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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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At the religious right's Values Voter Summit this weekend, some of the air seemed to have gone out of the balloon.

Gathering at the Omni Shoreham in Washington, 1,800 activists and their leaders seemed resigned to being subsumed by the broader Tea Party movement, or rendered irrelevant by it.

This year's conference, sponsored by the political affiliate of the Family Research Council, emphasized matters important to Tea Party leaders: freedom was linked with free enterprise; ominous were warnings offered about a march to socialism; global warming was said to be a good thing; and taxes were deemed to be too high and largely misappropriated.

But these messages did not receive nearly the degree of enthusiasm from attendees as the traditional religious right decrees against abortion and same-sex marriage. And despite efforts to tread carefully on issues of race, one of the biggest laugh lines of the conference was the racially charged parable told by Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., about the circumstances faced by Republicans in Congress, which he compared to having to play a ball thrown by a monkey.

Yet religious right leaders, who have long played to racial resentment, seem alarmed at how the overt racism of some of the Tea Partiers could harm their own movement -- decades in the making -- of politicized Christian evangelicals and conservative Catholics.

Even as some conference speakers sent coded racial messages, others cautioned the troops to extreme discipline on matters of race in their messaging, "lest we cast our movement," in the words of conference closer, the Rev. Harry Jackson, "... in a way that will cause people to think that we're something that we're not."

Make no mistake: The religious right is not going away. Evangelical churches still offer an unparalleled organizing tool for right-wing political operatives. But in the wake of the September 12 march on Washington, it's clear there's a new, big beefy kid in town: the Tea Party movement.

In many ways, the greater American culture has moved beyond the religious right. During its 30 years of existence, the religious right has failed to significantly move public opinion on legalized abortion, and it is losing its war on gay rights, even if it enjoys occasional, even major, victories on that front (as it did with Proposition 8, the 2008 California ballot measure that struck down same-sex marriage, which had been legalized by the courts).

An October 2008 survey conducted for Faith in Public Life found that among young, white evangelicals (age 18-34), "a majority favor either same-sex marriage (24 percent) or civil unions (28 percent)." In the same survey, Americans ranked abortion and same-sex marriage as the least important issues on the list interviewers offered them.

Enter the Tea Party movement, a broad-based conflagration of the white and angry, unbound by a need to appear Christlike in either agenda or comportment, whose inchoate grab bag of messages ultimately hang on the very issues named by pollsters as ranked most important by voters in the 2008 election: the economy, energy and gas prices and health care.

Racial resentment against America's first African American president may fuel the movement, but it is not the end-goal of its leaders, who seek nothing more than a completely deregulated marketplace. It was a tactic used more subtly, in years past, by religious right leaders, who find their religion-based movement now at risk of being subsumed by the fire they lit.

"Unfortunately, the very fine people who are the leaders of the Christian right, are responding -- they're in a reactive mode ... instead of laying out a long-term vision of victory based on a restoration of constitutional government and adherence to constitutional principles," Howard Phillips, one of the founders of the religious right, said in an interview I conducted with him on the eve of the Values Voter Summit.

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.)

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."

But for a governor, Perry seemed to say, it was personal. "I don't care if you're the Democratic governor of New York, or you're the Republican governor of Mississippi," he said, "You want people in Washington, D.C., tellin' you how to run your state? And I think not. They historically use our money as the bait to get states to do their bidding, and my instinct here is that there are a lot of people starting to say, 'Hey, wait a minute. We're not sure that the squeeze here is worth the juice anymore.' "

Beyond the bloody history of the Tenth Amendment as a justification for slavery, constitutional fundamentalism holds another conundrum for its believers, if they truly wish to be not to be seen as racially prejudiced.

The U.S. Constitution counted each slave as only three-fifths of a person when apportioning by population the House of Representatives. This was corrected, of course, by the 14th Amendment, which, coming after the Bill of Rights, is not part of what religious right Constitution buffs hold to be the divinely derived constitutional document.

We Are Not Racists: A Primer on How Not to Behave

In the religious right, racism is, more often than not, presented in code. In the Tea Party movement, it's often in your face.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins is a master of the coded speech. In Florida two years ago, I saw him address a crowd gathered for a conference called "Reclaim America for Christ," in which he lauded the actions of Phineas, grandson of Noah, whom the Bible tells us slew a newly married couple because the man had married outside his tribe. (Phineas ran them through with a javelin.)

The Phineas story has long been used to justify bans on the mixing of races, and one white-supremacist organization takes as its name the Phineas Priesthood.

Roy Blunt's address to the Values Voter summit, with its story of monkeys throwing golf balls at British soldiers -- the monkeys standing in for Obama and the Democrats, while the Brits represent the beleaguered Republicans -- is also in keeping with the religious right style of race code.

So, too, is the model used the next day by Bill Bennett, the former secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan, who came before the Values Voters to hawk his history textbook for grade-schoolers. (Lots of home-schoolers in that crowd.) In that model, a single African American is held up as a laudatory figure, then used as a bludgeon with which to beat the rest. Bennett chose the figure of Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist and suffragist.

"I don't know why more of the African American leadership doesn't talk about Frederick Douglass," Bennett said. "Probably because of his deep devotion to Lincoln, and his deep devotion to this country ..." You mean, you didn't know that black people today hate Abraham Lincoln and the United States of America?

Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., a contender for the 2012 presidential nomination, was quick, as a Republican, to claim the Lincoln legacy and to assert that the cause of "freedom, free markets and traditional moral values" is a message that the Values Voters must take "to every community in this nation, regardless of race, color or creed." Then he offered a quote from the founder of the Republican Party.

"Lincoln said, 'There is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence...' " In other words, Pence seemed to be saying, the Values Voters had it in their mission to liberate "the Negro" once again -- this time from his own misguided leaders.

Pence's call to racial harmony through the wisdom of free markets fell a little flat on this crowd, and is not without irony, since Pence has publicly endorsed the work of Grassfire, an astroturfing organization that runs ResistNet, a Web site where I found all manner of racist material when researching an August story.

Other speakers were more explicit about the religious right's need to differentiate itself from the tactics employed by town-hall protesters and Tea Partiers.

Most transparent was the closing speaker, the Rev. Harry Jackson, an African American. Jackson is the religious right's point man in Washington, where he is waging a battle, organizing African American pastors to prevent the City Council from enacting a same-sex marriage law.

Jackson spoke with urgency about his personal need to have the religious right behave well on matters of race, saying, "I cannot win this fight...if even my own black brothers see me as a traitor.

"What I want to say to you is that the burning question in the media today is whether this growing grassroots movement is, the Tea Party movement, the morally engaged, who are crying out, concerned with the problem of health care, as well -- that many of us are cast as being racist. The word has gone out that there is, in fact, a racist element that is causing us to rise up and come against President Obama …"

Jackson went on to tell how, in a meeting with the "spiritual fathers" of the city, he stood accused of trying to discredit the president. Imitating the voice of an old Southern black man, he told of how one pastor said, " 'Ah know what he agonna try to do -- the right-wingers gonna get up in here and because we make a stand before marriage, they're gonna use it against Mr. Obama.'

"You know, I almost got my black card revoked."

"We're going to have to decide that we're going to have stay with issues," he continued, "and we're going to have to not attack Mr. Obama … now, hear me out, that may rub you the wrong way, but God bless you, I'm used to a little hostility. … We cannot afford to be undisciplined and to engage in a way that will cause people to think that we're something that we're not."

Jackson's solution? Drop the race card and play the class card instead. Laying out his strategy against the LGBT rights movement, he complained that the LGBT community is composed of "disproportionately educated [who] have all kinds of opportunities to make more money than other folk …"  'K Street lawyers," he called them.

Challening the characterization of same-sex marriage as a civil right, Jackson spoke of his father, who had been abused by a state trooper for being black, saying that his father "knew what a civil right was."

He fired up his white followers with this condemnation of LGBT activists: "That movement is a handful of privileged people who are intolerant of anybody with another idea, who want to oppress and suppress the truth in the name of freedom."

Then he called the faithful to pray with him, to pretend that they were at a "black 'Bapticostal' church." Together they prayed, "Let God arise, and his enemies be scattered." Then they broke into a murmur of individual prayers, hands raised, while Jackson prayed over them, a polite, contained frenzy.

Adele M. Stan AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.