The Common Good

Why I'm Not Tired of Reading About the Tea Party

Are you tired of reading about the Tea Party? The group represents 11 percent of our population, yet it has been on the front cover of every national newspaper for months now. And in the past few weeks, with election campaigns in full throttle, it seems like every widely-read political, religious, and cultural magazine is running a feature on the the Tea Party, including Sojourners. (Read Jim Wallis' cover story, "The Theology of the Tea Party," in this month's issue of Sojourners magazine.)

Understandably, many people are tired of reading about the Tea Party, but I'm not. Here's why. After attending a panel discussion at the Brookings Institute on "Religion and the Tea Party in the 2010 Election", I've realized that the Tea Party and the conservative Christian movement may be more different than conventional wisdom tells us or the media portrays them.

Here are a few statistics that demonstrate some important differences between the two groups:

  1. 43 percent of the Tea Party does not identify as conservative Christian.
  1. 64 percent of the Tea Party agreed that "it is not a problem if some have more chances in life," while only 50 percent of white evangelicals agreed with this statement.
  1. 38 percent of white evangelicals stated, concerning their political values, that minorities get too much attention, while 58 percent of Tea Party members stated that minorities get too much attention.
  1. 71 percent of the Tea Party identifies as conservative, 20 percent as moderate, and 8 percent as liberal. Among Christian conservatives, only 64 percent identify as conservative, 20 percent as moderate, and 13 percent as liberal. This gap in the percentage of Christians who identify as conservative and liberal between the two groups can be attributed to the presence of minorities in the Christian conservative moment, who also vote Democratic.
  1. 57 percent of the Tea Party says that Fox News is their most trusted news source for politics and current events. 39 percent of Christian conservatives say that Fox News is their most trusted news source.
  1. At 11 percent of the American population, the Tea Party is half the size of the conservative Christian movement.

All of these numbers have left me with one question: For a Tea Party member, what is his or her primary motivation -- their theology or their political values? It seems clear to me that while the Tea Party is a diverse movement with varying opinions, the movement is a decidedly secular, libertarian one, as Jim Wallis points out in his November cover story:

The insurgent "Tea Party" movement is rising, gaining new strength in the Republican Party. The movement has put forward many confident standard-bearers for the November election and has popular talk-show hosts such as Glenn Beck as its evangelists.

While the Tea Party is not one-dimensional and has no single spokesperson, its political commitments are rooted in the libertarian philosophy, which is not a new phenomenon in America. Libertarianism, like other brands of conservatism and liberalism, is a political philosophy more than a religious one, and the Tea Party, while not yet as organized, is like the Democratic and Republican parties in seeking political power.

It is a secular movement, not a Christian one. As with both major political parties, some people who regard themselves as Christians are involved in, or sympathetic to, the new Tea Party, but that doesn't make it "Christian." And like the philosophies and policies of the major political parties, the new Tea Party can legitimately be examined on the basis of Christian principles -- and it should be. Just how Christian is the Tea Party movement and the libertarian political philosophy behind much of it?

So despite being tired of reading about the Tea Party, I encourage you to keep reading about them -- you might be surprised with what you find.

portrait-claire-lorentzenClaire Lorentzen is the online editorial assistant at Sojourners.

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