The Irony of the Tea Party

As the country gears up for the 2012 presidential election season it seems obvious it's going to be ugly. When it's all said and done billions will be spent trying to differentiate (i.e. mudsling, smear and annihilate), opposing candidates in order to win the support of the precious few who have not already picked a side. In the end we will have elected a new president from one of two parties which are really not that different in the first place. The worst part is the presidential election will bring more division, anger, resentment, and cynicism among the people I belong to -- Christians. There will be blood. There is no way out. It's happening. I think the best we can do is try and have a little fun with it.

So here goes the first of three installments comprising one evangelical Christian's take on the three major players: Republicans, Democrats and Tea Party. Republicans and Democrats because they are the two major parties and Tea Party because they're fun to watch!

First up: The Tea Party

The Tea Party has brought the subject of personal liberty to the forefront in American politics. Nearly every attempt to describe Tea Party demographics will reference anger and frustration with government infringement upon liberty and personal freedom as a bedrock principle for most Tea Party members. If you are a fan you call them colorful, if not you call them shrill, but if you cannot at least enjoy the wacky element -- shrink-wrapped and caricature-ready -- then you are taking them too seriously. Yet no movement gains this kind of political traction without hitting on a grain of truth resonating with a great many people. The Tea Party's grain of truth seems to be the size of the federal government. No society can spend all they want on entitlements, infrastructure and national defense while simultaneously lowering taxes. Critiquing the size of government is a winning issue with many of our citizens.

However, the size of government is not the Tea Party's most essential commitment. Their most essential commitment is to personal liberty as a universal good. Personal liberty underwrites the entire Tea Party agenda. Their most fundamental allegiance is to liberty as an absolute, and herein lies the difficulty. Liberty is most certainly a good, but when it is universalized it destroys itself. Liberty is only a virtue when held in tandem with the common good. Societies do not achieve liberty by pursuing liberty alone. Liberty is the byproduct of a just society. It is the pursuit of justice which ensures personal liberty, not the other way around. The pursuit of liberty without an equal commitment to the common good has a trajectory and momentum which is not trained toward democracy, but fascism. In a world of laissez-faire capitalism and absolute individual liberty, might is the only right -- that's fascism.

A strong commitment to the common good is the necessary counter-weight to personal liberty. The common good forces personal freedoms to be held in tension with the values of community and justice. No one can enjoy absolute liberty without undermining the fabric of a just society. Liberty is not an absolute. It must always be held in balance with the common good and the pursuit of social justice.

Justice is a non-starter with Tea Party folk. Glen Beck, a big fan of the movement, famously decried social justice as a Christian heresy. I don't expect the plea for justice to be a big hit with the Tea Party patriots. Yet to ignore it, they must first jettison the closing line of the pledge of allegiance: "... with liberty and justice for all." Liberty and justice are linked. Interestingly, the pledge was written by a Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy, who was a committed Christian socialist. The "justice" Bellamy had in mind was not trial by jury justice, but social justice: a commitment to the common good, social equality, and the solidarity of all humankind. Shouldn't we all be fans of that?

The Christian's first commitment is always to follow the teachings of Jesus, who was certainly concerned about the common good. Jesus told a story about the sheep and the goats in which he made it clear that social justice was the divider between those who were living truthfully, and those who were living a lie (Matt. 25). The folks he identifies with are those willing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the alien, care for the sick and all manner of behaviors which will not come anywhere close to making the Tea Party platform. While many Christians seem to have joined with the Tea Party movement, the rhetoric of absolute personal liberty seems to be at odds with the gospel Jesus taught. The Christian can wholeheartedly support the cause of personal liberty, but only while supporting the cause of the common good with equal measure.

Two great challenges the Tea Party faces:

First, the Tea Party's inability to come up with the sentence which comes after "no big government" is linked to their disregard for the common good. What are the next ten words? Tea Party rallies and personalities have deftly united the religious right, libertarians, and the NRA by saying "Get the government out of my life," but they have not yet offered a positive agenda that can unite those same people while addressing the common good. They never say, "Let our churches and communities take on poverty, racism, pay inequality and violence." They only say, "No more big government." Without the next ten words what they are really saying is that poverty, racism and the lot can fix itself. That's not a solution. Until they find the next ten words they are not building a movement, they are Monday morning quarterbacking.

Second, the patent anti-intellectual "plain-folks" mentality which covers the flank of the movement leaves the Tea Party devoid of rich theological self-awareness. While the Tea Party has swept many Americans into the all-out pursuit of liberty it has simultaneously deprived them of the means and rationale for self-critique. The party will never grow deep roots without that ability.

The irony of the Tea Party is that their attitude about liberty has become so overly individualistic that it actually threatens democracy instead of protecting it. By elevating individual liberties so far above the common good -- without reference to justice -- those who absolutize these virtues unwittingly undermine democracy instead of shoring it up. If you want to ensure personal liberty, pursue justice. If you want to undermine personal liberty, join the movement to abstract individual liberties and freedoms from their essential roots of social obligation and the common good.