Friday, April 22, 2011

The Religious Right is Coming to the Tea Party

This was probably inevitable. Alternet reported this week that the president of Americans for Prosperity, the Tea Party astroturfing organization funded by billionaire conservative David Koch, has been cozying up with some of the key players on the Religious Right in preparation for the 2012 election. Alternet observes that AfP president Tim Phillips has been developing particularly close ties to disgraced Religious Right poster-boy Ralph Reed and Reed's new Faith and Freedom Coalition.

After overwhelming support from white, conservative, evangelical voters swept George W. Bush into office in the 2000 election, it seemed like the political power of the Religious Right was hitting an all-time high. But over the last decade a number of key factors, including the spectacular spectacle of the Bush presidency itself and the 2007 death of Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, seemed to stall the political juggernaut that is the Religious Right, with this apparently waning influence all but confirmed by the 2008 election of Barack Obama. The subsequent rise of the Tea Party movement as an ostensibly secular, economically-oriented new brand of conservatism signaled perhaps the greatest internal threat to the rhetorical dominance of the Religious Right within the conservative movement.

However, as the Alternet article points out, the social values emphasis of the Religious Right has never really prevented it from aligning itself with conservative economic forces. To date, Ralph Reed's endorsement of Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" as a "family values" issue probably still takes the cake in terms of the truly remarkable conservative ability to shoehorn seemingly disparate issues into one tidy package of values. Now, in another display of the Religious Right's resilience, Reed and Phillips seem to be engineering the wholesale incorporation of the remnants of the Religious Right under the astroturfed wing of the Tea Party:
"But there’s something more at work here than just good coalition politics. Movement strategists, such as Reed and Phillips, want to fully co-opt or merge the Religious Right, its organizing infrastructure, and its activists into the Tea Party wing of the GOP. So conservative Christian voters are being told that a radically limited federal government is God’s idea, and that right-wing economic policies are mandated by the Bible."
Certainly not all, or even most, Christians in the US feel that their religion calls for limited government and support for unchecked capitalism. Consider the findings of a recent poll conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service:
"[More]Americans (44 percent) see the free market system at odds with Christian values than those who don't (36 percent), whether they are white evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics or minority Christians."
However, the poll notes that among certain demographics, particularly "Republicans and Tea Party members, college graduates and members of high-income households," the reverse holds true, and Christianity and capitalism are considered to be compatible more often than not.

Despite assignations of labels like Andrew Sullivan's "secular fundamentalism" to the Tea Party movement, the latent religious potential has always hovered beneath a thin veneer of economic concerns, waiting for an individual or group with a powerful enough messaging apparatus to make it fit. As Lauri Lebo noted over at Religion Dispatches this week in her profile of Christian nationalist David Barton, there has been something of a cottage industry that has grown up around making this very connection since the rise of the Tea Party in the wake of the 2008 elections. Lebo cites a report complied by People for the American Way, which describes some of Barton's attempts to ground Tea Party policy in scripture:
"On a conference call with pastors two days after the November 2010 elections to celebrate conservative victories, Barton asserted a biblical underpinning for far-right economic policies: Taxation and deficit spending amount to theft, a violation of the Ten Commandments. The estate tax is “absolutely condemned” by the Bible as the “most immoral” of taxes. Jesus had “teachings” condemning the capital gains tax and minimum wage.

Barton also enlists Jesus in the war against unions and collective bargaining. According to Barton, a parable from the 20th chapter of the book of Matthew about the owner of a vineyard making different arrangements with workers was about “the right of private contract” – in other words, the right of employers to come to individual agreements with each employee. Jesus’ parable, he said, is “anti-minimum wage” and “anti-socialist-union kind of stuff.”
I admit that I am always morbidly fascinated by the mental gymnastics required to whitewash Ayn Rand's brand of elitist objectivism with Christian language and imagery. But it breaks my heart (and turns my stomach) to see the life and ministry of Jesus invoked to support policies that so negatively impact the most vulnerable members of our society, the very individuals for whom Jesus time and again demonstrated his own preference and concern. That is the true and bitter fruit of the economic policies advocated by Reed, Phillips, and Barton: the condemnation of the socially and economically disadvantaged to carry the burden for the rich. I can imagine few more perverted, inverted readings of the gospel message. As Lebo notes in her RD article:
It’s quite interesting just how closely biblical teachings align with the financial goals of those with the most to gain. For these keepers of the faith, sacrifice is never a word applied to them, but always to others.
The ability of the Religious Right to effectively brand and control the terms of public policy debates is well documented. These are, after all, the people who have convinced even those with whom they profoundly disagree to refer to them as "Pro-Life." Even as those of us on the Religious Left continue to think constructively about our own convictions and try to make our shared vision of justice a reality, we must remain vigilant to the harmful, dehumanizing policies and practices that our beliefs are all too often invoked to defend. This vigilance will be all the more necessary should individuals like Reed, Phillips, and Barton succeed in joining the Tea Party movement with the institutions that define the contemporary Religious Right.

As ever, we remain called to speak truth to power. The demand for justice exists across religious traditions, and it is up to us to find the tools within our own traditions that make the realization of justice possible. In the context of the policies and practices of the Religious Right, this places a special onus on Christians in the US to challenge harmful narratives that attempt to ground their legitimacy in our own cherished beliefs. For every conservative argument trying to place Jesus on the side of the rich and the powerful, we must be ready and able to present a counter argument, an alternate vision that situates the life and ministry of Jesus among the very people most negatively impacted by conservative economic policies. This is not just a matter of exegesis, it is a matter of justice. And though I firmly believe that the arc of the moral universe bends inevitably toward justice, it certainly seems that it can sometimes use a push.

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