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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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You Tell Me It's the Constitution

At the Tea Party break-out session, panelist Jeff Griffith, founder of the Constitutional Organization of Liberty (COOL), laid out the religious case for the U.S. Constitution.

When I asked him how he came about his belief in the divine provenance of the Constitution, he replied, "It originated with the understanding that our Founding Fathers chose to write into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that our rights are God-given rights, that there is a natural law that God has ordained and government is answerable to God. Government was ordained by God." (Actually, the Constitution mentions neither God nor natural law.)

He went on to tell me the story of Benjamin Franklin, who, during a deadlock at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, motioned that the delegates should take a moment to pray for divine guidance.

"As I recall," I said, "the motion was tabled."

"Yes it was," Griffiths replied, laughing, but not missing a beat. "But nevertheless, they understood that they were answerable to God."

Griffiths' take on the nation's founding has a long history in the religious right, much of it conceived by Phillips (who goes even further to suggest that since U.S. law is based on British common law, and because British common law is based on the Bible, that the ultimate return to biblical law by the United States government is either in the offing, or the nation will be judged harshly by God).

But the emphasis on the founding documents by the religious right is taking a larger role -- largely because of the Tea Party movement, many of whose members embrace a kind of constitutional fundamentalism in the service of an ideology that is, at its heart, anti-government.

In this new fundamentalist form of our civic religion, the Constitution is venerated as an object imbued with the living God, much like the place occupied by the Eucharist in Catholicsm. The Founders are the new saints, intercessors with the Almighty, men who meant to found a Christian nation. The American Revolution counts as one of the great holy wars of mankind, and its symbols form the iconography of the Tea Party movement. The militia flags and three-corner hats are its holy cards and medals, its cassocks and vestments. The battles of the revolution are the new stations of the cross.

It is only a matter of time before the religious right finds a way to work those symbols in to its own visual lexicon.

A belief in the divine birthright of the Constitution gives a religious sheen to the Tea Party movement's obsession with the Second and Tenth amendments, which respectively grant the right to bear arms and state sovereignty. None of the later amendments carry the divine imprimatur, as they were not drafted by the Constitution's original framers.

Those later amendments abolished slavery, granted suffrage to women and established the income tax, among other things.

The Tenth Amendment, in particular, has a troubling history. In justifying its secession from the union in 1860, South Carolina lawmakers cited it, finding therein a justification for  "nullifying" any federal law that would govern or outlaw slavery.

I asked Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who addressed the Values Voters, why he thought the Tenth Amendment was getting so much attention lately. (Perry, earlier this year, suggested that Texas might secede from the union because of President Barack Obama's stimulus package.)

"It is probably one of the most powerful issues that are out there driving people at present, partly because it's simple to understand," Perry said. "The Tenth Amendment simply says that the federal government was created by the states to be an agent of the states, not the other way around."