Think Tea Partiers are a bunch of Christian zealots? You’re half-right.

Think Tea Partiers are a bunch of Christian zealots? You’re half-right. April 12, 2020

I used to view the American Tea Party Movement as the flexed bicep of the Christian Right.

tea party christian right politics religion
A flag at a Tea Party Express rally in Paducah, Kentucky. (Gage Skidmore, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Now I don’t. And as a religious “none” I find this change in perception annoying because it greatly complicates long-held assumptions in my secular politics that I have grown very accustomed to.

The cause of this very recent unwelcome but necessary change was a sober, balanced report I read of a 2017 study in Sociology of Religion, an academic quarterly review, titled “Is the Tea Party a ‘Religious’ Movement?” I found the study on Academia.edu, an online source for acaemic papers.

It turns out, according to this very thorough, convincing study, that whereas, yes, about half of Tea Party membership several years ago was indeed evangelical Christian, the movement also comprised a significant number of nonreligious (even atheist) zealots in its ranks.

Among the paradoxes in this arrangement, the study found, is that virtually all Tea Partiers fervently view the United States as a “Christian nation,” even those members who had no affiliation whatsoever with Christianity.

Therein lies the “rub,” or the main conundrum, a coinage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

“Since its rise in the 1970s, the Religious Right (RR) has become the dominant model of religiously infused activism in the United States,” the research team summarized in its report. “It is thus not surprising that when the Tea Party Movement (TPM) formed in 2009, observers drew parallels between these movements. There were some clear similarities: like the RR, the TPM mobilized large numbers of white conservative Christians through grassroots organizations and worked to gain influence within the Republican Party There was also some overlap between the movements’ memberships, with around half of TPM members nationally also reporting to be members of the RR. But research has also established that the TPM was quite distinctive, in terms of its organizational base, policy agenda, and movement culture.”

The reason for the apparent disconnect of non-Christian TPM members who still consider America a fundamentally Christian nation — publicly and privately — is fascinating and owes to the estoteric (to the uninitiated) concept of “border-work.” In this term, “border” seems to refer to Americans’ generally understood boundaries that define the nation’s cultural identity, such as dominant faith and ethnicity (Christian and white) and morality (Christian and Euro-centric), which demonizes such traditionally rejected practices as homosexuality, and deep antipathy to creeping secularism.

So, what apparently happens psychologically among nonreligious TPM adherents is a kind of nationalist “otherism,” where non-Christian but white traditionalists believe it’s appropriate for them to look down on non-white, non-Christian others (read: immigrants) as well as those who do not embrace so-called Judeo-Christian values, such as homosexuality (which the Bible purportedly condemns).

Therefore, as many white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 were likely driven far more by racist, not religious, ideology, the same probably holds for many in the TPM, especially “nones.” Such border-work aficionados, who likely have never heard the term, can justify denigration of people for what they themselves lack (Christian affiliation) and also consider their whiteness a license to disparage non-white, non-Christian immigrants, although U.S. immigrants invariably populate their own family trees.

It is the hypocrisy of self-delusion.

One interesting and important conclusion of the study is that nonreligious Americans can not be fairly pigeonholed politically. As TPM membership indicates, “nones” are a very varied bunch politically, and even “spiritually.”

The fact that the TPM attracted a relatively high proportion of secular members suggests that we should not be too quick to assume that religious ‘nones’ are predictably liberal,” the study team concluded. “It instead raises the possibility that religious non-affiliation may be rooted in distaste for organized religion, religious authority, or authority in general—sentiments that are present on both the political left and right.”

As a “none” myself, I’m taking note. I’m not a knee-jerk liberal but certainly lean that way, although, in my own way, I’m a bit of a traditionalist and moralist (stemming, I’m sure, from my Catholic upbringing, which can never be completely discarded, it seems).

Still, we more liberal, non-TPM “nones” look on with trepidation as the Religious Right’s strong influence within the TPM manifests in more and more Christianity-centric laws being passed by politicians it supports, and more and more rights being removed or restricted to abide demands of evangelical Christian Americans.

So, whereas the Tea Party Movement may have a significant number of nonreligous members, it closely follows the Christian Right playbook: fear of foreigners and other religions, and contempt for social behaviors and ideas that don’t align with fundamentalist Christian ideology (e.g., abortion and welfare, the former because “life is sacred” supposedly at every stage of development and the latter because God is supposed to only help those who “help themselves”).

The proof of the TPM is in the pudding. And baked into the pudding are decidedly conservative, Republican, white supremacist and Christian biases, no matter how many non-Christians embrace the movement’s program.

It’s reassuring to note that TPM influence in American politics has largely faded in relevance in the past few years.

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