The Tea Party Religion

“There is a significantly outsized proportion of white evangelical Christians in the tea party movement.” Those were the words of Robert P. Jones, president of Public Religion Research, the polling firm that yesterday released the first comprehensive survey on the religious and theo-political beliefs of voters aligned with the tea party movement.

According to the survey, nearly half of all respondents who considered themselves part of the tea party movement also considered themselves part of the religious right. “Among the more than 8-in-10 (81%) who identify as Christian within the Tea Party movement,” the survey found, “57% also consider themselves part of the Christian conservative movement.” One third of tea partiers are white evangelical Christians, Jones said the survey showed, compared to one in five voters in the general population. But one in three Republicans are white evangelical Christians, too, more proof that supporters of the tea party and the GOP — despite the tea party claims to be an outside force — share many of the same beliefs.

PRR found that the tea party makes up about 11% of the population, compared to the religious right, which makes up 22%. Given the overlap, though, it doesn’t appear that the religious right and tea party together make up 33% of the population.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the tea party is secular libertarian movement that frightens the delicate egos of religious right leaders:

They are mostly social conservatives, not libertarians on social issues. Nearly two-thirds (63%) say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and less than 1-in-5 (18%) support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.

(Democratic religion strategists, take note.)

I’ve written before about the lack of polling data on the religious views of tea party supporters, and this poll — and follow-up studies promised by PRR — will go a long way to illuminating the religious motivations of tea party supporters.

At RD, we’ve been telling the story of tea party religion for a while, whether it was the tea party presence at Values Voters Summits, the influence of Mormonism on the movement, or the role of Christian Reconstructionism in tea party politics. Over the past year or more, sources have described to me coalition-building between tea party groups and religious right groups, and the shared essential belief that the country’s founding documents declare God-given individual rights — ones that protect, conservatives say, both people from government “tyranny” and fetuses from abortion. I’ve been told of the enthusiastic reception tea party activists received at the May 2010 Council for National Policy meeting (no surprise, since the CNP has long represented the “three-legged stool” of conservative politics: social, economic, and national security conservatism, all wrapped in the flag and God), despite initial worries that the tea parties inadequately promoted the “life” issues.

The problem with much of the reporting on a tea party-religious right alliance has focused on the turf battles between leaders, and disputes over whether to emphasize the social issues over economic ones at tea party events. Based on my own reporting, though, the absence of bloody fetus posters at tea party rallies says nothing about the interest of tea partiers in either the “culture war” issues or economic issues. Early tea party rallies focused on opposition to health care reform described “Obamacare” in baby-killing terms, something Sarah Palin just reminded activists about, telling an audience health care reform has brought “the biggest advance of the abortion industry in America.” (The opposite of what Palin means is true, though — the abortion restrictions in the health care bill will likely mean fewer abortions, not more.)

But the culture wars in the tea party era are framed bigger: what tea party-religious right fusion artists like South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint frame as broadened “moral issues” rooted in “Judeo-Christian” values. Thus everything — including the economy — falls into that category. And to want the whole government and economy run according to Jim DeMint’s “Judeo Christian” belief system — as opposed to those beliefs just driving anti-gay or anti-abortion policies — is a much grander dream for conservatives, and one that the religious right brings to the tea party, along with its bigger share of the voter pool.

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