I think it’s fair to say that I have defended the Tea Party movement pretty thoroughly against what I consider unfair criticisms and caricatures in the mainstream media. I have defended the movement against allegations that it is racist and un-Christian. I have argued that it is, in some ways, akin to a social justice movement. And I have (in a piece published two days ago) tried to give the broader historical context for the philosophy undergirding the movement (and yes, there is one). I find the Tea Party movement fascinating, and I am sympathetic to its concerns.
When Jeff Sharlet asks “Is the Tea Party Becoming a Religious Movement?“, however, he asks a question I have been asking for sometime as well. (I don’t agree with the article, by the way; but he asks a question that others are asking right now as well.)
The Tea Party movement was overwhelmingly focused on economic and governance issues — government growth, deficit spending, and a broken political system — until the Restoring Honor rally. I am also sympathetic to the Restoring Honor rally; I think Christians can and should be involved in seeking a moral and spiritual regeneration for our nation. But it did have the effect of confusing matters a little. Was this Tea Party 2.0? Was the Tea Party evolving? Was this a second wing of the Tea Party, or was it best understood as something separate entirely?
I think it would be best to hold the two things apart. A political movement in favor of limited government, fiscal responsibility, and a more transparent and accountable government. And a moral-religious movement to bring Christians (and anyone else) to recommit to live lives of integrity and to be salt and light in this polis and this culture. Some might see the latter as a re-launching of the culture wars; I don’t. I see it as standing up for fundamental Judeo-Christian values. That’s not all that it means to be a Christian. Being a Christian means much more than that. But it can never mean less than that.
So like-minded conservatives should pursue Tea Party goals. Like-minded Christians should pursue the moral and spiritual renewal of the nation. And individual Christians who involve themselves in the Tea Party movement may well feel that they are pursuing what God calls them to do. All of that is fine.
What should not happen, I think, is for the Church to support the Tea Party movement, or any other similar political movement. The members of the Church can be activists for or against the Tea Party movement, and may do so on the basis of their faith as well as they understand it. However, what distinguishes the Tea Party movement from the alternatives is a properly political belief that small government serves society best. You can make a strong biblical argument for this position, but the Bible does not provide a clear governing blueprint.
Politics is the art of living together. There are some rules for living together that are perfectly clear applications of scripture. If there were two political parties, one in support of murder and another against, then the Church could absolutely side, without reservation, on the side against murder. And the Church could say that anyone who does not agree on this point is in clear violation of scripture. But this is not one of those cases. I find the argument for small government to be abundantly persuasive. But it is an argument based on political philosophy and experience; it is not an indubitable deduction from scripture. So while I might agree, and while I might feel as though God calls me to take up the cause, I should not confuse my political philosophy with the essence of Christian theology, and I should not believe that anyone who disagrees with me is therefore un-Christian.
I know some of my fellow conservative Christians will disagree with me on this, and I hope we can do so charitably. But I think it’s important that the Church — not the individual members of the Church, but the Church itself — maintain neutrality on political issues except where the scripture speaks with abundant clarity. Since the Bible does not hand us a clear small-government political philosophy, the Church can stand for relevant general principles — that each side should speak fairly and charitably and honestly, and that all should seek to care for the least of these — it should not stand for small-government or big-government solutions. Some conservative Christians believe that small government is a biblical principle. Some believe that big-government solutions are biblically mandated. Perhaps someday I will be convinced by one or the other. Today, I disagree with both.