Is the Tea Party a Christian Movement?

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Timothy DalrympleEvery American who cares about the vitality of the American democratic experiment should strenuously object to the way in which the Tea Party movement has been systematically misrepresented and mocked across most major media. The Tea Party -- however one views the principles and personalities most associated with it -- is precisely the kind of citizen accountability our founders envisioned and our form of government requires. Democracy holds the governing class accountable to the governed, and the Tea Party movement is a clear example of the governed standing athwart the will of the governors and shouting Stop.

"If ordinary citizens cannot band together and protest the actions of their government without being slandered as rampaging paranoiacs and selfish, slavering, knuckle-dragging racists, then sooner or later ordinary citizens will no longer band together at all -- and our country will be the worse for it."

I began this series on the Tea Party (the first part is here) not because I agree with every sentiment expressed on the protest placards or over the microphones (I agree with some and not others), but because the cultured despisers of the movement are perpetrating a collective character assassination the likes of which I have never seen in my lifetime. The grass roots, to be sure, are never finely manicured. Popular political movements do not move gracefully. Yet even the most admirable political movements now praised in our history books had their own unsavory elements. Such is the rowdy raw material of democratic progress. If ordinary citizens cannot band together and protest the actions of their government without being slandered as rampaging paranoiacs and selfish, slavering, knuckle-dragging racists, then sooner or later ordinary citizens will no longer band together at all -- and our country will be the worse for it.

Among the many who have caricatured the Tea Party movement, the most disappointing, to me, have been progressive Christians. Reverend Jim Wallis, arguably the most influential progressive Christian activist in Washington, founder and editor of Sojournersand friend to President Obama, Bono, and various other world leaders, recently wrote an article entitled "How Christian is Tea Party Libertarianism?" His answer -- that it is not Christian at all -- will hardly surprise anyone who knows Jim Wallis.

I should note, in the interest of full disclosure, that I do know Jim Wallis. I was a teaching assistant for a course he taught at Harvard University. I have nothing negative to say about Reverend Wallis' conduct and character; he was always kind and generous with his students and teaching assistants. Whatever his critics might imagine, Wallis is neither a celebrity-chasing political opportunist nor a cynical Democratic party operative. His views on some social issues, such as abortion, are moderate. However, on the issues that matter most to him, the issues to which he devotes the vast proportion of his time and effort, Wallis is a true-blue liberal. That he believes wholeheartedly in what he does is admirable, yet it makes it difficult for him to see clearly the merits of the opposing side of the argument, and difficult to resist the temptation to damage the opposition through misrepresentation rather than portray their beliefs as charitably and honestly as he should.

To borrow a more inflammatory phrase from George Will, Reverend Wallis becomes, when describing conservative Christians and conservative policy preferences, "a pyromaniac in a field of straw men." His argument against the Tea Party is a sterling example. Wallis felt caricatured when Glenn Beck reduced his vision of social justice to "forced redistribution of wealth, with a hostility to individual property." As Wallis wrote, "virtually no church in America, or the world, would support anything close to that as a definition of social justice." Yet Wallis himself is guilty of caricature. Virtually no Tea Party supporter would accept anything close to his definition of their movement.

"Tea Party supporters are convinced that we have gone too far in the statist direction, and thus there is need for a libertarian impulse to limit government powers. This does not make them Libertarians in the classical sense, and certainly not in the extreme sense that Wallis describes."

The first sleight of hand comes in the phase, "Tea Party Libertarianism." Wallis poses the question: "Just how Christian is the Tea Party movement -- and the Libertarian political philosophy that lies behind it?" Yet not all Tea Party supporters are Libertarians, and Wallis twists the Libertarian "political philosophy" beyond recognition. It is better to think of libertarianism and statism as two warring political impulses. All agree that some amountof government intrusion is necessary to maintain order, protect the innocent, and defend the homeland. All likewise agree that some amountof government limitation is necessary in order to constrain government powers, protect private enterprise and preserve individual rights and freedoms. Tea Party supporters are convinced that we have gone too far in the statist direction, and thus there is need for a libertarian impulse to limit government powers. This does not make them Libertarians in the classical sense, and certainly not in the extreme sense that Wallis describes.

In other words, Tea Party supporters and detractors alike believe that government should be neither too small to discharge its essential functions nor too large to preserve a space for individual rights and liberties. They disagree on where "too small" and "too large" stand upon the spectrum. Arguing that government should be smaller than it presently is does not amount to advocating no government at all (as Wallis depicts "Tea Party Libertarianism") any more than arguing that government should be larger than it presently is amounts to advocating communism.

How, then, does Reverend Wallis describe the "political philosophy" of the Tea Party? Wallis likens the Tea Partiers to the murderous Cain, who believed or pretended to believe that he was not his brother's keeper. The philosophy underpinning the Tea Party represents an "enshrinement of individual choice" that rejects "loving the neighbor" in favor of "telling the neighbor to leave you alone." The Tea Party apparently rejects the very idea of government for the common good. It is an "anti-government ideology" that leaves no place for a government "preserving the social order, punishing evil and rewarding good, and protecting the common good." Finally (I will deal with the racism charge in the third part of this series), Wallis condemns the Tea Party's "preference for the strong over the weak" through its "supreme confidence in the market" -- indeed, in a "sinless market" that has no need for oversight or regulation. The values of the Tea Party do not honor "God's priorities" but "the priorities of the Chamber of Commerce."

"Only those who are already conditioned to expect the worst of political conservatives can believe that this represents a fair and honest account of the beliefs and values of the Tea Party movement. Would any Tea Partier -- any single one, out of the millions across America who support or participate in the movement -- actually accept this definition? It is an astonishing distortion of the Tea Party message to reduce it to "just leave me alone and don't spend my money.""

These are powerful claims. They are also patently absurd. Only those who are already conditioned to expect the worst of political conservatives can believe that this represents a fair and honest account of the beliefs and values of the Tea Party movement. Would any Tea Partier -- any single one, out of the millions across America who support or participate in the movement -- actually accept this definition? It is an astonishing distortion of the Tea Party message to reduce it to "just leave me alone and don't spend my money."

Rather than painting the movement with the brush of Rand Paul, Reverend Wallis might have consulted the polling data that shows what the majority of Tea Party supporters believe. He would have found a reality that defies the caricature.

When Wallis argues that the philosophy underpinning the Tea Party movement shows no concern for the common good and no love of neighbor, he presents a false dichotomy that one either advocates the progressive policies he prefers or else one simply does not care for the poor. Convenient though it would be, it is not the case that the enlightened and compassionate stand on one side of the issue, and the selfish and deceived on the other. We must dispense with the presumption that those who disagree with us on the nature of the common good, and how to pursue it, do so on the basis of ignorance or heartlessness.

What is ironic is that it is precisely concern for the common good that animates the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party supporters are not calling for the abolition of government or rejecting the notion of government regulation and shared social responsibility. Sixty-two percent of Tea Party supporters believe that the benefits of Social Security and Medicare currently outweigh the costs, and only 33% disagree. Fifty-nine percent of Tea Party supporters are in favor of requiring private insurers to cover preexisting conditions. These are hardly anti-government zealots. Rather, the Tea Party movement is premised on the conviction that we have gone too far in the statist direction, and that our excesses of government intervention and expenditure have abridged our Constitutional freedoms, steeped our legislature in corruption and vote-buying, and set our economy on the precipice of severe and enduring decline. It serves no one's interest, and certainly not the interests of the poor and vulnerable, to cripple our economy and hang around its neck a massive albatross of debt. Presumably Wallis would agree that government intervention and taxation can reach an extreme point where it no longer serves but undermines the public good. Tea Party supporters believe that we have passed that point in a headlong sprint.

What also needs to be refuted is the notion that resistance to higher levels of taxation is necessarily selfish. To resent a tax hike (or the prospect of one) is not to neglect the needy, and to wish to retain control over the funds one has secured in order to care for one's family is not necessarily selfish. Conservatives generally are more generous with their giving than liberals, yet they resent it when a distant bureaucracy extracts their money in order to distribute public funds to the special interest groups on whose votes and donations they rely. Conservatives would prefer that care for the needy remain as local and personal as possible. Jobless Joe is more accountable to use the money he is given wisely, and to strive to become self-sufficient as swiftly as possible, when he receives that money from the members of the church down the street. This is not to deny that government services are needed, but it is to refute the notion that "taxed enough already" is a slogan of economic narcissism.

Finally, Tea Party supporters are not very extreme in their social views. Fifty-five percent believe the gun laws currently on the books are perfectly acceptable, 57% are in favor of granting marital or civil union status to gay couples, and 65% believe that abortions should remain available at least in some circumstances. Only 7% believe that blacks have a better chance of getting ahead in society today, compared to 16% who believe that whites are still advantaged. Moreover, as a recent Gallup poll showed, the demographics of Tea Party supporters are not much different from the demographics of American society at large. These are not extremists who took their jeeps from the militia ranch. These are ordinary Americans, mostly middle class, with justified concerns about the unaccountability and profligate spending of our government.

I find little merit in Wallis' argument that the Tea Party movement contradicts Christian virtues of compassion and social responsibility. Ultimately, then, is it a Christian movement?

I can only answer yes and no. If Wallis means to ask whether the vision of government that lies behind the Tea Party is the only sensible expression of biblical values, then I would say that the answer is no. By that standard, however, the progressive vision of "social justice" is not Christian either. Both conservative and liberal visions of government can draw upon different biblical passages and principles for support.

"The Bible is not a civics textbook. It tells us that we should love the neighbor, yet it does not tell us which policies best express that love. It tells us to protest injustice and stand with the oppressed, yet it does not tell us whether liberal or conservative policies best respond to injustice and oppression."

The Bible is not a civics textbook. It tells us that we should love the neighbor, yet it does not tell us which policies best express that love. It tells us to protest injustice and stand with the oppressed, yet it does not tell us whether liberal or conservative policies best respond to injustice and oppression. How simple and easy it would be if one political philosophy were the clear deliverance of scripture, and all Christians could give themselves wholeheartedly to its advocacy. Instead, Christians are left with the hard task of discernment. And if I believe the whole counsel of scripture is better honored by the conservative vision of society, animated by compassionate love and guided by biblical principles of justice, honesty, accountability, and stewardship, I do not accuse my more liberal brethren of scorning the poor just because they disagree.

In the New York Times poll, 39% of Tea Party supporters identified themselves as evangelicals or "born again," and 83% identify as Protestant or Catholic. If Wallis were correct in his description of the philosophy that undergirds their movement, then these conservative Christians would be abandoning the essential ethical principles of their faith. Yet this is hardly the case. What separates Jim Wallis from the Tea Partiers is not a difference of moral quality, or the presence and absence of compassion, but a different vision of the society that biblical love and justice require.

I am weary of the battles between conservative and liberal Christians. Even in our disagreements, we should represent one another with honesty and charity. I am happy to grant that liberals who engage in social-political movements, even when they are mistaken in the policies they prefer, are generally inspired by honest concern for the greater good. Can progressive Christians acknowledge the same of conservatives? Can they accept that the Tea Partiers are not motivated by ignorance, anger, and bigotry, but by sincere concern for the good of their country?

If so, then they should reject the caricature of the Tea Party movement, and reject the caricature of their Christian brothers and sisters within it.

Timothy Dalrymple is a columnist at Patheos.com. This article is part of the Religion Expert Series at Patheos.

This piece originally appeared on Patheos.Com