Tea Party’s Cosmic Conflict in Wisconsin

Events unfolding in Wisconsin over a bill that would deny benefits to state workers and take away the collective bargaining rights of public unions are rife with religious implications and possibilities. RD’s Dan Schultz explored some of the theological responses while Julie Ingersoll found echoes of Christian Reconstructionist economic ideology. If the protests continue to be a flashpoint for larger national arguments about economic policy, you can be sure more and more faith leaders—Christians, but hopefully others too—will weigh in on how God views the current political crisis.

God, however, is not the only point of religious relevance in this looming budget battle. At bottom, after all, it amounts to a question of moral priorities for Wisconsin’s Tea Party Governor and the nation at a time when the deficit is a hotly contested issue (legitimately or not) and competitive deficiencies are making us the “laggards” in comparison to other nations. At a time in which so much seems to be at stake, debates about economic policy are being driven by unstated moral economies undergirding the political discourse. And one of the obvious features of any moral economy is to make sacred distinctions between right and wrong, friends and enemies.

The Tea Party (TP) movement is being defined by a peculiar moral economy that is based on these kinds of sacred distinctions, though I will be the first to admit the Tea Partiers themselves would not necessarily see them in such religious terms. Still, the value of these distinctions for the TP is religious through and through—not necessarily because they line up with a specific Protestant ethic or theological framework, but because they establish boundaries of right and wrong that are of ultimate significance, and they reinforce a common identity that binds members of the community together.

A case in point, and a frequent sight in this new era of Tea Party members of government, is the sacred value of identifying an enemy. For anyone familiar with religious history this is a no-brainer, as the history of religions is shot through with hatred and demonization—not only among the Abrahamic traditions, but across religious cultures of all stripes. Identifying an enemy that is understood to be a mortal threat to everything a group holds dear and sees as fundamental to its existence is one of the oldest, and most socially useful, tricks in the evolutionary book of human life. An enemy brings life to social solidarity and brings into sharp relief the ultimate values which must be upheld at all costs.

What is the sacred enemy that animates the TP? Big Government. All of the various fears that have made their way into contemporary political discourse since the rise of the TP movement—death panels, socialists, gun-control advocates, unions, Obamacare, deficits, and so on—are refracted through the prism of the one great overarching evil threatening the very foundations of American life. Democracy, freedom, true religion, the Constitution; everything the TP holds sacred is mortally endangered by Big Government, and the demonization of anything that smacks of Big Government intrusion (taxes, public services, social assistance, etc.) energizes the collective, regenerating the ties that bind them together.

In this respect, the TP efforts in Wisconsin and other states struggling with budget deficits and spending priorities can also been seen as symbolic social actions tied to specific political goals, grounded in religious forces motivated by fear in service of defining clear moral boundaries. The debates are framed not as simple disagreements among equals who have the good of the nation in mind; they are, instead, weighted with moral gravity where only one way is the right way—the divine way—and any alternatives are linked implicitly and sometimes quite explicitly to socialist sympathies, anti-Christian sentiment, or un-American activities.

Of course the TP is not the only political movement on the field at the moment, even though the media have frequently pegged them as key players in the work of government since the 2010 election. What does distinguish them is this sacred enemy that holds them together and drives them forward. The left does not have a sacred enemy to guide them and unite them. Who do progressives fear? Fascists? Theocrats? Won’t sell for most of America. The rich? The religious right? They’re still idolized by too many to be demonized.

Until a more threatening and powerful enemy appears on the scene, American politics will continue to be dominated by TP rhetoric and frames of reference.