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Overshadowed by Tea Party Movement, the Christian Right Scrambles to Claim It Isn't Racist

The Tea Party movement has the juice as the religious right is on the wane. Survival may mean joining up, but that presents an image problem for Christians.

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So, what's a religious right leader to do?

Step One: Get with the Tea Party program.

Step Two: Encourage followers to venerate the Constitution -- or the religious right interpretation of it -- as a document written by the hand of God, playing into the Tea Party movement's promotion of certain constitutional amendments and its appropriation of the symbols of the American Revolution.

Step Three: Damage-control the Tea Party movement by sending out a message to lay off the overt racism.

The Teetotalers and the Tea Party

To the progressive eye, the Tea Party movement and the religious right look much the same. Both movements find their fervor in the anxiety and anger of middle-class, conservative white people who fear their own disempowerment by the changes under way in our culture.

The tipping points may vary between the various constituency groups within the two movements, but the operative force is fear of change. The religious right found its footing in opposition to feminism, civil rights and gay rights; the Tea Party movement builds on that list to include fear of the structural change taking place in the world (and there is much to fear): loss of American global hegemony, a struggling economy and the challenge to their idea of American identity as a nation epitomized by white men eager to light the torch of freedom throughout the world.

But these two movements are not the same.

At the the Washington Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill on the weekend of the Tea Party march, participants flooded the hotel bar, partying loudly and smoked with abandon on the sidewalk outside the hotel.

At the Omni Shoreham this weekend, by contrast, the bar was empty, and only occasionally would one find a lone smoker hovering outside the hotel doors. The Tea Party movement is largely secular: when its members invoke the name of God, it is the generalized, civic-religion God of the slogan on our coins. When religious right adherents invoke the name of God, they have someone much more specific in mind: the personal savior who is the crucified Christ, through whom they were "born again."

"I think it's obvious," Phillips said of the Tea Party movement, "that there's a tremendous amount of intensity among people who are not normally politically active, but who are very concerned about all of the power grabs, the extraordinary debt that is being incurred, the dangers of fiddling around with medical care in the United States, high taxes, the inflation caused by policies of the Fed -- people are angry. And in a very positive way, they're angry. There was no violence at these events. These are just nonpolitical citizens who said, 'Please, pay attention to our concerns, and let's do something about it.' "

People like Katy Abram, who won national notice when she took on [ video] Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Penn., at an August town-hall meeting. At the Values Voter Summit, she addressed the break-out session titled "Activism and Conservatism: Fit to a Tea (Party)," saying that she had been guided by God to pose her question to Specter.

But when I asked her, after her remarks, if she felt comfortable at the Values Voter Summit, Abram, 35, confessed to having some discomfort with the anti-gay rhetoric.

"I have friends that are gay," she said. "That's a hard one for me." Abram is a former Catholic who converted to Presbyterianism.

As has become the custom of right-wing leaders appearing before Tea Party crowds, former Republican Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (now the host of a Fox News Channel show), opened his remarks to the Values Voters by saying that he "came here today to speak to this angry mob." The remark did not receive the expected laugh. But when Huckabee stood against the inclusion of health insurance coverage for a abortion, the crowd came to its feet. (Huckabee went on to win the summit's presidential straw poll.)