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Religious Right to Tea Party: Join Us or Die!

At the Values Voter Summit, religious-right leaders offered Tea Partiers a Faustian bargain: Embrace our theocratic agenda, or lose big-time in November.
 
 
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Many leaders of the Tea Party movement would have you believe theirs is a secular movement, one based on a free-market vision of the economy forged in the fires of our nation's founding documents. But with control of the Congress up for grabs this November, the secular veil is growing a bit tattered in the tussle for power between Tea Party and religious right leaders. If the speakers at last weekend's Values Voters Summit, an annual Washington conference for religious-right activists, have anything to say about it, Tea Party personalities had better drop that secular talk and walk slowly, with their hands up, toward the church door.

"[A]s I travel around the country, someone will tell me, 'I'm a fiscal conservative, but I'm not a social conservative,'" Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a Tea Party booster, told the Values Voter audience. "I want to straighten them out a little bit this morning, because the fact is you cannot be a real fiscal conservative if you do not understand the value of having a culture that's based on values."

In truth, these two movements have been intertwined since the dawn of the Tea Party movement in 2009, when Republicans with a religious-right constituency saw a way to seize greater power within their party by playing to the Tea Party crowd. The Tea Party favorites who graced the Values Voter stage are well-known to followers of the religious right: Like DeMint, Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind. (who won the Values Voter presidential straw poll), and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., make frequent appearances before audiences of both the religious right and Tea Party groups.

At last year's Values Voter Summit, any differences between Tea Party organizers and the religious right were downplayed. Then, the religious right was in a waning period, while the Tea Party movement was on the upswing. But as the Tea Party movement became a political force, with a lot of help from large, professionalized astroturfing groups, candidates for political office -- and the experienced campaigners they need -- had to be drawn from somewhere on the right-wing spectrum. And the most hard-core political experience on the right is found among the ranks of the religious.

It's an election year now, and the religious right is feeling its muscle. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn., told the crowd that this November, the country faced "the most important election of my lifetime." In order to win the U.S. Congress, say religious-right leaders, both the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party will need these "values voters." But it's not easy to square the authoritarian legislative dogma of the religious right with the freewheeling, free-marketeering of groups like FreedomWorks -- the pro-corporate, neo-libertarian astroturf group led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who's been known to enjoy a drink, and who at times clashed with the religious right while in Congress.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has no qualms about placing demands for a social-issue agenda on the likes of the FreedomWorks crowd, whose members have a broader range of social views than the religious-right crowd. "They can either hold their nose vis-a-vis social issues and get economic policies that they like," he told AlterNet, "or they can vote for the social issues they like with the liberals, and have their pocketbooks raided by confiscatory liberal economic policies. I have have no doubt which one they will choose, given the choice."

And, indeed, at this month's Taxpayers March on Washington sponsored by FreedomWorks, the day began with a non-denominational religious service at the Washington Monument in an obvious bid to invite social conservatives into the fold. (Just two days before, FreedomWorks hosted a party for right-wing bloggers at which revelers smoked and drank beer on the the balcony of the FreedomWorks offices -- not something you'll ever see at a party hosted by FRC Action, the political arm of the Family Research Council, which sponsored the Values Voter Summit.) According to an April New York Times /CBS News poll, 39 percent of Tea Party supporters identified themselves as evangelical Christians (which doesn't necessarily mean they're religious right), and 38 percent said they attended church every week. To the other 60-plus percent, Land is essentially saying, tough nuts.