Is the Tea Party a Christian Movement?

In other words, Tea Party supporters and detractors alike believe that government should be neither too small to discharge its essential functions nor too large to preserve a space for individual rights and liberties. They disagree on where "too small" and "too large" stand upon the spectrum. Arguing that government should be smaller than it presently is does not amount to advocating no government at all (as Wallis depicts "Tea Party Libertarianism") any more than arguing that government should be larger than it presently is amounts to advocating communism.

How, then, does Reverend Wallis describe the "political philosophy" of the Tea Party? Wallis likens the Tea Partiers to the murderous Cain, who believed or pretended to believe that he was not his brother's keeper. The philosophy underpinning the Tea Party represents an "enshrinement of individual choice" that rejects "loving the neighbor" in favor of "telling the neighbor to leave you alone." The Tea Party apparently rejects the very idea of government for the common good. It is an "anti-government ideology" that leaves no place for a government "preserving the social order, punishing evil and rewarding good, and protecting the common good." Finally (I will deal with the racism charge in the third part of this series), Wallis condemns the Tea Party's "preference for the strong over the weak" through its "supreme confidence in the market" -- indeed, in a "sinless market" that has no need for oversight or regulation. The values of the Tea Party do not honor "God's priorities" but "the priorities of the Chamber of Commerce."

These are powerful claims. They are also patently absurd. Only those who are already conditioned to expect the worst of political conservatives can believe that this represents a fair and honest account of the beliefs and values of the Tea Party movement. Would any Tea Partier -- any single one, out of the millions across America who support or participate in the movement -- actually accept this definition? It is an astonishing distortion of the Tea Party message to reduce it to "just leave me alone and don't spend my money."

Rather than painting the movement with the brush of Rand Paul, Reverend Wallis might have consulted the polling data that shows what the majority of Tea Party supporters believe. He would have found a reality that defies the caricature.

When Wallis argues that the philosophy underpinning the Tea Party movement shows no concern for the common good and no love of neighbor, he presents a false dichotomy that one either advocates the progressive policies he prefers or else one simply does not care for the poor. Convenient though it would be, it is not the case that the enlightened and compassionate stand on one side of the issue, and the selfish and deceived on the other. We must dispense with the presumption that those who disagree with us on the nature of the common good, and how to pursue it, do so on the basis of ignorance or heartlessness.

What is ironic is that it is precisely concern for the common good that animates the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party supporters are not calling for the abolition of government or rejecting the notion of government regulation and shared social responsibility. Sixty-two percent of Tea Party supporters believe that the benefits of Social Security and Medicare currently outweigh the costs, and only 33% disagree. Fifty-nine percent of Tea Party supporters are in favor of requiring private insurers to cover preexisting conditions. These are hardly anti-government zealots. Rather, the Tea Party movement is premised on the conviction that we have gone too far in the statist direction, and that our excesses of government intervention and expenditure have abridged our Constitutional freedoms, steeped our legislature in corruption and vote-buying, and set our economy on the precipice of severe and enduring decline. It serves no one's interest, and certainly not the interests of the poor and vulnerable, to cripple our economy and hang around its neck a massive albatross of debt. Presumably Wallis would agree that government intervention and taxation can reach an extreme point where it no longer serves but undermines the public good. Tea Party supporters believe that we have passed that point in a headlong sprint.

What also needs to be refuted is the notion that resistance to higher levels of taxation is necessarily selfish. To resent a tax hike (or the prospect of one) is not to neglect the needy, and to wish to retain control over the funds one has secured in order to care for one's family is not necessarily selfish. Conservatives generally are more generous with their giving than liberals, yet they resent it when a distant bureaucracy extracts their money in order to distribute public funds to the special interest groups on whose votes and donations they rely. Conservatives would prefer that care for the needy remain as local and personal as possible. Jobless Joe is more accountable to use the money he is given wisely, and to strive to become self-sufficient as swiftly as possible, when he receives that money from the members of the church down the street. This is not to deny that government services are needed, but it is to refute the notion that "taxed enough already" is a slogan of economic narcissism.

6/23/2010 4:00:00 AM
  • Evangelical
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  • Timothy Dalrymple
    About Timothy Dalrymple
    Timothy Dalrymple is the CEO and Chief Creative Officer of Polymath Innovations, a strategic storytelling agency that advances the good with visionary organizations and brands. He leads a unique team of communicators from around North America and across the creative spectrum, serving mission-driven businesses and nonprofits who need a partner to amplify their voice and good works. Once a world-class gymnast whose career ended with a broken neck, Tim channeled his passions for faith and storytelling into his role as VP of Business Development for Patheos, helping to launch and grow the network into the world's largest religion website. He holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Tim blogs at Philosophical Fragments.