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Tea Party Jesus: Koch's Americans For Prosperity Sidles Up to Religious Right for 2012 Campaign

David Koch's key operative, Tim Phillips, is moving to merge the religious right with the Tea Party movement -- just in time for the presidential race.

Jesus, it seems, is a fiscal conservative. Make that a tax-cut-loving, labor-union-busting, supply-side fiscal conservative. How else to explain the presence of Tim Phillips, president of the Koch-funded Tea Party astroturf group, Americans for Prosperity, as a presenter at the Awakening conference sponsored by the religious-right group, Freedom Federation?

Now effectively in the employ of the libertarian David Koch, who founded Americans for Prosperity and chairs the board of its foundation, Phillips has deep ties to the evangelical Right, most notably with Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Rev. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, who now heads a new entity, the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Reed and Phillips go way back; the two were partners in Century Strategies, the political consulting group through which Reed played a role in the Jack Abramoff bribery scandal. Now, it seems Phillips is partnered with Reed and other Religious Right leaders in a much greater conquest: a merger of the Religious Right and the ostensibly secular Tea Party movement to create an electoral juggernaut that will determine the outcome of the 2012 Republican presidential primary.

It’s not new for Religious Right leaders to embrace conservative economics. Back in the 1990s, Ralph Reed, then at the Christian Coalition's helm, endorsed Newt Gingrich’s "Contract with America," calling taxes a “family values” issue. Reed shrewdly calculated that the Religious Right would gain more influence within the Republican Party if it set its sights beyond a focus on abortion and gay rights. Now Reed is back in the game with his Faith and Freedom Coalition, a kind of hybrid Religious Right/Tea Party get-out-the-vote operation.

Reed, who promises to mobilize a massive conservative evangelical vote in 2012, has been organizing in Iowa, whose party caucuses mark the opening of the presidential campaign season, for more than a year. According to David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Faith and Freedom Coalition has a database of 20 million evangelical voters. Last month, Reed's FFC hosted the first major Iowa gathering of a motley group of GOP presidential contenders, each eager to appeal to both religious and economic conservatives.

But there’s something more at work here than just good coalition politics. Movement strategists, such as Reed and Phillips, want to fully co-opt or merge the Religious Right, its organizing infrastructure, and its activists into the Tea Party wing of the GOP. So conservative Christian voters are being told that a radically limited federal government is God’s idea, and that right-wing economic policies are mandated by the Bible. That could be effective in places like Iowa, with its crucial early presidential caucus, where conservative voters are mobilized through evangelical churches and home-schooling groups. According to Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, “There is no comparable network for fiscal-minded or moderate Republicans.” Not even the impressive organizing prowess of Americans for Prosperity can match it.

This political strategy – claiming a biblical foundation for the anti-government agenda of the Tea Party and its corporate backers – was on full display last weekend at the Lynchburg, Va., campus of Liberty University, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, where the Freedom Federation’s Awakening conference took place. In a video message, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., a heroine in both movements and possible presidential candidate, hit all the Religious Right and Tea Party high points: abortion, gays, “anti-family” health care reform, and the “immoral” and “fundamentally evil” national debt. She praised Iowa voters for rejecting three state supreme court judges in a protest against the legalization of marriage for same-sex couples in the state.

“Do you see what we can do when we all work together?” asked Bachmann, who is also a popular speaker at Americans for Prosperity events. “It’s that kind of unyielding stand that I know each of you is willing to make,” she said, segueing immediately into one of her favorite Bible passages, “about a woman who also laid it all on the line.” Recounting the story of a woman who was criticized for pouring an expensive fragrant ointment over Jesus’ head, Bachmann said “[w]e should pour ourselves out for Jesus” and recounted, in what had the feel of a campaign speech, the many ways she personally has done so. Before the conference ended, Bachmann would win the Awakening’s presidential straw poll with 22 percent of the vote.