The Tea Party, the Blind Man, and the Elephant: Part 1

First Coast Tea Party holds a monthly event at a local sandwich shop, and I imagine there are tea party meetings all across the country just like it. Angie’s is one of those hometown places where there are clever posters and homemade art hanging everywhere, a favorite with surfers and high school kids. The marquis outside has funny sayings and even “send-offs” when beloved local folks pass away.

Whenever I drive by I make a point of checking out the sign to see what’s up in Jax Beach. Sometimes there’s something mildly political: an endorsement of a local candidate or . . . not too long ago when road construction made the place entirely inaccessible, the sign told a councilman that if he could find access to the shop he could have a free sub.

Now the place hosts (and I mean hosts: free wings and sausage and their locally-famous sweet tea) a monthly tea party meeting. I’ll admit to being put off when a few weeks back the character of the sign changed: it said “a red-neck, Bible thumping (something or other) owns this joint,” making me feel generally unwelcome.

Last night there were over 100 people there. When one speaker asked how many were “new” nearly 75% raised their hands. Overwhelmingly over the age of 50 (and North Florida, unlike much of the state, has a median age in the 40s) and pretty evenly split male and female, this struck me as the kind of “community organizing” for which conservatives ridiculed President Obama during the presidential campaign. In fact, this tea party group has two women who will come to your home and help you organize a neighborhood tea party modeled along the lines of a Tupperware party if you’re willing to get involved but don’t know how.

Sarah and I write about the ways in which the religious right is organized, the underlying religious perspectives that provide the framework for conservative Christians across America: including many of whom who don’t know the origins of their religious commitments or the logical coherence between their views and views they would otherwise renounce.

But there is a divide among tea party watchers as to whether religion is an important influence and that disconnect has me puzzled, which is what sent me to the meeting at Angie’s. As an ethnographer who takes people seriously when they say what they think, I really am puzzled as to how people on the ground in the tea party can see the movement as so different from what both Sarah and I see in the rhetoric and at the organizational level. I decided to go to a tea party meeting to see how it connected what I know about the religious right and the national candidates the tea party supports. I’d been to tea party events that were overtly religious: indistinguishable from other religious right events—would this be different?

I asked the owner of Angie’s if the turnout was significantly different from last time, he told me that the numbers were about the same but that a lot of the faces were new. In my next post, I’ll analyze what I found with regard to the tea party, Republicans, and religion.