The year of the Tea Party

Campaign 2010

Evangelical left leader Jim Wallis is very concerned that we not confuse the Tea Party movement with the Kingdom of God, or the Evangelical Magisterium, or something like that. Well I should hope not! But I am not aware that anyone at the forefront of the Tea Party movement is claiming that it is a definitively Christian movement. At the same time, however, Tea Party concerns are not unchristian.

The Tea Party is not the Moral Majority. Pollster George Gallup Jr. declared 1976 to be "the year of the evangelical," but he hadn't seen the half of it. Throughout the 1970s, evangelicals had been mobilizing in response to the federal government's use of the IRS to take on all-white Christian schools, whether they were de facto segregated local private schools or intentionally segregated like Bob Jones University. This governmental breach of their "separated life" did not sit well.

By 1979, the Rev. Jerry Falwell had united religious conservatives into a more broadly concerned "Moral Majority," setting the stage for 1980 to be the real "year of the evangelical" as born again Christians proved decisive in lifting Ronald Reagan into the White House. Electorally, if 2010 becomes the year of the Tea Party movement, where are the parallels, if any?

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The Moral Majority was intentionally a largely, but not necessarily, religious organization. It presented itself as a moral majority, not a Christian majority. Their concerns were threefold: family, foreign policy, and fiscal responsibility, if I may put it that way. Family issues included opposition to homosexuality, abortion, divorce, pornography, and feminism. Foreign policy concerns included standing effectively against world communism and supporting the state of Israel. To this they added a call for lower taxes and a balanced budget. The group's agenda mirrored the GOP coalition of moral conservatives, foreign policy hawks, and fiscal conservatives, though the Moral Majority was chiefly concerned with family issues. There was an evangelical ministry called Focus on the Family, but nothing called Focus on Firepower or anything like that.

The Tea Party has a narrower agenda. It's all about money. The movement was triggered by concerns over wild government spending, initially the implementation of TARP to stabilize the financial system, but then the group began to rally against various other stimulus packages, interventions, and pork barrel spending orgies that seemed to exploit the crisis to pillage several generations of taxpayers while the getting was good.

But money is not a dirty word. While balanced budgets are not the stuff of gospel preaching, financial responsibility is not an ungodly concern. In fact, concern for it is implied in the Eighth Commandment: "Thou shalt not steal!" Jim Wallis says, "[T]he Tea Party can legitimately be examined on the basis of Christian principles---and it should be," then proceeds to attempt it. Yet he manages to overlook this feature that is arguably Christian and definitively Tea Party.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.


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