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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.

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.