Hiding in Plain Sight: The Christian Right in the Tea Party Movement

Why did the Christian Right flock to the Tea Party movement, and what explains their libertarian posturing?
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If you liked Rovian anti-gay marriage referendums, the Terry Schiavo saga, anti-abortion litmus tests for diplomatic service in a war zone, and creationism in the Grand Canyon bookstore, you'll love this season's Tea Party candidates.

Why are we just getting the bulletin about "social conservatives" in the Tea Party movement? The media, beguiled by the period costumes and libertarian theatrics of the Tea Party demonstrations, overlooked from the very beginning the influence of veteran Christian rightwing activists within it. But read between the lines and you'll find clues that the Christian Right has been in the Tea Party trenches from the start. A few examples:

  • An April New York Times poll notes that Tea Partiers are more conservative on social issues than other Republicans, only to dismiss the point as irrelevant.
  • A brilliant article by historian Jill Lepore profiles Christen Varley, president of the Boston Tea Party. Varley says she's new to politics. But she is a home-schooling parent, and works for the Coalition for Marriage and Family, a nonprofit formed to try to get a same-sex marriage ban on the ballot. Home-schooling and anti-gay groups are two of the most important sites of political activism in the Christian Right, though you wouldn't know it from the article.
  • The successful Tea Party candidates reveal how vital social conservatism is to Tea Party voters. Would-be GOP Senators Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell are bona fide Christian zealots. "The Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery. You can't masturbate without lust!" according to O'Donnell, during her stint as the founder and president of the abstinence group, Savior's Alliance for Lifting the Truth. Angle put her name in the '90s to medieval-themed screeds against gays, and famously said that teen rape and incest victims "can turn a lemon situation into lemonade." In Alaska, an onerous anti-abortion ballot measure helped drive up turnout for Joe Miller. Colorado's Ken 'Vote-for-me-because-I-don't-wear-high-heels' Buck favors a state Personhood amendment, an anti-abortion measure which would effectively outlaw many common forms of birth control. Likewise, he favors a "much closer relationship" between church and state and turning over government services to faith-based groups.

    And then there are Sarah Palin's 'mama grizzlies' -- Carly Fiorina (CA), Nikki Haley (SC), Kelly Ayotte (NH), Christine O'Donnell (DE), and Angle (NV). What they have in common is not a ginned up conservative feminism, nor anti-government populism, but rather a common mission to legislate traditional Christian values. Each one plans to make abortion illegal and man the barricades against gay marriage. O'Donnell, Angle, and Palin have been vocal about how their conservative Christian faith shapes their political beliefs. Haley, faced with a difficult primary race, soft-pedaled her Sikh upbringing and testified to "living in Christ every day."

    In this season of the libertarians, even the one genuine article, Kentucky's Rand Paul, would like to put the government back in your bedroom.

    By their enemies you shall know them. The Tea Party's targets reveal even more about the primacy of social issues. Charlie Crist is a solid fiscal conservative, but has socially liberal inclinations. The Tea Party almost took down Mark Kirk, a pro-choice Republican with a decent chance of winning Obama's former Senate seat. Mike Castle's fatal act, according to Ken Blackwell of the Family Research Council, was to author "left and lefter" legislation on stem-cell research.

    So why did the Christian Right flock to the Tea Party movement, and what explains their libertarian posturing? To survive after Bush, the Christian Right had to rebrand and lay low. That's nothing new. When Clinton took office, as I detail in my forthcoming book, Christian Right operatives were explicit--among themselves--that their recovery depended on deception. As Ralph Reed, head of the Christian Coalition, put it: "I want to be invisible. I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don't know it's over until you're in a body bag. You don't know until election night."

    In joining the Tea Party movement as a silent partner, today's Christian Right is taking a page from an old playbook--the one that ushered the GOP back into power in 1994 and in 2000.

    Yet signs are emerging that veteran Christian Right leaders have become so confident they've decided to come out of the closet and claim their right to dictate terms to the GOP. First there was Glenn Beck's emphasis on faith, not politics, at his August rally. He and Palin struck the same notes at their Alaskan 9/11 commemoration. That same weekend, top Republican strategists convened for Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Conference and Strategy Briefing. At the conference, weathervane Gingrich predicted that the "election of 2010 and 2012 will be a referendum on values."

    Of course there are genuine and sincere small government, fiscally conservative, quasi-libertarians in the Tea Party. With the faithful claiming power, however, tensions have flared. A Quinnipiac poll suggests that the Christian rightwingers will prevail: Born-again evangelicals are the most dissatisfied group in the nation, and the group most likely to say they would vote for a Tea Party candidate. The GOP knows well that Christian conservatives are their most reliable constituency, and won't cross evangelicals simply to hold onto the handful of votes wielded by libertarians.

    History shows that when the Christian rightwingers control the GOP, the voters recoil, and Democrats win. As the mirth over O'Donnell's anti-masturbation video subsides, attention is finally turning to the real Tea Party, and its extremism on abortion, gay marriage, the family, religion, and sexuality in general. It's none too soon. Half the electorate is still undecided or knows little about the Tea Party. There's still time to get the word out. But only just.

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