The Tea Party Illusion

The Tea Party is claiming credit for the Republican trouncing of the Democrats last night, but the Tea Party wave is just an illusion. This victory was by—and for—the theo-free-marketeers who have long controlled the GOP in the service of a “Christian nation” that boasts pro-big business legislation and policy.

With the GOP re-taking control of the House, and Mike Pence (another of those Tea Party-supporting Republicans who has always said, “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order”) eyeing 2012, Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann (who long ago declared herself a “fool for Christ”) is making noise about running for his leadership position. Bachmann, who jumped on the Tea Party bandwagon early but whose roots are “Christian nation” through and through, is proposing closed-door lessons on the Constitution for members of Congress. As she told the Values Voters Summit in September, the rights enumerated in the Constitution come from God. That may be a claim made by the Tea Party, but the religious right got there first. The Tea Party’s take on it is entirely derivative.

One of Us”

The American Center for Law and Justice’s Jordan Sekulow, a conservative evangelical and Republican activist who touts Tea Party victories, tweeted on election night that Rand Paul’s victory in Kentucky was one for “constitutional conservatives” because “he is one of us”—meaning one of those people who believes the Constitution was a divinely-inspired document and that government shouldn’t legislate rights beyond what (they think) God intended people to have.

Is Paul an anti-authority, secular libertarian who just hates “big government” and taxes? Fifty percent of Kentucky voters told exit pollsters that they are white evangelical Christians (the only other available response, to exit polls in Kentucky and several other states, was “all other people”), and 68% of them voted for him, despite his professed affection for the atheist Ayn Rand.

South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint—whose party still faces minority status in the Senate, albeit with a closer margin—claimed to buck GOP leadership by supporting candidates like Paul in the primaries. He tapped into Christian Reconstructionist mailing lists to raise money for Sharron Angle, who, with 44% of Nevada voters calling her “too conservative” in exit polls, lost to Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Now DeMint is supposedly the thorn in minority leader Mitch McConnell’s side, a task he takes on proudly with Paul and Florida’s new Senator, Marco Rubio, who is a favorite with social conservatives and signed on with Christian nation mythologist David Barton.

DeMint, of course, is one of those Republicans who is very much a Washington insider but disingenuously claims (for Tea Party-cred) to be a renegade fighting it from the outside. But DeMint is a religious right hero first. DeMint thinks that gay people and single mothers shouldn’t teach in public schools; then again, he also believes that “a nation that raises its children in government schools cannot expect its people to stand for the principles of freedom.” He contends (speaking of, yes, education) that the Great Awakening inspired the American Revolution. His attacks on President Obama and his alleged “socialism” pre-date the Tea Party mania, and focused, earlier, on accusations that he was declaring “war on prayer.” DeMint is no secular libertarian, as many characterize the driving force of the Tea Party; he is a hardcore theocrat who believes less regulation will let God’s chosen business people make big money in the Christian nation.

Tea Party or “Christian Worldview”?

It was at an event sponsored by the CEO Roundtable of South Carolina last month that DeMint proposed his litmus test for public school teachers. CEO doesn’t stand for chief executive officer—it stands for Christian Executive Organization, its president, Josh Kimbrell, told me in an interview shortly afterwards. Kimbrell, a banker by training who called DeMint “my dear friend,” said his organization was not a Tea Party group (although he supports the Tea Party), but rather a “Christian worldview” organization that brings together business leaders and pastors (including Kimbrell’s own pastor, Frank Page, a one-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention and now the head of its executive committee, and one of President Obama’s first appointees to the Advisory Council to his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships).

The country “cannot be successful without a fundamental Judeo-Christian framework,” said Kimbrell, lamenting that the government “has not been guided by Judeo-Christian principles.” Business leaders understand, he said, that those principles help build “strong markets.” That’s not just about the stated Tea Party goals of shrinking the government’s regulatory and taxation powers to zero, or gumming up the legislative process so nothing gets done.

Kimbrell, whose home state of South Carolina is an early primary state, is hoping that the GOP presidential hopefuls will pay visits to his organization of Christian executives. First stop for them, though, will be Iowa—where voters, spurred by a massive get out the vote drive by religious right groups, just ousted three judges who voted to legalize gay marriage; an effort those same groups vow is the start of a nationwide assault on LGBT rights. Second stop: New Hampshire, where Kelly Ayotte, thought to be a Tea Party favorite, won her Senate race last night. As her state’s attorney general, Ayotte defended an anti-abortion law that was intended to be a test case for Roe v. Wade. The law was eventually repealed by the New Hampshire legislature, but is indicative of Ayotte’s views, like her opposition to gay marriage, being aligned with the religious right.

If the Tea Party was serious about throwing out the “establishment,” it would be tossing its religious right allies right along with those “tyrannical” Democrats it so despises. The religious right, along with business interests, is one of the most entrenched and politically organized forces radiating from inside the beltway. The new Tea Partiers set to come to Washington aren’t avoiding challenging the religious right just because they need it to form a coalition—they are it.

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