The Nation's Pulse

Evangelicals and the Tea Party

They are a close match, much to the chagrin of a weakened Evangelical Left.

By 11.2.10

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With the Tea Party credited for Republican energy in the 2010 elections, evangelicals, typically a key Republican constituency, have been overshadowed. Purportedly, evangelical zeal for Republicans declined with the close of the Bush Administration, and young evangelicals were trending more liberal, based on their reputed environmentalism, wariness of war, and distaste for dicey social issues. Evangelical Left activist and theorist Jim Wallis, a prominent Obama supporter, is ostensibly the voice of a new breed of more progressive evangelicals.

White Protestant Evangelicals make up about a quarter of the electorate. Exit polls showed 75 percent of them voted for Republican congressional candidates in 2004 and 73 percent in 2006. In 2008, 73 or 74 percent voted for McCain, a small dip from 78 percent who supported Bush in 2004. But liberal evangelicals like Wallis made much of this dip, pointing especially to young evangelicals, who remained strongly Republican in 2008, but less so than their seniors.

Though polling is a little scarce, evangelicals almost certainly compose a disproportionate share of the Tea Party. A recent Public Religion Research Institute polls showed 36 percent of Tea Partiers are evangelicals. Although the Tea Party does not emphasize social issues, the poll showed strong Tea Party majorities are conservative on abortion and same-sex marriage.

Evangelical Left elites unsurprisingly are alarmed by the Tea Party's resonance among evangelicals and insist the appeal is mostly to oldsters. Or they deride the Tea Party as primarily libertarian, i.e., materialistic and out of sync with religion. "The younger Evangelicals who I interact with are largely turned off by the Tea Party movement -- by the incivility, the name-calling, the pathos of politics," commented former evangelical lobbyist Richard Cizik earlier this year. Calling the Tea Party "irreligious," he expressed chagrin that some evangelicals are attracted to it. Cizik, who lost his long time job with the National Association of Evangelicals for publicly supporting same-sex civil unions, has since worked for George Soros's Open Society Institute. He now works with the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.

Commanding a larger following than Cizik, Jim Wallis blasted the Tea Party in a recent news release and devotes the November issue of his Sojourners magazine to a Tea Party critique. Like Cizik, Wallis has also received Soros funding for his efforts to pull evangelicals leftward. The Tea Party's rise, and its appeal to evangelicals, potentially disrupts the Evangelical Left narrative that evangelicals are reorienting towards a progressive social justice narrative.

Wallis' Sojourners critique is headlined "The Theology of the Tea Party: Can Libertarianism Be Reconciled with Christian Faith?" Lest readers miss the point, the article is accompanied by a critique of the late Ayn Rand, with the headline: "Jesus Shrugged? To Follow Ayn Rand and Her Vision, One Must Give up Christ and His Cross." It accurately describes Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged, as a "staunch atheist." But the Wallis/Sojourners attempt to portray Tea Partiers as anti-religious Objectivists is absurd. The recent Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) poll found that 80 percent of Tea Partiers self-identified as Christian.

In his recent news release, Wallis asked: "Is the Tea Party Christian?" His answer naturally is "no." But he lamented that 25 percent of Evangelicals identify with the Tea Party, obviously referring to the PRRI poll. "The libertarian beatitude, 'Blessed are those who are just left alone' has still not joined those in the Sermon on the Mount," Wallis opined. In his Sojourners piece, Wallis warns that the Tea Party's "political commitments are rooted in the libertarian philosophy" and is a "secular movement, not a Christian one." Wallis's best-selling 2005 book, and his Sojourners' blog, are called God's Politics. The implication is that non-liberal political stances are inherently NOT God's politics.

Wallis darkly observes that "some people who regard themselves as Christians" support the Tea Party, but he emphasizes "that doesn't make it 'Christian.'" Still, he insists the Tea Party can fairly be judged based on "Christian principles," which he proceeds to do, but while wholly conflating libertarianism with the Tea Party. He highlights Kentucky Republican Senatorial candidate Rand Paul's critique of the 1964 Civil Rights Act earlier this year as one example of how libertarianism "falls short" of "biblical ethics." 

Not entirely unfairly, Wallis contrasts libertarianism's individualism with Christianity's concern for the "common good." He criticizes its emphasis on private charity as falling short of the "biblical calling" for government to protect the poor. He asks if an "anti-government ideology" can be biblical, accurately noting that Christianity understands the state to exercise a providential role. He chastises libertarianism's ostensible "supreme trust" in a "sinless market" and for heeding the Chamber of Commerce over God. Wallis chides the libertarian "preference for the strong over the weak," which contrasts with Christian concerns for the most vulnerable. 

Most egregiously, Wallis ominously wonders if "white resentment" guides the Tea Party, noting that 89 percent of Tea Partiers are white, according to one survey. "I wonder if there would even be a Tea Party if the president of the United States weren't the first black man to occupy that office," Wallis asks. Does he think the Tea Party would not exist if a President John Kerry or Hillary Clinton had pursued Obama's same policies? If not, it's not clear why. Wallis also asks if libertarianism is the "furthest political philosophy from Christian faith." Further than Communism, Nazism, Fascism, or theocratic Islam? It's a silly question, given the other possibilities.

Wallis's desire to identify the whole Tea Party with an extreme, soulless, Ayn Rand-style libertarianism that exalts the strong and disregards the weak is a stretch. Not all Tea Partiers are libertarians, much less clones of Ayn Rand. And many Christians believe in limited government for moral reasons -- because human fallibility makes centralized political power dangerous, and because big government can displace religion, family and other human institutions with divine purpose. Wallis's essay warns against the free market because of human sinfulness. But he does not acknowledge that human sinfulness may also argue against his brand of big government, which, unlike the market, has the power to tax, regulate, incarcerate, and even kill.

The current economy and political climate, of which the Tea Party is a symptom, may have neutralized whatever gains Wallis's brand of statism had achieved among younger evangelicals. Evangelical Left elites want to emphasize Global Warming regulation and government health care, while most evangelicals almost certainly share Tea Party distress about too much government. Wallis's alarms over the Tea Party, and evangelical support for it, may reveal his own political intuition that the Evangelical Left's moment has receded.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.