Are Tea Partiers Pro-Gay and Pro-Choice?

Eric Sapp, one of the founding partners of the Eleison Group, the political strategy consulting firm in Washington devoted to helping Democrats speak to “religious” voters, is out with some really questionable advice for the Democrats over at the Huffington Post.

Sapp sent the piece to me, an ill-conceived proposal for Democrats to win over conservative voters who might be initially wooed by the tea partiers. “This is more of a divide and conquer strategy,” he wrote to me, “but I think it is important to understand and recognize they are not the religious right. As the comments are showing, I think it’s clear most progressives are pretty shocked to learn that the Tea Party is mostly Pro-Choice and Pro-Gay.”

They’re shocked because it’s not true.

In addition to cherry-picking his data and morphing it into something it isn’t, Sapp’s proposal to the Democrats makes no political sense: in essence, he’s saying that Democrats will get conservative religious voters to run from the tea parties by convincing those voters that the tea partiers are actually more like the dreaded Democrats than they initially thought.

But beyond this questionable advice, Sapp misapprehends the tea party movement and its historical roots. He relies on an April New York Times/CBS poll for his statement that the “Tea Party is mostly Pro-Choice.” That poll, as I pointed out to Sapp, showed that the majority of tea partiers believe Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. As Ruy Teixeira showed in this further dissection of the poll:

Findings from a recent New York Times/CBS News poll make this point very clearly. The poll finds that the general public remains stalwart in its support for the Roe v. Wade decision establishing the right to obtain a legal abortion: 58 percent say this decision was a good thing, compared to just 34 percent who say it was a bad thing. But among Tea Party supporters, sentiment is just the reverse: 53 percent say the decision was a bad idea and only 40 percent say it was a good idea.

That’s the poll Sapp relies on to conclude, “And a sizable majority of Tea Party activists are pro-choice.” Sapp also maintains that “Polling has also showed that the majority of Tea Party activists do not think government should support any set of moral values or define marriage.” For that proposition, he links to this March 2010 piece by Ben Smith in Politico, in which Smith interviews some disgruntled religious right leaders who thought the tea parties weren’t emphasizing social issues enough. That piece contains no polling; in fact, Smith notes:

There’s little data on the disparate tea party movement. One small CNN survey of self-identified tea party activists found that 68 percent identify themselves as Protestants or other non-Catholic Christians, as opposed to just 50 percent in the general population. Only 9 percent of the activists say they’re irreligious, as opposed to 14 percent in the broader sample.

But an in-depth study of 49 tea party leaders by the free-market oriented Sam Adams Alliance suggested that the leadership consciously avoids social issues and plans to continue doing so.

That hardly supports the statement Sapp makes: “Polling has also showed that the majority of Tea Party activists do not think government should support any set of moral values or define marriage.” Yet he concludes, “Think about that. Most Tea Party members hold positions that, in our completely un-nuanced political speak, make them ‘pro-gay and pro-choice.’”

Note, though, that at the end of his piece Smith quotes conservative heavyweight Grover Norquist about how he soothed the anxieties of conservative movement stalwarts at the Council for National Policy meeting about the social conservative cred of the tea partiers. That’s consistent with what I’ve heard about the more recent CNP meeting this summer — where the tea party activists in the room were warmly embraced.

When Smith’s piece was published in March, other pieces appeared in other outlets, suggesting that evangelicals were unhappy with the lack of social issue focus in the tea parties. That seemed to me to be a strategic move on their part to ensure building alliances among those different strands of the tea party movement (which is not, as Sapp suggests, a predominantly secular libertarian animal).

As I noted here last month, pollsters really should be asking more religion questions of Tea Party adherents. But in lieu of specific religion questions, one well-regarded poll disproves Sapp’s thesis on the LGBT rights issue: it showed that only 18% of tea party adherents in Washington state approved of gay marriage, and 52% of them believe that lesbians and gays have “too much political power.”

What’s more, here at RD we have extensively reported on the religious roots of the tea party movement — whether it is Joanna Brooks on the influence of Mormonism on the tea parties and Glenn Beck, or Julie Ingersoll analyzing the influence of Christian Reconstructionism on Rand Paul and Sharron Angle, or my reporting on the embrace of the tea party movement by religious right figures like Ralph Reed or participants at the Values Voters Summit.

Sure, some more moderate evangelicals might be turned off by the tea party’s race-baiting, its anti-government vitriol and violent rhetoric. But not because’s it’s “Pro-Gay and Pro-Choice” — because it isn’t.

Even if Sapp’s unsupported claims were true, how could deriding a pro-choice and pro-gay stance possibly help the Democratic Party? (It could if you wanted to chase away its base.) Sapp — who obviously stands to win over some new clients, should they find his advice enticing — concludes that his firm’s mailing list of 25 million evangelical voters can be used to educate people about the tea parties’ internal differences. He says that “our side” is failing to develop “messaging aimed at these folks that highlights the differences between the factions. . . . We’re keeping the Tea Party united by attacking them as one and failing to highlight these divisions which should be tearing them apart.”

Who cares if the tea parties are united? Isn’t what they stand for in a unified way — their anti-government viotriol, antipathy toward sane government regulation, its race-baiting, and more — a big enough target for Democrats to attack? I don’t doubt there are differences among tea partiers, particularly differences in emphasis of some issues over others (government regulation, immigration, guns, religion, all come to mind). The tea parties are loosely organized and lacking a strongly identifiable leadership (apart from some of the corporate-funded groups that masquerade as grassroots organizers, like Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks). But Democrats developing “messaging” that tells the mostly Republican tea partiers that they should abandon the tea parties because they’re actually more like Democrats is nothing short of self-destructive.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email