The Tea Party Express -- the traveling band of conservative speakers, entertainers, and organizers -- stops in Washington, D.C., today on its nationwide effort to "vote them out of office" in the 2010 mid-term elections. Sarah Palin, one of the most galvanizing conservatives in years, has joined the Express in an attempt to bring more mainstream conservatives into its ranks. The Alaskan drew several thousand fans, opponents, and gawkers to the Tea Party rally on Boston Common Wednesday, and I decided to head down to experience it for myself.
I did this for a couple of reasons. A big reason I went was to hear Mrs. Palin -- to see what all the fuss is about and to bask in her aura. I was not disappointed. She gave the crowd what it came to hear: hard-nosed political rhetoric softened by her trademark small-town colloquial wit. She even worked a "drill, baby, drill!" into the speech, though strangely, she made no mention of President Obama's move last month to expand off-shore drilling for oil.
My main reason for attending, though, was to be among the people. I have found myself characterizing the Tea Party in conversation without having ever attended a rally, and I wanted to get a clearer picture of who makes up this group comprising roughly 18 percent of Americans. Specifically, I wanted to come at the event with my Jesus goggles on, asking whether this is a group for folks who call themselves Christians.
I knew Tea Party supporters were a patriotic bunch, so the red, white, and blue didn't come as much of a shock. What surprised me a bit was the support of militarism and American exceptionalism. Last summer, the Tea Parties formed around a largely economic platform: Washington is spending too much money and needs to stop. A good chunk of these folks, including many supporters of then-presidential candidate Ron Paul, were against excessive spending on defense and interventionism around the world. So I was surprised when nearly half the program was spent praising our troops and America's interventionist campaigns overseas. Palin walked right into the debate over American exceptionalism, stating that as the greatest nation on the planet, America is, in fact, exceptional. (Implying that we can do what we please, thank you.)
This is a curious stance for Palin, a devout Christian. When Paul tells the Galatians (3:28) that they are "neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek," he is telling them to remember that in Christ, they are one -- regardless of nationality. Do we erase all national affiliation when we follow Jesus? No, but we affiliate ourselves first with the kingdom of God, which changes everything. Militarism -- even in the name of "freedom" -- is wrong for the Christian, in all cases, at all times.
Which brings me to the concept of "freedom." This really is the operative concept within the Tea Party movement: freedom from excessive taxes and government intrusion of all kinds. This freedom, signs and speakers proudly announce, came at a price -- the price of brave American soldiers in 250 years' worth of foreign and domestic wars. But they opportunistically omit that our freedom also came at the cost of Native Americans, foreign and domestic soldiers and civilians, and our natural resources. I would argue that a Christian cannot blindly accept freedom that sacrifices lives and our Earth, not when the very core principles of our faith were violated to achieve it.
Finally, here's a reflection I had Wednesday night upon reading the results from the first scientific poll of Tea Party supporters, released yesterday by The New York Times and CBS News. Before Wednesday, information about the group was largely anecdotal, so this poll gave the first clear picture of the demographics and beliefs of a typical Tea Party supporter. This person is likely supportive of the movement on ideological grounds rather than economic grounds, which, as I mentioned earlier, was the platform for the group's beginnings. Most likely to be rich, white, and older than 45, Tea Party supporters largely oppose what they perceive to be policies that disproportionately favor the poor over the rich. In other words, most point to differences in class as the reason why they support the Tea Party. Some even go further, citing fear that Obama will favor blacks in his political agenda.
As a Christian, this is troubling. That the fear of someone's money being taken and given to the poor would drive them to organize in this fashion -- and with so much anger, which I did observe Wednesday -- should make us pause and rethink our collective moral compass. Capitalism set forth by Adam Smith exists for the common good of all people. Many in this country are being left out of that equation, African Americans being a notable example. We must, as a country, ask ourselves why this is. Surely it's not because all of them are not trying hard enough to succeed. This might be my biggest issue with the Tea Party movement: at its core, it is selfish.
Are there good people who are involved in the Tea Party protests? Of course. Do they have legitimate concerns about waste and spending in Washington? You bet. Are militaristic, homogeneous, often angry protests the best method for airing their concerns, especially for Christians?
I don't think so.
Steve Holt seeks joy and justice in East Boston, Massachusetts. Steve enjoys gardening, being a husband, community life, and writing. He blogs about spirituality and his garden at harvestboston.wordpress.com.