America has long been the incubator of many spiritual creeds going back to the Great Awakening and even earlier. Only one of them, Mormonism, has taken root and flourished as a true religion sprung from our own native ground. Today, however, we have a new faith growing from this nation’s soil: the Tea Party. Despite its secular trappings and “taxed enough already” motto, it is a religious movement, one grounded in the traditions of American spiritual revival. This religiosity explains the Tea Party’s political zealotry.
The mark of a national political party in a democracy is its pluralistic quality, i.e. the ability to be inclusive enough to appeal to the broadest number of voters who may have differing interests on a variety of issues. While it may stand for certain basic principles, a party is often flexible in applying them, as are its representatives in fulfilling them. Despite the heated rhetoric of elections and the bombast of elected representatives, they generally seek consensus with the minority in order to achieve their legislative goals.
But when religion is thrown into the mix, all that is lost. Religion here doesn’t mean theology but a distinct belief system which, in totality, provides basic answers regarding how to live one’s life, how society should function, how to deal with social and political issues, what is right and wrong, who should lead us, and who should not. It does so in ways that fulfill deep-seated emotional needs that, at their profoundest level, are devotional. Given the confusions of a secular world being rapidly transformed by technology, demography, and globalization, this movement has assumed a spiritual aspect whose adepts have undergone a religious experience which, if not in name, then in virtually every other aspect, can be considered a faith.
Seen in this light, the behavior of Tea Party adherents makes sense. Their zeal is not the mercurial enthusiasm of a traditional Republican or Democrat that waxes and wanes with the party’s fortunes, much less the average voter who may not exercise the franchise at every election. These people are true believers who turn out faithfully at the primaries, giving them political clout in great excess to their actual numbers. Collectively, this can make it appear as if they are preponderant, enabling their tribunes to declare that they represent the will of the American people.
While a traditional political party may have a line that it won’t cross,the Tea Party has a stone-engraved set of principles, all of which are sacrosanct. This is not a political platform to be negotiated but a catechism with only a single answer. It is now a commonplace for Tea Party candidates to vow they won’t sacrifice an iota of their principles. In this light, shutting down the Government rather than bending on legislation becomes a moral imperative. While critics may decry such a tactic as “rule or ruin,” Tea Party brethren celebrate it, rather, as the act of a defiant Samson pulling down the pillars of the temple. For them, this is not demolition but reclamation, cleansing the sanctuary that has been profaned by liberals. They see themselves engaged in nothing less than a project of national salvation. The refusal to compromise is a watchword of their candidates who wear it as a badge of pride. This would seem disastrous in the give-and-take of politics but it is in keeping with sectarian religious doctrine. One doesn’t compromise on an article of faith.
This explains why the Tea Party faithful often appear to be so bellicose. You and I can have a reasonable disagreement about fiscal policy or foreign policy but if I attack your religious beliefs you will become understandably outraged. And if I challenge the credibility of your doctrine you will respond with righteous indignation. To question the validity of Moses parting the Red Sea or the Virgin Birth or Mohammed ascending to heaven on a flying horse is to confront the basis of a believer’s deepest values.
Consequently, on the issues of government, economics, race, and sex, the Tea Party promulgates a doctrine to which the faithful must subscribe. Democrats and independents who oppose their dogma are infidels. Republicans who don’t obey all the tenants are heretics, who are primaried rather than burned at the stake.
Like all revealed religions this one has its own Devil in the form of Barack Obama. This Antichrist in the White House is an illegitimate ruler who must be opposed at every turn, along with his lesser demons, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. They are responsible for everything that has gone wrong with the country in the last six years and indeed, they represent a liberal legacy that has betrayed America’s ideals for the better part of a century. Washington is seen in the same way Protestant fire-breathers once saw Rome: a seat of corruption that has betrayed the pillars of the faith. The only way to save America’s sanctity is to take control of Washington and undermine the federal government while affecting to repair it. Critical to this endeavor is the drumroll of hell-fire sermons from the tub-thumpers of talk radio and Fox News. This national revival tent not only exhorts the faithful but its radio preachers have ultimately become the arbiters of doctrinal legitimacy, determining which candidates are worthy of their anointment and which lack purity.
Having created a picture of Hell, the Tea Party priesthood must furnish the faithful with an image of Paradise. This Eden is not located in space but in time: the Republic in the decades after the Civil War when the plantocracy ruled in the South and plutocrats reigned in the North. Blacks knew their place in Dixie through the beneficence of states’ rights, and the robber barons of the North had a cozy relationship with the government prior to the advent of labor laws, unions, and the income tax. Immigrants were not yet at high tide. It was still a white, male, Christian country and proudly so. When Tea Party stalwarts cry “Take back America!” we must ask from whom, and to what? They seek to take it back to the Gilded Age, and retrieve it from the lower orders: immigrants, minorities the “takers” of the “47 percent,” and their liberal enablers.
Most critical to any religious movement is a holy text, and the Right has appropriated nothing less than the Constitution to be its Bible. The Tea Party, its acolytes in Congress and its allies on the Supreme Court have allocated to themselves the sole interpretation of the Constitution with the ethos of “Originalism.” Legal minds look to the text to read the thoughts of the Framers as a high priest would study entrails at the Forum. The focus is on text rather than context and authors; the writing rather than the reality in which the words were written. This sort of thinking is a form of literalism that is kindred in spirit to the religious fundamentalism and literal, Biblical truth that rose as bulwarks against modernity.
One thing that Tea Partiers and liberals alike both recognize is that the Constitution forbids the establishment of religion. The prohibition was erected for good reason: to prevent the religious wars that wracked Europe in the previous century. The Enlightenment was to transcend such sectarian violence inimical to the social order together with the concomitant religious oppression that burdened individual conscience. By investing a political faction with a religious dimension the Tea Party presents a challenge to both religion and democracy.
Jack Schwartz supervised Newsday's book pages and was a longtime editor at several New York dailies.