It’s Not a Tea Party, Silly, It’s a Rebellion

For all of the ink that has been spilled about the “Tea Party movement” recently, two things seem to have escaped the attention of some of this movement’s most vocal and vociferous critics. The first concerns the Constitutional claims the movement is making, and the second concerns the highly suspect version of history in which its members seek to locate themselves.

In making these observations, I also wish to suggest that there is no real evidence to suggest that this is a religious movement, and thus I am not convinced that the Tea Party movement is a symptom of something significant happening to the religious landscape in the United States; both within the current conservative coalition that is the Republican Party, as well as in our increasingly media-driven global culture.

The Tea Party movement represents something perennial—not something new or novel—in the curious contours of North American society. Religion (as I think is very clear in the recent rhetorical decisions of Sarah Palin) provides a veneer, one that is airbrushed over a movement whose primary images and self-understanding are decidedly economic and vaguely political, as well as nostalgically (if quirkily) historical.

Sometimes, it falls to the religion professor, and to the contemporary cultural critic, to remind an audience that religion is not important in some places, all the while admitting to its vast importance in others. I am not convinced that religion is central to the Tea Party movement, for reasons similar to the ones that explain why religion is not even mentioned in the mission statement of “Citizens United,” the group that recently appealed successfully to the Supreme Court, and was rewarded with a vast, overarching ruling that effectively “bans the ban” on free and unfettered corporate funding of electioneering speech.

The name for this movement is telling. Boston’s original version of a Tea Party took place on the night of December 16, 1773, serving as the symbolic culmination of a several-month power struggle between the British Parliament and its North American colonists. The Parliament, while it had reduced and eliminated some colonial taxes, retained the tea tax, as much as anything else, so as to insist on its right to tax, then and in the future. Organized protests in major port cities like Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, culminated in the extensive destruction of property by a group of colonial Boston agitators, unconvincingly disguised as “Indians.”

The fundamental issue at stake was “taxation without representation.” That is important to keep in mind: the primary issue was economic, and the larger principle at stake was political. Religion played no appreciable role in the affair.

After the success of the long Revolutionary War against these British interests, and the drafting of highly decentralized “Articles of Confederation” for the newly liberated colonies, commercial interests again came to the fore. The virtual absence of centralized regulatory institutions made interstate commerce hopelessly confused and inefficient. The new country functioned more like thirteen separate countries, or thirteen independent commercial markets.

And so the scattershot Articles were finally replaced by a new federalist Constitution, but not without a fight. Outraged citizens burned copies of the proposed new Constitution in organized street protests from New York to South Carolina. But eventually the thing was ratified, and a very different situation emerged, one in which US citizens could be taxed, but only by a federal government in which each of them had representation (and thus a theoretical stake), especially in the legislative branch, which was given the authority to impose such taxes under the fledgling Constitution.

The idea that a centralized government could impose economic policy on all of the former colonies seemed like a dangerously centralized power to many former revolutionaries. This “federalist” Constitution seemed to many of them simply too close to the kind of domineering royalism they had just waged war against.

Moreover, they sensed that the new centralized government, so proposed, might be expected to raise taxes immediately, given the horrible debts it assumed fighting the War for Independence.

The first warning shot fired in this long struggle against such centralized powers of taxation came in the waning years of the short-lived Articles of Confederation. A rebellion broke out in the same state that had famously hosted the Tea Party just thirteen years earlier, before the revolution.

In 1786-87 Shays’ Rebellion, an armed uprising, broke out against the state government of Massachusetts in response to the state’s fiscal policy and the consigning of so many impoverished former rebels to debtor’s prison. This rebellion was quelled in relatively short order, and most of the rebels were immediately pardoned. The main effect of Shays’ Rebellion, ironically enough, was to shore up support for the very centralized powers that had been marshaled to put the rebellion down.

In a contest between the desire for security or decentralized state power, then as now, security wins. Power centralizes. Every revolution ironically wants to be the last one, the one that makes future revolutions unnecessary.

And so the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights was ratified by the states in the early 1790s, and shortly thereafter, on the advice of Alexander Hamilton, a new excise tax was imposed on the fledgling nation. This prompted yet another rebellion, the so-called Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

This one started in nearby Pennsylvania, mostly among Scottish and Irish immigrants, for whom whiskey was an important commodity, as well as a way of life. They did not accept the federal government’s right to tax it. President Washington found himself in the ironic position of assembling a federal army to put down the rebellion, which pretty well evaporated when he did so. Once again, most of the rebels were pardoned, since the federal government had asserted and secured its right to tax, as well as to levy armies to put down an insurrection.

And that, it seems to me, is the relevant (and perennial) history symbolically in play today.

North Americans were a fastidiously rebellious people. The primary issues that inspired such rebellion were economic, and the larger principles at stake were constitutional. Religion played no appreciable role in these affairs.

The current Tea Partyers are exercising a fundamental Constitutional right, the right to peaceably assemble and to petition their government for the redress of grievances (that is the language in the selfsame Amendment that earlier guarantees the “freedom of religion”).

The key terms here are peaceably and grievances. The Tea Partyers may not assemble to incite violence, which is why it is important to keep in mind that the original Boston Tea Party was decidedly violent—as were the Shays’ and Whiskey rebellions. The violence is a part of what made them rebellions, rather than protests. The Constitution offers no protection in that case; if anything, such rebelliousness always ends up making the centralized government, and its monopoly on the instruments of  violence, more secure.

It is not entirely clear what the grievance of these latter-day Tea Partyers ultimately is, apart from their general dismay at the current level of democratic dysfunction in Washington DC.

The Boston Party objected, quite appropriately, to the taxation of a people who enjoyed no representation in the political bodies doing the taxing.

The current Tea Partyers do enjoy such representation, even if it doesn’t always feel that way; they simply don’t like the taxes their representatives are imposing on them. So they’re really a lot more like Whiskey Rebels than Tea Paryters—which is why the all-too-casual references to the necessity of “re-loading” is loaded language indeed. 

Such language carries within it the ominous suggestion that, as latter-day Tea Partyers, they do not see themselves as part of the nation currently levying taxes upon them. So it also announces the not-so-very-veiled possibility of rebellion, sooner rather than later. 

This fascinating new movement is not a Party at all, and it is not “religious” except to the degree that religion and economics and democracy are breezily equated by some conservative thinkers these days. No, this Party is a Rebellion in the offing.

phllar@langate.gsu.edu'

Louis A. Ruprecht Jr. is William M. Suttles Chair of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He is the author of  seven books, most recently: JJ Winckelmann andd the Vatican's First Profane Museum (Palgrave, 2011).