A few months after Barack Obama was sworn in as president, the American Family Association (AFA) began blasting its members with e-mails promoting events called “TEA parties.”
Opposition to Obama had coalesced quickly among the far right, and the AFA – which loathes Obama because of his support for legal abortion, gay rights and other social issues – was fast to join the cause.
There was one problem: The acronym TEA stood for “taxed enough already,” and the movement consisted primarily of secular far-right activists unhappy with issues like government spending, the national debt and health-care reform. The social issues that are the obsession of the AFA and its Religious Right allies were nowhere on the plate.
Nevertheless, the AFA continued to push TEA party events. Soon the Family Research Council (FRC) had joined in as well. More than a few eyebrows were raised. What was going on? Was this some new effort to forge a coalition between the Religious Right and the anti-government, low-tax, libertarian crowd?
Some analysts speculated that the TEA party movement would quickly fade. That proved not to be the case, and as summer came on, members of Congress found themselves facing howling, unruly mobs at town hall meetings. The TEA partiers had crashed the events and were stirring up populist anger over what they considered creeping socialism in America.
More than a year after Obama’s election, it’s clear that a backlash is firmly in place. The TEA party banner has become a rallying point for any number of right wingers unhappy with the direction of the country. They’ve even taken credit for Scott Brown’s surprising U.S. Senate victory in Massachusetts.
The conservative base is fired up, and it looks like the TEA party movement is leading the way. And that has captured the attention of the Religious Right.
For the Religious Right, the new right-wing populism couldn’t have come at a better time. Faced with the Obama presidency and a hostile Congress, Religious Right leaders have seen their influence in the nation’s capital wane. At the same time, these groups have been hit by the same economic downturn that has wracked the country.
Can the Religious Right harness the power of the TEA party movement to boost its fortunes?
Bill Berkowitz, a journalist who has covered far-right political movements for decades, isn’t sure how things will shake out – but recommends keeping a close eye on developments.
“I think that the Religious Right is hopeful that at least some aspects of the TEA party movement will embrace its social agenda, but that’s no slam dunk,” Berkowitz told Church & State.
Berkowitz noted a recent TEA party manifesto called the “Contract from America” slights social issues and pointed out that former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, whose group Freedom Works is considered a leading force for the TEA partiers, sticks to economic issues.
But that doesn’t mean the Religious Right will give up, Berkowitz says.
“My guess is that the Religious Right will try to organize its own TEA party supporters and insinuate its issues into that wing of the movement like the AFA did last year at this time,” Berkowitz said.
There is some evidence that this push is already under way. At last year’s “Values Voter Summit” sponsored by the FRC, a special session was held on how to host a TEA party event, led by an AFA staffer. In addition, special sessions were held on topics like health-care reform, the deficit and bank bailouts – not typical FRC fare.
In February, a longtime Religious Right activist who has worked behind the scenes with groups like the Christian Coalition and the FRC told journalist Sarah Posner that the TEA party movement will fail unless it incorporates Religious Right themes.
Allen Hardage, who currently runs a Web site called tvTownhall, told the Web site Religion Dispatches, “You cannot restore this country to the Founding Fathers’ vision and exclude the fact that they understood our rights and ability to grow as a nation from our reverence to God.”
Hardage, who worked under former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed in Ohio in the 1990s, blasted TEA party activists who say social issues will divide the movement.
“I find it quite offensive,” he said. “I want no part of any faith that I can compartmentalize. That faith is worthless…. It’s a matter of obedience to God’s word.”
Posner notes that earlier this year, Hardage orchestrated a webcast called “State of the Union/Voice of the People” that he claims had 83,000 viewers. Speakers included representatives from the anti-government, low-tax crowd, but also on hand were FRC President Tony Perkins and Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America.
As Posner put it, the Web-based event had the effect of “uniting religious right and TEA party leadership in the same broadcast.”
But not every observer agrees that the TEA party movement will join forces with the Religious Right. David Waters, blogging on The Washington Post’s Web site Feb. 10, opined that the TEA party movement “is an anti-government movement, not a pro-God movement.”
Waters argued that an early February national TEA party gathering in Nashville was mostly secular in tone. He pointed out that prayer opened many sessions and there were many references to America’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage but insisted, “Fiscal conservative reformers such as Ross Perot and the late John B. Anderson might have been more at home than such Christian Right warriors as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell.”
Yet the picture it not quite that clear. The Nashville gathering, for example, contained explicit appeals to conservative Christians for support. Among the speakers was Pastor Rick Scarborough, a Texas minister who has been knocking around the fringes of the Religious Right for years.
Scarborough, a protégé of Falwell and founder of a group called Vision America, offered a keynote address during the event. He sparked controversy for his racially tinged remarks, telling the crowd, “God has ordained that you are not a nation if you don’t have borders. If this country becomes 30 percent Hispanic we will no longer be America. We don’t want to become like the U.K. where in places you have sharia. English is our language. We are Americans. We’re not Hispanic-Americans or African-Americans; we are Americans.”
Also speaking at the event was Roy Moore, Alabama’s infamous “Ten Commandments” judge. Moore, formerly chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, was removed from his position in 2003 after he defied a court order to remove a 2.5-ton Commandments monument from the courthouse. He has since become a popular figure on the Religious Right lecture circuit.
During his speech in Nashville, Moore regaled the crowd with quotes from Patrick Henry and went on to accuse Obama of turning his back on America’s Christian heritage.
The big draw at the Nashville event was also a Religious Right favorite: Sarah Palin. Palin, an evangelical Christian, became a rock star to the Religious Right after U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tapped her to be his vice presidential running mate in 2008. At the Values Voter Summit two months before the election, Palin fever was in full bloom among attendees. Her name was brought up constantly, while McCain barely rated a mention.
Palin’s decision to step down as Alaska governor has done nothing to harm her standing among the Religious Right. Far from labeling her a quitter, Religious Right followers made her book Going Rogue a best-seller and have flocked to her personal appearances.
Is Palin the bridge between the Religious Right and the TEA party movement? Berkowitz is skeptical, calling her too polarizing a figure and saying she’s too self-interested.
But viewed from the standpoint of political strategy, Palin might have little choice but to play the role of bridge builder. She will need the support of both secular and religious conservatives if she seeks the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 and will have to attempt to close the gap between the TEA party movement and the Religious Right to forge a coalition large enough to secure the GOP nomination.
Meanwhile, a number of activists on the far right are jockeying to seize the TEA party mantle – or at least warm up to the movement by lauding its activities. Among them is Ned Ryun, son of former right-wing Kansas congressman Jim Ryun.
Ned Ryun founded a group called American Majority, which has become one of several national right-wing organizations seeking to bring TEA party activists into its fold. American Majority currently has offices in six states and plans to open more.
Headquarted in Purcellville, Va., American Majority has ties to the Home School Legal Defense Fund (HSLDF), a group run by Religious Right attorney Michael Farris that is also based in Purcellville. Prior to taking over American Majority, Ryun ran an HSLDF-sponsored organization called Generation Joshua, which aimed to lure fundamentalist young people into far-right politics.
But Ryun and other Religious Right activists who seek to align with the TEA partiers face a sticking point, and it’s a big one: Any effort to blend the TEA party movement into the Religious Right would also require finding some way to deal with the TEA party’s more radical elements.
Because the TEA party is such a decentralized movement, it has attracted all manner of far-right activists. Some of these people sit firmly on the lunatic fringe of American politics. They are convinced that Obama wasn’t born in America, or that he’s secretly a Muslim and/or a socialist.
Others TEA partiers are racist and xenophobic. Most major Religious Right leaders work to keep such people under wraps. Although their views on the separation of church and state are extreme, the major Religious Right groups don’t want to appear openly racist.
Groups like the FRC go out of their way to include African-American and Hispanic representatives at their gatherings in an effort to cultivate the appearance of diversity and project a mainstream image. These groups would want to keep wild-eyed “birthers” and other fringe characters at more than arm’s length or at least find a way to get them to quiet down.
The extreme views common among the fringe are likely to turn off many voters – yet when TEA party activists dial back the rhetoric and join forces with existing political groups, they can be effective.
In Massachusetts, TEA partiers played a role in the election of Scott Brown, a move that stunned the political world. In Florida, the TEA party movement is being actively courted by Mario Rubio, who is seeking the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat.
Political observers had called Florida Gov. Charlie Crist a shoo-in for the nomination, but recent polls have shown Rubio surging into a commanding lead of more than 30 points. (The New York Times Magazine has dubbed Rubio “The First Senator from the TEA Party.”)
At the same time, there are limits to what these activists can do when they try to fly solo. In Texas, incumbent Gov. Rick Perry easily won the GOP nomination last month, besting U.S. Sen Kay Bailey Hutchison and Debra Medina, a candidate widely perceived as representing TEA party views.
Perry, who is popular with conservatives in the state, co-opted the TEA party message by running on a strong anti-Washington platform; Medina captured just 17 percent of the vote.
Some analysts say to avoid more results like this, TEA party activists will have to join forces with an established political movement to work within the GOP.
Could that movement be the Religious Right? It’s possible.
“It’s tempting to dismiss some of the more outlandish stunts of TEA party activists as fringe crackpots, especially because so much of its rhetoric is based on conspiracy-laced paranoia like Obama-as-Manchurian candidate and secret socialist plots to take over America,” said journalist Posner. “But the movement taps into the fears of a great many conservatives and even moderates – both secular and religious.”
Concluded Posner, “Because of the energy and motivation of the Religious Right to mobilize activists and recruit candidates to run for office, a Religious Right-TEA party alliance shouldn’t be underestimated.”