular answer. Is the Tea Party movement religious? Yes. Also no. Kudos to NPR for giving Hagerty the space needed to explore the issue accurately rather than forcing a simple answer on listeners.

I should also note how surprised I was to read in the New York Times that the United Church of Christ and the National Baptist Convention were co-sponsors of this weekend’s One Nation Working Together rally on the mall. Even if there were 300-plus groups sponsoring, the religious influences of the rally were largely unexplored. There even was an interesting angle (unnoticed by the mainstream media) of the United Methodist Church backing out of its sponsorship at the last minute, citing concerns over the tone of the rally and of co-sponsors. They didn’t state which co-sponsors were problematic but the march included the Communist Party USA and other radical groups. Once again, though, the religious left is largely invisible to the media.

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  • Dave

    Mollie, the only Tea Partier with who I’m in frequent contact is a fellow regular commenter on a popular Pagan blog. She has talked to better than 60 other Pagans in the movement and says none of them report religious hostility within the Party. Pardon what may be my prejudice but that does not sound like a cohort heavily influenced by conservative Christians.

    On the other hand, another regular on the same blog reports a heavy social- and religious-conservative presence in the Tea Party events she’s attended. I suspect the divergence is due to the intensely local nature of Tea Party organization.

    All of which evidently goes on well below the media radar except for the candidate (now nominee) who “dabbled” in Paganism when much younger. What the religious left and politically active Pagans have in common is shared invisibility.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “Fischer told her that evangelicals want some signal that the Tea Party movement supports their views on abortion and marriage.”

    Being pro-life and pro-biblical marriage is a litmus test for this Bible-believing Christian voter.

  • Jerry

    Your mention of Glenn Beck as a political activist is I think very accurate. I can only imagine the jet-engine volume howls about the MSM from conservatives if a comparable media figure on the left had held a rally for a comparable cause.

    Looking at the individuals and groups promoting the tea parties such as the Koch brothers is I think very important to understand quite a bit of what is going on. Plutocratic interests are oriented around economics and not religion unless religion can be made to serve their interests.

    I think Paul Krugman’s piece today is somewhat stereotypical because it appears many on the right are motivated by philosophy rather than by corporate money, but it is helpful to keep money in mind.

  • George

    I think Dave gets it absolutely right when he talks about the local nature of Tea Parties. Areas like mine in rural Appalachia produce TPs with heavy religious overtones because most people around here take their religion seriously. There is always prayer, and sometimes reference to scripture on debt. TPers I’ve talked to in less religious areas, however, act more like the ones Dave described–more like pot legalizing Libertarians than Christian conservatives.

    On the other hand, I’ve never heard a TP speaker (in the NC mountains or elsewhere) wander off the reservation to talk about abortion or homosexuality. There is a sense that TPs aren’t about that stuff–and if I don’t hear it in Appalachia, it ain’t there. I wish I could offer more evidence than what I’ve experienced, but it seems like saying “our shared religion guides us to the Founders’ principles” makes references to modern culture war issues (abortion, homosexuality, etc) feel out of place. Founder-era issues like gun control are common, though.

    PS: Mollie, why were you surprised about the UCC sponsorship of One Nation? I’m surprised the Episcopalians didn’t.

  • Jettboy

    In the West (Utah and Idaho in Particular) religion and the Tea Party is very connected, although the rhetoric is mostly political. Glenn Beck is a Mormon after all. What is funny (and not reported because it is under the radar) is that Glenn Beck probably has indirectly cost Romney Mormon supporters. I can only go by anecdotal evidence, but I’ll bet Sarah Palin is almost as popular as Romney among Mormon Conservatives. Part of that is because of “Romney care” and part is because he is now seen as a Republican insider. He is hardly seen as a Tea Party supporter.