Tea Partiers and Religious Right Court at Values Voter Summit

It started with an homage to the notorious CNBC ranter Rick Santelli, the lesser god of the tea party movement. But at the values Voter Summit workshop on how to grow tea parties last weekend, the faux-populist Santelli was quickly eclipsed by a higher power.

“We have been put in this country to do this for such a time as this,” exhorted Viviana Hernandez, a self-identified chaplain from Brooklyn, as the microphone was passed around the audience. “This [the tea party movement] is being birthed by the Almighty. Because He started this nation, and He does not want to turn it over to those who are godless, to those who would take our children, and just use them and abuse them and destroy their destiny.”

Whether Hernandez felt moved to address the crowd by divine intervention or the summit organizers looked to her for a divine imprimatur, the symbiosis between the tea party movement and the religious right is coming into sharper relief.

Despite all the attention paid to the religious right’s declining interest in gay marriage as a key issue, it’s clear homosexuality is still a vibrant bogeyman—but the tea party bandwagon is simply more enticing at the moment. Hernandez’s activist roots, for example, are with the National Organization for Marriage, though she is now affiliated with a group called the City Action Coalition International which, she says, trains pastors to be political activists. It is led by Bishop Joseph Mattera, whose son, Jason, is a well-known conservative activist and blogger who led another Values Voter workshop, “Turning the Tide in Your Generation.”

Hernandez does not fit the stereotype of the Anglo, spittle-flicking, where’s-the-birth-certificate, Obama-is-Hitler type of tea partier that has grabbed headlines lately. She sees herself as an intercessory prayer warrior, an Esther saving America from socialism and restoring God’s will.

The continuing influence of “Christian nation” mythology and dominionism is evident in Hernandez’s activist trajectory. She told me that before running (unsuccessfully) for state senate and city council in New York, she attended classes at the Providence Foundation, a small group based in Charlottesville, Virginia that has been described as Christian Reconstructionist.

According to Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates and an expert on right-wing political movements:

Christian Reconstructionism, which calls for Old Testament biblical law to take precedence over civil law, posed a challenge to more traditional conservative Christian evangelicals. While few adopted the Reconstructionist theology wholesale, a number of Christian Right leaders were tantalized by the idea of restoring America to their view of the America as a Christian nation ordained by God and under the leadership of Godly men. The result was a broad tendency that critics call ‘Dominionism’ which comes in both hard and soft varieties in terms of theocratic authoritarianism.

Stephen McDowell, Providence’s co-founder, said in a telephone interview that he would not consider himself a Christian Reconstructionist, “but I do believe that the Bible is the template that we ought to look to to build our life upon and our family and our business and our civil society. That’s where the people who founded America looked.” According to its Web site, “The Scriptures contain a theology of the family, the church, and the state. Principles in God’s written Word that relate to civil government, politics, economics, and education are timeless and universally useful for the benefit of any culture on Earth today.” Through its Biblical Worldview University, Providence aims to ensure that “leaders in the church, education, government, business, law, and the media are equipped to apply biblical principles as they influence others.”

McDowell said he had read Christian Reconstructionist founder R.J. Rushdoony, and agreed with some of his teachings. He wrote (relying on Rushdoony) in a 2003 article that, “In light of the Scriptures, we cannot say that slavery, in a broad and general sense, is sin.”

Other Rushdoony admirers include conservative movement mastermind Howard Phillips, whom journalist Adele Stan reported is pulling the strings behind much of the tea party movement’s messaging, and Star Parker, the self-described “welfare queen” turned conservative activist.

Although it’s a small operation, Providence has the blessing of David Barton, the religious right propagandist and Republican activist who claims the separation of church and state is a myth, and who serves on its board. Barton’s attempts to influence both politics and public education with his “Christian nation” mythology are legion; most recently, right-wing members of the Texas State Board of Education appointed Barton to serve as an “expert” on its social studies curriculum. McDowell serves on the board of Barton’s organization, WallBuilders.

McDowell’s work has been praised in the far-right, conspiracy-mongering tabloid WorldNetDaily, which called his book Liberating the Nations “one of the outstanding resources that describes the basis of our personal, political and religious freedom, as well as economic blessing.” According to WND, McDowell and his co-author Mark Beliles, a Charlottesville pastor, “teach leaders literally all over the world that the basis of our laws, free-enterprise system, educational excellence and political liberty that all once were indeed a ‘shining city on a hill’ to the world, flow directly from Judeo-Christian principles in general and the Bible and Torah in particular.”

McDowell claimed to have reached hundreds of thousands worldwide with the Providence Foundation teaching materials.

Reflecting the “Christian nation” mythology taught by Barton, McDowell, and others, Hernandez told me, “I have found that because God was so permeating our founding documents, he was the one who established our nation… because of that, there was a movement rising up saying we’re not going to let our freedoms be taken away from us… I firmly believe there is a spiritual and biblical component to what we’re doing.”

For Hernandez, socialism is unbiblical because “freedom is usurped.” She offered a jumble of “my husband is from Cuba, that’s how they started there,” “Michael Moore hates our nation,” “Tim Gill is a billionaire” promoting the “homosexual agenda,” and “the government is trying to usurp all the forms of economics, or health care, you have a government that is going out of control, to put over-control over the people.” The “isms” are taking over, she continued, and “clashing” with “good citizens and godly people.”

Whatever the tea party movement is—Dick Armey’s astroturf to kill health care reform, Rupert Murdoch’s marketing plan to boost Glenn Beck’s ratings, a grassroots outlet for right-wing rage and paranoia—the Values Voter Summit made clear the religious right is hitching its wagon to that horse. Sharing a common enemy (Obama, the Democratic Party, liberalism writ large), different participants wrap their rhetoric in red, white, and blue, whether the endgame is a romanticized rebellion of “authentic” patriots, uber-libertarianism—or Biblical law.

Hernandez’s friend Desiree Bernstein, a longtime conservative activist and tea party promoter, said of the September 12 march on the National Mall, “what happened here in DC last week is the start of a Great Awakening.” Added Hernandez, “It’s not our battle, the battle is the Lord’s, and He’s using us as his instruments.”

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