Public criticism and scorn is diminishing the repute of the Tea Party, if the conduct of local members is indicative and recent polls are credible. Some members hide their affiliation; some operate in stealth. Locally, Jim Harbison, columnist for the Sun-News, and Natalie Chadborn, candidate for City Council, District 1, have chosen not to disclose party membership. Harbison is a rank-and-file member; Chadborn is the party secretary. Its reputation may have peaked, but the Tea Party remains formidable within the GOP—indeed, it seems to dominate it—and detrimental to the public policy of this country.
The received wisdom about Tea Party members a long-term study has confirmed. In “Crashing the Tea Party” (NYT, 16 Aug), two researchers report that its members “are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do”—a polite, academic way of saying white and racist.
The study dispels the notion of a grassroots movement of “nonpartisan political neophytes”; most Tea Party members were “highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born.” Like other Republicans, they favor smaller government. Unlike other Republicans, “they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006—opposing abortion, for example—and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics….The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.”
The researchers trace the increasing opposition to the Tea Party to this emphasis on religion in politics. “Yet it is precisely this infusion of religion into politics that most Americans increasingly oppose. While over the last five years Americans have become slightly more conservative economically, they have swung even further in opposition to mingling religion and politics. It thus makes sense that the Tea Party ranks alongside the Christian Right in unpopularity.”
The proximate rankings reflect a high degree of overlap between Tea Party members and Christian fundamentalists (often Southern Baptists). The virtual identity of the two groups suggests that the Tea Party is a movement both political and religious, but less the former than the latter. Tea Party members are less political revolutionaries in the American tradition than religious rebels like the Puritans, who meant to establish a Godly city on the hill.
So, given its passions and priorities, the Tea Party is a politically militant religious movement which loathes and opposes the modern secular state and prefers a theocracy. This view explains the “alternative reality” which many critics mock. What they miss is that the revisionist history and the bogus science are serious efforts to infuse or redefine reality with religion. Tea Party members reinterpret many of the Founding Fathers, not as Enlightenment deists, but as conventional but committed Protestants whom they fashion into Christian political saints credited with struggling but failing to abolish slavery. The point is that the purity of their religious principles and moral practices permeated American democracy at its birth and made the country a “Christian nation.”
Tea Party members’ religiosity explains their efforts to supplant science with pseudo-science. They deprecate evolution as mere theory and advocate intelligent design as truth; they deny man’s role in global warming because it goes beyond God’s role. They discount science as a means to knowledge; they value Biblical “science” based on textual inerrancy as a means to faith and deplore or dismiss whoever or whatever differs from it. So no rational discourse dissuades them or dislodges their beliefs, and mockery plays to their self-perception as those persecuted in His name.
Their religiosity also explains their attempts to debilitate the political party seen to promote secularism and socialism, and their opposition to its social and environmental programs. Tea Party members see the rival party promoting programs with government, not God, as the agency addressing human needs; and thereby impeding their efforts to make the country reliant on the Creator and the Christ. While exploiting traditional concerns about the size of government and current fears about deficits to attack their rivals, they expose their pre-occupation with religious/moral issues like abortion, homosexuals in the military, and same-sex marriage. Thus, their legislative priorities have addressed these issues, not jobs or the jobless. Indeed, their efforts to widen the gap between haves and have-nots are a modern, Puritanical way of using wealth to distinguish the saved from the sinning.
Tea Party members speak contradictions: as Christians, piously of reliance on God; as conservatives, politically of self-reliance (aka “personal responsibility”). Many other Americans share those contradictions; they struggle to define the boundaries between church and state. Tea Party members preach but do not practice a don’t-tread-on-me policy; most other Americans do both. So the 2012 election question abides: America—theocracy, plutocracy, or democracy?