Religious Right to Tea Party: Join Us or Die!


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.

Birthers, Breeders and Producers

At the Values Voter Summit, it's tempting to get lost in the dazzle of hot buttons pushed on the emotional matters of sex roles, race and culture, especially with the election of the nation's first African-American president, who, like his wife (who will likely resume her pre-White House career after her First Lady stint is through), was educated in Ivy League schools.

This year's summit did not disappoint, especially when the stage was taken by birther Dale Peterson, who made a name for himself during his failed campaign for Alabama agriculture commissioner by making a tough-talking ad featuring himself in a cowboy hat with a rifle on his shoulder. During his anti-immigration speech, Peterson said he'd yet to see Obama's "little feet on that birth certificate." The crowd, which was nearly all white, ate it up. (More here.)

This year's paean to anti-feminism was seen in the spectacle of the Duggar family, stars of the TLC reality program, 19 Children and Counting. Only 18 of the Duggar children took the stage, seeing as the most recent arrival, a recovering preemie, was deemed too fragile to make the trip. The children sang a song about being washed in the font of Jesus' blood that asked, "Why should I not be put in Hell to suffer for all time?"

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Education Secretary William Bennett, former Reagan adviser Gary Bauer and anti-feminist stalwart Phyllis Schlafly, among others, supplied a steady stream of Muslim-bashing.

These are the themes that get attention, the most-tweeted bon mots. But they do not constitute the main event; rather, they are advanced in the service of a core economic message that expresses the religious-right worldview: that those who live virtuous lives will be rewarded by the fruits of their own labor, and those who find themselves in dire straits are likely there because of their own moral failings. It's a message as old as America; it's Calvinism 101, and one now called to serve the corporate overlords of the Tea Party's pitchfork-wielding peasants. In its secular form, this ethos has evolved into what researcher Chip Berlet calls "producerism," the contention that producers of goods and services are beset by parasites at the top and bottom of society in the form of cultural elites and the undeserving poor.

Fiscal Theology

In the Omni Shoreham's richly appointed Diplomat Room, at a breakout session titled "Indivisible: Social and Economic Foundations of American Liberty," Jennifer A. Marshall, director of domestic policy studies for the Heritage Foundation, is making the case for the religious right's fiscal worldview. "Forty percent of children today are born to a single mother," she tells the Values Voters. "Among Hispanics, it's a little over 50 percent, and among blacks, it's 70 percent." At the citation of the statistic pertaining to African Americans, an audible groan is heard from several in the crowd. "And that has economic implications as well as social implications."

It is the lack of personal responsibility, rooted in traditional Protestant theology, that makes government social services necessary, according to the religious right's fiscal theology. When the people are virtuous -- when they enjoy stable, two-parent families -- they do not require government help, relieving the haves of the burden of supporting the have-nots, the reasoning goes.

From the main stage of the Values Voter Summit, Jim DeMint put it this way: "When you have a big government, you're going to have a little God, you're going to have fewer values and morals, and you're going to have a culture that has to be controlled by a big government. But when you have a big God, you can have a responsible and capable people with character to control themselves and lead their own lives, and you can have a little government that promotes freedom and allows people to keep more of their own money and a government that's not bankrupt. We're talking about fiscal issues."

DeMint has been working with FreedomWorks to undermine the power of establishment Republicans, creating his own Tea Party power center by supporting, through his Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee, Tea Party-branded primary challengers to candidates endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Rand Paul in Kentucky, McConnell's home state, and Marco Rubio in Florida are two of DeMint's star candidates.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn., was even more blunt in his condemnation of the nation's less fortunate, especially those in certain geographic areas.

"Go into the neighborhoods in America where there is a lack of virtue," Santorum said. "What will you find? Two things: You will find no families, no mothers and fathers together in marriage, and you will find government everywhere. Police, social service agencies, why? Because without faith, family and virtue, government takes over."

No economic analysis is offered for the societal pressures, prejudices and inequities that create dysfunctional families or behavior. Racism plays no role in the economic misfortunes of African Americans; female-headed households are poor because of the absence of a man -- not because women are under-compensated for their work.

A booklet passed out at the "Indivisible" breakout session contains an essay by Wall Street Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore (who also sat on the breakout panel with the Family Research Council's Ken Blackwell, an African-American conservative), in which the former Club for Growth president performs something of a mea culpa for his new-found religious-right readership.

"Sometimes free-market economists underestimate the importance of intact families as basic building blocks for sustainable economic growth," Moore writes. "I admit to being guilty of this myself."

Moore goes on to quote, without irony, the following rationale for the religious-right view of family and virtue: "For example, on average, a married-couple household has a net worth of $187,000, while a female-headed household has a net worth of just $49,000, according to a study in Children and Youth Services Review published in 2008." Just why the addition of a male spouse to a household multiplies its average net worth to four times that of the average female-headed household is never explained, perhaps because pay discrimination and unequal opportunity for women would have be addressed.

Obama's 'Rape of the Economy'

While a significant overlap between the Tea Party movement and the religious right has existed from the onset of the former, leaders of the big groups involved in leveraging the ground-level discontent represented by Tea Partiers are joining hands in ever more obvious ways than in times past.

Make no mistake: The big Tea Party astroturf groups, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, and their media sponsor, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, are coming together with the Family Research Council and Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition to meet a common goal -- the crippling of the Obama administration and the movement of the Republican Party even further to the right.

At the emotional level, the troops are being rallied by an enduring contempt for the nation's first African-American president (and one with Muslim roots), not simply for his race and cultural origins, but the contempt often expressed in vaguely racialized terms.

Michele Bachmann, from the Values Voters main stage, spoke of the president's ideology as "infantilism." It's not the first time she's called him infantile; she did the same at a right-wing conference in July. Sean Hannity, host of a show on Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel, told the crowd, "We will do everything possible to ensure that Barack Hussein Obama is a one-term president." Richard Land, in an Omni Shoreham hallway, told me the FreedomWorks crowd would join with the religious right in order to combat "Obama's rape of the economy."

An enduring trope about black men is that they prey upon white women; a trope likely born of historical projection, since, under slavery, African-American women were often the sexual slaves of their white masters. When, several days later, I questioned Land on his sexually charged word choice, he replied, "I think rape is an act of violence. It's only incidentally sexual; it's an act of violence. And I would say he's committed some acts of violence against this economy. I think Obamacare's an act of violence against this economy. If it's fully implemented it will bankrupt us." Land went on to say that while health care does need reforming, "Obamacare is not the answer."

The Values Voter Summit represented the third time I had heard radio show host Herman Cain, an African-American businessman who spouts a bootstrap philosophy, speak this summer. The last two times were at events sponsored by David Koch's Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a group that presents itself as secular. Cain joined with Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal, another Murdoch/News Corp. property, to co-author a book, Prosperity 101, that is used in an AFPF project. Yet Moore's appearance on a Values Voter panel last week was the first I had seen him at a religious-right event. That, coupled with his act of contrition in his Heritage Foundation essay, would suggests that, at least at the astroturf level, the melding of the religious and secular right is complete.

Tea Party: Secular or Religious?

Five days before the Values Voters Summit, Mike Pence stood before a crowd gathered on the ground of the U.S. Capitol by FreedomWorks, amid a smattering of signs threatening the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, and more simply deriding the president based on the now-usual conspiracy theories: his alleged crypto-Marxism, crypto-Kenyanism, crypto-Islamism and crypto-stupidity. This appearance came two months after Pence appeared as a keynote speaker at the Americans For Prosperity Foundation's RightOnline conference in Las Vegas.

At the Values Voter Summit, Pence offered the following rationale for the melding of the two movements. "We must not remain silent when great moral battles are being waged," he said. "Those who would have us ignore the battle being fought over life, marriage, religious liberty have forgotten the lessons of history. As in the days of a house divided, America's darkest moments have come when economic arguments trumped moral principles. Men and women, we must demand, here and now, that the leaders of the Republican Party stand for life, traditional marriage and religious liberty without apology."

As Pence exited the ballroom where he had delivered his speech, I asked him whether the Tea Party movement was secular in nature.

"I think it's an authentic movement of the American people that are wanting to see our national government return to the common sense and common values of the majority of the American public," he said.

I pressed him. "Are you saying it's neither secular nor religious?" I asked.

"I think it's an authentic American movement," he replied, before hurrying off to catch a plane.

So take your pick: the Tea Party movement is neither secular nor religious -- or it's both.

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