Of Christians, Catholics, and Tea Parties (Part I)
In my previous post, I argued at length against both traditionalist Catholic and left-Catholic critiques of American history, and Catholicism’s place within it. Now I believe it is time to shift from the historical to the contemporary. A recent article in Politico by Ben Smith, “Tea parties stir evangelicals’ fears” (which might have been better titled, “Ben Smith seeks to stir evangelicals’ fears”), makes what I consider to be a rather weak attempt to stir the pot and inflame tensions between libertarians and evangelical Christians. You know he’s reaching when he’s hunting down “Christian conservatives” whose primary concern with the tea party is that it is unduly harsh on the noble personal character of President Obama, who, according to one of these evangelical leaders, “provides a tremendously positive role model for tens of millions of African-American men.”
My eyes were rolling so hard I could practically hear them squishing around in their sockets.
The more substantive claim worth addressing is that there is a secular libertarian streak in the tea party movement that is partially or wholly incompatible with the conservative Christian social agenda, which one of the evangelical critics claims has “a politics that’s irreligious”. When Smith was schooled by an article covering a poll that broke down, and dispelled some of the more ridiculous myths about the tea party movement, he continued to maintain that the tensions he pointed out could become problems in the future. So they may.
On this blog, it was also pointed out by a former contributor that a man who condemned the presence of gay Republican groups at CPAC was booed by the mostly young, libertarian audience (the same folks, I guess, who voted for Ron Paul as their preferred choice for 2012 and would therefore likely support the tea parties) – though as I pointed out in response, that man was deliberately provoking the crowd with an outburst that, as a Catholic who defends the institution of heterosexual marriage, I found absurd, irrational, and counterproductive. I would have booed him too.
Strange then, that when people want to read tensions into the tea party movement, they’ll transgress against the mainstream narrative about them: that they’re full of racist, backwards extremists. When it is convenient, they can become militantly secular – irreligious was the word – rivaling liberal progressives in their openness or at least ambivalence to the sort of things that the Christian Right, Catholic and Protestant alike, would eschew. Maybe tea party opponents should have a huddle get their stories straight. Not all of the American people will pick up on contradictory narratives, but enough will to make their peddlers look stupid or dishonest.
Now, how about this supposed contradiction? We can look at this from two angles: demographic, and theoretical. I’ll start with demographics. The aforementioned poll, conducted by the National Review Institute, found the following: 60% are Protestant, 28% are Catholic. 2% are Jews. Almost 70% attend church on a regular basis. 68% are pro-life.
So, that’s 90% we know the religion of – Christians and Jews. So that leaves 10% for “other.” Maybe they’re secularists, militant Randroid atheists who think the tea party is an budding anarcho-capitalist movement. Who knows? With this many apparently devout Christians in the movement, though, the notion that there is an inherent, fundamental, logical contradiction between the tea party agenda and the Christian social agenda is, to say the least, a crumbling hypothesis. Some of the people can be fooled all of the time, all of the people some of time; nearly all (90%) of them are unlikely to be fooled all of the time.
But I don’t want to dismiss the idea on the basis of demographic considerations. After all, even church-going Christians can be wrong! So is there a contradiction here? Smith’s article raises the notion that the tea party sees fiscal, and not cultural issues, as the most important priorities of the nation. This has supposedly caused “concern” among religious conservatives (the same ones, I guess, who are “concerned” about Obama’s image as a black hero).
He points out that the “Contract for America“, put together by a tea party blog, asks people to choose their top 10 issues from a list of 21, and none of them are related to the Christian social agenda – abortion, gay marriage, etc. Of course, Smith isn’t entirely accurate – the issue of school choice IS there, and this is not only important for Protestants, but for Catholics; the freedom of parents to determine their children’s education is one of the top three issues, along with life and marriage, that set the parameters for faithful Catholic voters during elections.
That aside, though, I think there is a perfectly logical explanation for the absence of these issues.
In the first place, the tea party never said it was, or promised to be, an explicitly Christian movement, or a social conservative movement. It’s issues from the beginning, before it was half co-opted by the RNC and Fox News, were almost exclusively fiscal. I wouldn’t say it was a single-issue group, but its focus was sufficiently narrow to treat it in a similar way, and to hold it to the same expectations. To now criticize it for not taking the hot-button issues of social conservatives as top priorities is, to me, almost as disingenuous as criticizing Mothers Against Drunk Drivers for not taking a solid enough position on the expansion of Israeli settlements or the impending collapse of the Euro.
Perhaps I go too far. Some might argue that a movement with this high of a profile, that is rapidly growing, that is attracting the attentions, for good or ill, of power players in the political establishment, ought to have views on issues important to all conservatives. There might be some truth to this. But there is another reason why I don’t think this has happened, will happen, or should happen: the tea party is also defined by its fidelity to the US Constitution (or it was when Ron Paul was its dominant figure; now that the neo-cons are hovering around it, that could end quickly). Specifically, it is faithful to the tenth amendment, and article 1, sec. 8 of the Constitution, which together establish what matters Congress can take action on, and which belong to the states.
This means that they likely oppose only those social conservatives who insist that the only solution to the moral crises in this country are a slew of constitutional amendments or other actions by the federal government, and I don’t think they’re a majority. Now, a true constitutionalist won’t oppose a properly ratified amendment, but pro-lifers have a right to be skeptical about the prospects of such a thing occurring in our lifetimes. I think the average tea party pro-life Christian probably agrees with Ron Paul: that this matter is best left to the states to solve. For the states to be able to solve it, Roe, a decision still widely regarded by conservatives as constitutionally dubious, must be overturned. So this keeps them in the mainstream of the pro-life movement – why should there be any tension on this issue?
The same can be said of gay marriage. Voters in several states have repeatedly shot down same-sex marriage, and some have had their democratic will juridically usurped. Are there Christian conservatives somewhere who think this was a good thing? Because I can’t think of any tea partier who would – I’d guess they believe the states have a right to pass laws on these issues and that the courts have no business overturning the results of a legitimate political process. So on this issue, too, I would expect to find social conservatives and tea partiers to be of one mind. And we’ve already covered school choice.
So, demographically, and politically, there appears to be no contradiction between the tea parties and the majority of social conservatives. In what I think is a case of extreme irony, and indicative of the buffoonery of this critique, the only social conservatives who are likely to disagree with the tea party’s constitutional approach are those even further to the right of the tea party, who believe that these issues can only be dealt with by the heavy hand of the federal government. Oh, I almost forgot: and those whose eminent concern is the personal image of Obama. Like Joel Osteen.
But what about Catholics in particular? Stay tuned for Part II…