On the first evening of the Tea Party Nation gathering in Nashville in February, Southern Baptist pastor Rick Scarborough took participants to their knees for a lengthy prayer service, during which he declared the party “a Christian movement.” But, in fact, prayers and scant preaching aside, the event largely ignored the social agenda that has for decades driven the evangelical political movement in the U.S.
Instead, the Nashville gathering focused on the economic platform—dramatically reduced government and taxes, as well as unfettered “free markets”—that is emerging as the shared, though shaky, foundation of the “tea party” factions. The largely grassroots, conservative-right groundswell of opposition to the Obama administration also includes a renewed states’ rights movement, fueled by some state attorneys general, that seeks to fend off federal action on health care, immigration, and a host of other pressing issues.
While a CNN poll found tea partiers to be wealthier, whiter, more educated, and more Protestant than Americans as a whole, homogeneity has not bred unity. Tea Party Patriots continue to fend off the Tea Party Nation (whose Nashville conclave was set up by for-profit entrepreneurs who charged participants high-dollar registrations to propound low-dollar government) and have not joined its recent loose coalition with the Tea Party Express.
The key unknown is where, if, or how social conservatives who have built and driven the evangelical Christian right will land among the tea parties’ economic agenda. There are signs that social conservatives are seeking to merge the social and economic agendas in new ways to galvanize their own disparate political bases.
Social conservatives would be hard-pressed, however, to embrace the tea parties’ economic platform without its anti-federal thread and the racial anxiety that too often comes with it—potentially alienating the growing number of evangelical leaders committed to environmental stewardship, immigration reform, racial justice, and other socioeconomic issues.
Nevertheless, there is danger ahead that extremist, racially driven agendas will be mainstreamed. Signs declaring that “We want OUR country back” have been commonplace at tea partiers’ appearances, underscoring white anxiety and anger about a black president. From the despicable caricatures of the president at last summer’s town hall meetings to the racial epithets and spit recently hurled at African-American members of Congress, the overt racism in tea party ranks is palpable. Coddled and stoked by others in the political right, including many within the Republican Party, these fringes portend a disturbing turn in the political landscape.
In the Pacific Northwest, “Freedom Fes-tivals” have drawn hundreds to hear from hard-core “constitutionalists” about the federal government’s alleged drive to strip individual rights. New stirrings of militia activity are reported. The sale of guns has skyrocketed among people stockpiling because they believe President Obama will abolish the Second Amendment. Tea partiers are in the thick of these developments.
In the 1980s, racists and assorted anti-government zealots laid a fire that would sweep into Oklahoma City in the deadly bombing of 1995. Their bigoted “Christian Identity” ideology, and the so-called “Christian Patriot” militias that emerged from it in the 1990s, went largely unchallenged by the faithful of all political persuasions. The silence of the church was deafening.
Today, restlessness and unease, loss and profound change are afoot in the land. The Great Recession has taken a deep toll on working families, even as new wealth is accumulated by the few. The major political parties are enmeshed in bitter and grinding partisanship.
Independent, Republican, or Democrat, there is no room in political discourse for the incivility, hatred, and racism that fester in a nation facing largely unparalleled challenges. The church is not a tea party. It is a community of faith grounded in a fundamental call to justice and righteousness.
David L. Ostendorf is a United Church of Christ minister serving as executive director of the Center for New Community, a Chicago-based national organization committed to building community, justice, and equality.