Of Christians, Catholics, and Tea Parties (Part I)

In my previous post, I argued at length against both traditionalist Catholic and left-Catholic critiques of American history, and Catholicism’s place within it. Now I believe it is time to shift from the historical to the contemporary. A recent article in Politico by Ben Smith, “Tea parties stir evangelicals’ fears” (which might have been better titled, “Ben Smith seeks to stir evangelicals’ fears”), makes what I consider to be a rather weak attempt to stir the pot and inflame tensions between libertarians and evangelical Christians. You know he’s reaching when he’s hunting down “Christian conservatives” whose primary concern with the tea party is that it is unduly harsh on the noble personal character of President Obama, who, according to one of these evangelical leaders, “provides a tremendously positive role model for tens of millions of African-American men.”

My eyes were rolling so hard I could practically hear them squishing around in their sockets.

The more substantive claim worth addressing is that there is a secular libertarian streak in the tea party movement that is partially or wholly incompatible with the conservative Christian social agenda, which one of the evangelical critics claims has “a politics that’s irreligious”. When Smith was schooled by an article covering a poll that broke down, and dispelled some of the more ridiculous myths about the tea party movement, he continued to maintain that the tensions he pointed out could become problems in the future. So they may.

On this blog, it was also pointed out by a former contributor that a man who condemned the presence of gay Republican groups at CPAC was booed by the mostly young, libertarian audience (the same folks, I guess, who voted for Ron Paul as their preferred choice for 2012 and would therefore likely support the tea parties) – though as I pointed out in response, that man was deliberately provoking the crowd with an outburst that, as a Catholic who defends the institution of heterosexual marriage, I found absurd, irrational, and counterproductive. I would have booed him too.

Strange then, that when people want to read tensions into the tea party movement, they’ll transgress against the mainstream narrative about them: that they’re full of racist, backwards extremists. When it is convenient, they can become militantly secular – irreligious was the word – rivaling liberal progressives in their openness or at least ambivalence to the sort of things that the Christian Right, Catholic and Protestant alike, would eschew. Maybe tea party opponents should have a huddle get their stories straight. Not all of the American people will pick up on contradictory narratives, but enough will to make their peddlers look stupid or dishonest.

Now, how about this supposed contradiction? We can look at this from two angles: demographic, and theoretical. I’ll start with demographics. The aforementioned poll, conducted by the National Review Institute, found the following: 60% are Protestant, 28% are Catholic. 2% are Jews. Almost 70% attend church on a regular basis. 68% are pro-life.

So, that’s 90%  we know the religion of – Christians and Jews.  So that leaves 10% for “other.” Maybe they’re secularists, militant Randroid atheists who think the tea party is an budding anarcho-capitalist movement. Who knows? With this many apparently devout Christians in the movement, though, the notion that there is an inherent, fundamental, logical contradiction between the tea party agenda and the Christian social agenda is, to say the least, a crumbling hypothesis. Some of the people can be fooled all of the time, all of the people some of time; nearly all (90%) of them are unlikely to be fooled all of the time.

But I don’t want to dismiss the idea on the basis of demographic considerations. After all, even church-going Christians can be wrong! So is there a contradiction here? Smith’s article raises the notion that the tea party sees fiscal, and not cultural issues, as the most important priorities of the nation. This has supposedly caused “concern” among religious conservatives (the same ones, I guess, who are “concerned” about Obama’s image as a black hero).

He points out that the “Contract for America“, put together by a tea party blog, asks people to choose their top 10 issues from a list of 21, and none of them are related to the Christian social agenda – abortion, gay marriage, etc. Of course, Smith isn’t entirely accurate – the issue of school choice IS there, and this is not only important for Protestants, but for Catholics; the freedom of parents to determine their children’s education is one of the top three issues, along with life and marriage, that set the parameters for faithful Catholic voters during elections.

That aside, though, I think there is a perfectly logical explanation for the absence of these issues.

In the first place, the tea party never said it was, or promised to be, an explicitly Christian movement, or a social conservative movement. It’s issues from the beginning, before it was half co-opted by the RNC and Fox News, were almost exclusively fiscal. I wouldn’t say it was a single-issue group, but its focus was sufficiently narrow to treat it in a similar way, and to hold it to the same expectations. To now criticize it for not taking the hot-button issues of social conservatives as top priorities is, to me, almost as disingenuous as criticizing Mothers Against Drunk Drivers for not taking a solid enough position on the expansion of Israeli settlements or the impending collapse of the Euro.

Perhaps I go too far. Some might argue that a movement with this high of a profile, that is rapidly growing, that is attracting the attentions, for good or ill, of power players in the political establishment, ought to have views on issues important to all conservatives. There might be some truth to this. But there is another reason why I don’t think this has happened, will happen, or should happen: the tea party is also defined by its fidelity to the US Constitution (or it was when Ron Paul was its dominant figure; now that the neo-cons are hovering around it, that could end quickly). Specifically, it is faithful to the tenth amendment, and article 1, sec. 8 of the Constitution, which together establish what matters Congress can take action on, and which belong to the states.

This means that they likely oppose only those social conservatives who insist that the only solution to the moral crises in this country are a slew of constitutional amendments or other actions by the federal government, and I don’t think they’re a majority. Now, a true constitutionalist won’t oppose a properly ratified amendment, but pro-lifers have a right to be skeptical about the prospects of such a thing occurring in our lifetimes.  I think the average tea party pro-life Christian probably agrees with Ron Paul: that this matter is best left to the states to solve. For the states to be able to solve it, Roe, a decision still widely regarded by conservatives as constitutionally dubious, must be overturned.  So this keeps them in the mainstream of the pro-life movement – why should there be any tension on this issue?

The same can be said of gay marriage. Voters in several states have repeatedly shot down same-sex marriage, and some have had their democratic will juridically usurped. Are there Christian conservatives somewhere who think this was a good thing? Because I can’t think of any tea partier who would – I’d guess they believe the states have a right to pass laws on these issues and that the courts have no business overturning the results of a legitimate political process. So on this issue, too, I would expect to find social conservatives and tea partiers to be of one mind. And we’ve already covered school choice.

So, demographically, and politically, there appears to be no contradiction between the tea parties and the majority of social conservatives. In what I think is a case of extreme irony, and indicative of the buffoonery of this critique, the only social conservatives who are likely to disagree with the tea party’s constitutional approach are those even further to the right of the tea party, who believe that these issues can only be dealt with by the heavy hand of the federal government. Oh, I almost forgot: and those whose eminent concern is the personal image of Obama. Like Joel Osteen.

But what about Catholics in particular? Stay tuned for Part II…

29 Responses to Of Christians, Catholics, and Tea Parties (Part I)

  1. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Sarah Palin’s thunderous reception at the Tea Party Convention is an indication of the simple truth that most economic conservatives in the Tea Party movement are also social conservatives.

  2. Joe Hargrave says:


    I’m too tired to debate this now, but I don’t think Palin’s presence helps the tea party at ALL…

  3. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Why this animus against Palin Joe? Her reception at the Tea Pary convention proves the point that you were attempting to make, that the tea party movement has a strong contingent of social conservatives. That she is extremely poular among members of the tea party movement is beyond dispute, as indicated by her being chosen to give the key note speech at the convention.

    Interestingly enough, Ron Paul is facing primary challengers for his Congressional seat, and each one is linked to the tea party movement.


  4. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Poltical loyalties among conservatives, and the tea party movement is an overwhelmingly conservative movement, are of course not simple, especially when viewed by those who have not spent decades within the conservative movement. For example, Sarah Palin has endorsed Rand Paul, a son of Ron Paul, who is the odds on favorite to be elected to the US Senate from Kentucky in the fall. Rand Paul was enthusiastic in his praise of Palin after the endorsement:

    “Governor Palin is providing tremendous leadership as the Tea Party movement and constitutional conservatives strive to take our country back,” Rand said.

    “Sarah Palin is a giant in American politics. I am proud to receive her support.”

    “I’m trying to go to Washington to fight to lower taxes and spending, and for term limits and balanced budgets. I will go to protect the lives of our unborn children,” Rand said.

    “I will strive to capitalize on the support of Governor Palin and so many others to go to Washington and fight for liberty and limited government and put an end to the current climate of insider politics, runaway deficits and out-of-control growth of government.”


    Among conservatives in this country there are many strains of conservatism, but the political alliances that build up between the factions are usually more powerful than the differences between them, especially when they are out of power.

  5. Zach says:

    I don’t think Sarah Palin is a very good politician. Then again, I don’t like populist politicians of any stripe.

  6. Tito Edwards says:

    Being a Neanderthal-Catholic, mE lIkE PaYlEn.

  7. Jim says:

    I agree – I don’t believe the divisions in the Republican Party are as deep as those amongst Democrats – not yet anyway. The question that I have is – barring a religious conversion, how do you get these “fiscal” conservatives to see that the moral and fiscal are tied together.

  8. Joe Hargrave says:

    Why the animus against Palin? I’ll give one reason for now.

    Just recently she parroted the demented and reckless neo-con line that Obama should wage war on Iran to save his sliding poll numbers.

    I can’t even begin to express my disgust and distaste for that level of sickening political opportunism, especially over an issue with as many lives at stake as a war with Iran (which will be no Ba’athist pushover).

    What’s worse is that she doesn’t even have the political acumen to think such things up on her own; she’s just willing to spew them out like a turning machine.

    And I know about her endorsement of Rand Paul. In truth, I think before her eyes glazed over with presidential ambition, Sarah Palin of Wasilla Alaska was probably, if not in total agreement with the Alaskan secessionist movement, at least with some of the broader claims of states rights that Ron and Rand Paul defend.

    But oh how the neo-cons panicked, Don, when she made that endorsement! I read op-eds in the WSJ bemoaning this deviation from the well-prepared course they were attempting to lay out for her, and which, at least until that point, she had seemed determined to stick to.

    Neo-cons hate Ron Paul. They don’t care for his son either. And they’ve made it clear to Palin what she has to support if she wants their blessing – war with Iran, for the sake of Israel.

    This foreign policy is ANATHEMA to the original ideas of the tea party movement, which agreed with Ron Paul’s views (which are pretty much also those of the Papacy, I might add): that the Bush Doctrine is immoral and outrageous, and that war (unless its in direct defense of this country) places an economic and moral burden on the country that is as irresponsible and harmful as every other kind of wasteful spending, that we shouldn’t be the world’s policeman, official democracy bringer, ideology spreader, regime changer, especially because we can’t afford it. Fiscal responsibility means not over extending the military and trying to cover up the costs of empire with dubious statistical indicators.

    Imperialism has no place in the tea party movement. Not even the benevolent, bring democracy to the world, kind of imperialism.

  9. Joe Hargrave says:

    And Zach,

    I reject the idea that Palin’s opportunistic juggling act amounts to populism.

  10. Joe Hargrave says:

    Oh, and by the way: Ron Paul won his TX primary with over 80% of the vote.

    I watched the challenge put up by these so-called “tea party candidates” in a debate on youtube: Ron Paul wiped the floor with them. It was like watching Muhammad Ali whip a bunch of schoolchildren with one arm tied behind his back and a blindfold. These guys were clowns.

  11. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Joe what you call neocon imperialism is mainstream conservative support for the defense of our national interests. Ron Paul isolationism is a minority position among conservatives as he demonstrated in his quixotic lack of success, other than stacking internet polls by some of his followers, in the 2008 race. It is a throwback to the isolationism that characterized American conservativism before WWII and which Pat Buchanan invoked with his campaign slogan of “America First” in 92. Buchanan and Ron Paul are chiefs without indians when it comes to conservatives. Isolationism Joe is a loser as an issue among conservatives in this country, as much as you may wish otherwise.

    As for Rand Paul, his stands are quite different from his father, as indicated by his support for the war in Afghanistan. He is wise enough to realize that running on his old man’s platform would be death in a state wide race in Kentucky. He is smart and he is going to win and that is why Palin endorsed him.

    Oh, I have no doubt that Ron Paul will keep his Congressional seat for as long as he chooses to run. He is an expert at getting pork for it.


    I also have no doubt that he will never be elected to any higher office.

  12. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Oh, and Joe in regard to Palin and Iran, here is what she actually said:

    “WALLACE: How hard do you think President Obama will be to defeat in 2012?

    PALIN: It depends on a few things. Say he played—and I got this from Buchanan, reading one of his columns the other day – say he played the war card. Say he decided to declare war on Iran or decided really [to] come out and do whatever he could to support Israel, which I would like him to do, but – that changes the dynamics in what we can assume is going to happen between now and three years. Because I think if the election were today I do not think Obama would be re-elected. But three years from now, things could change if — on the national security front . . .

    WALLACE: But you’re not suggesting that he would cynically play the war card?

    PALIN: I’m not suggesting that. I’m saying if he did, things would dramatically change. If he decided to toughen up and do all that he can to secure our nation and our allies, I think people would, perhaps, shift their thinking a little bit and decide, “Well, maybe he’s tougher than we think he’s—than he is today,” and there wouldn’t be as much passion to make sure that he doesn’t serve another four years.”

    This is the Buchanan column Palin was referring to:


  13. Joe Hargrave says:

    Same old recycled “mainstream” talking points.


    And its anti-interventionism, not “isolationalism.”

    I suppose Ron Paul’s lack of “indians” was evident at CPAC as well. Or the money bomb. Or his overwhelming support from the people who actually do the neo-con’s dirty work, who bleed and die and come home wrecked for this stuff.

    The mainstream conservative movement loves the troops just enough to not listen to anything they have to say, with words or dollars.

  14. Joe Hargrave says:

    And, at best, Palin’s remarks were only ill-considered and poorly spoken, as opposed to intentionally reckless.

  15. Joe Hargrave says:

    I’m going to leave it here.

  16. Bannon says:

    Do you or do you not believe that the Republican party must embrace all aspects of abortion, including extermination of children up until the age of 2 yrs. old to become really viable and have a chance to hold both houses and the White House for a considerable time?

  17. Joe Hargrave says:

    If you’re talking to me, then the answer is no. They haven’t had to do so since Roe, and I don’t see why they’d have to do so now, when the majority of Americans support more abortion restrictions and at least half identify as “pro-life.”

    But let me be clear – I don’t give a gosh darn about the Republican Party.

  18. T. Shaw says:

    Ad hominems, insults, and lies are all they have.

    All the lib dastards have are accusations that Tea Party “extremists”, nazis, and KKKKKK’ers disrespect the unknown, untested deconstructor of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, i.e., the private sector.

    That being said: I’m pretty sure you won’t get into to Heaven if you vote Democratic.

  19. T. Shaw says:

    It must be obvious. I’m a Catholic neanderthal.

    Joe, if you didn’t vote for Ob, stop here.


    Are you trying to salve your conscience for voting for Obama with animus for Palin, neocons and whomever?

    If I had done that, I’d get to Confession. I need to a for million other reasons.

  20. Joe Hargrave says:


    Even if I was trying to do that, it wouldn’t have any bearing on the argument I’m making.

    I absolutely do not tolerate abuses of logic, beginning with, and especially, ad hominems.

    If you don’t know what those are, google them. I am to logic what the soup nazi was for soup.

    If I think you are deliberately using a fallacy to score rhetorical points – “NO POST FOR YOU!”

    That’s just a warning. All arguments MUST be evaluated on their own merit, independent of personal motives. Fidelity to truth, logic, honesty, and decency demands it.

  21. Eric Brown says:


    You too? 🙂

  22. Jeff Barea says:

    I just jammed a lot of information into one post and that may seem confusing to some.

    Here’s a better version:

    We were all taught that to be a faithful Catholic we followed the rules. Right?

    Turns out that the keepers of the rules were human and a bit too human. Right?

    When it comes to America’s government the same applies. Right?

    Same problem. Human frailties.

    It is very important that unless we follow the rules, it teaches everyone that there are in fact no rules. While we learn our ABC’s by rote, we learn our socialization through our eyes, not our school lessons.

    So if it’s to mean anything any priest who has sex (celibacy) means they broke their priestly vows. Anyone who aids and abets breaks their vows.

    I’m using that as an example to emphasize my next point.

    If Congress has not declared war it’s illegal aggression outside our property. That’s not me, it’s the Constitution. And I hate the War Powers Act as Unconstitutional.

  23. Jeff Barea says:

    @Donald McLeary: “Joe what you call neocon imperialism is mainstream conservative support for the defense of our national interests.”

    Our government ends at the end of our property. Anyone who claims that we need to support huge corporation’s expansion is no longer talking about our government or our citizenry.

    As a Catholic I understand how the Papacy has lost its way. Father Gabriele Amorth can be ridiculed as a relic of the past, but it cannot be refuted except by those who want to oppose God himself that secrets are not God’s way.

    They are only there to protect humans and their corrupt ways.

    Likewise I am supportive of defending our national borders, but preemptive defense is not defense. It is aggression. And this is coming from a guy who enjoys a good St. Paddy’s day brawl.

    Plus, the Constitution gives us the rules for calling forth to War and we haven’t done that longer than many in this country have been alive.

    So either we follow the Constitution or we don’t. If you do not want to then just say it. Otherwise it’s not a war if it hasn’t been declared and is just a lie.

    Jesus has no need of lies. Unless you worship a different God.

  24. Zach says:

    Hmm.. Joe, you don’t find the tone and style of her rhetoric, in general, to be populist? The style of most of the arguments I have heard coming from her are those of an “us vs. them” theme.

  25. Joe Hargrave says:

    I don’t think populism is reducible to “us vs. them” rhetoric, first of all.

    Secondly, I think some “us vs. them” rhetoric is absolutely justifiable – and if all it takes is “some” to make one a populist, then the Papacy was populist, especially in 1931. Sometimes “they” really are doing things that are extremely harmful to “us”, and they need to be held accountable to the justifiable anger and wrath of the people – but through a legitimate political process. That’s what this country has been about from the beginning.

    Thirdly, I think Palin is an establishment lightning rod for discontent. I’ve seen no evidence that she is “with us” or “against them” in anything BUT rhetoric. It’s Ron Paul and even Dennis Kuncinich (though I think he’s wrong about many things) that I believe truly try to represent the interests of the American people. I think Palin’s political ambition is boundless. I think she’s 180 degrees the opposite of George Washington, who only reluctantly became a political leader.

    Populism is not demagoguery, and if I have to choose between the people and the elites, I am on the side of the people. It isn’t always necessary and other ways should be found, but sometimes, it is.

  26. jh says:

    Joe a good post

    Let me a dreaded neo con give a view. First I think the article was a tad more balanced than you are portraying.

    It has become rather vogue to criticize the GOP for the past several years. Well bring on the criticism. COnstructive criticim is always good. Though I think it gets a tad silly in someof the complaints.

    The Tea Party movement deserves some constructive criticism and examination. I understand their defensive nature but it needs it. It is a “populist” movement that we are not sure what it will become It can be a force for good or a force for bad.

    Now I have always said I don’t expect the TEA Party to become a THIRD PARTY. I really don’t think it should want that. Does the Tea party want to take stands on the size of the surface fleet in the Pacific and our relations with Israel?

    So I am not disturbed that they do not take stands on social issues.

    That being said there are elements in the TEA Party movement that are very Libertarian and or The Club For Growth Crowd. For all the talk of Federalism lets recall the Club For Growth was calling Huckabee some Christian Socialist. The Tea Party is also active on the State and local levels. So while you talk abotu Federalism what exactly are various Tea Parties doing on the State and local level?

    Who will win out? I don’t know. I suspect the Tea Party in Mississippi will look slightly different than the Tea Party in Maine or Washington.

    The whole thing might honestly fizzle out because of the factions in the TEA Party movement.

    That being said honest questions about leadership and what this is becoming are important. If the GOP gets criticism then why can we not put the Tea Party movement under the microscope.

    How much dissent among Christians can we have in the TEA PARTY movement. That is going to be a interesting question in the months ahead as WE MIGHT (though I am doubtful) see movement on immigration reform. Can one be part of the Tea Party and like a McCain/ Bush plan or is that prohibited. I suspect it will be strongly discouraged from reading the Tea Leaves.

    Still we don’t know.

  27. jh says:

    On a related note I see this at Instapundit today

    “MICHAEL BARONE: Tea party brings energy, change and tumult to GOP. “The Republicans for the last two decades have been a party whose litmus tests have been cultural issues, especially abortion. The tea partiers have helped to change their focus to issues of government overreach and spending. That may be a helpful pivot, given the emergence of a millennial generation uncomfortable with crusading cultural conservatism.”

    Now what does this mean? It seems on the culture issues besides aborotion and Stem Cell research it seems most GOP activity has been local and State on culture issues.

    Is Euthanasia the next “crusading culteral conservatism”

    It is popular to say the GOP is co opting the Tea party movement. However in reality it is the other way around. As we see in various reports that the Tea party movement is running for GOP party ship post on the local and state level.

    So yes I think it deserves watching. So if the TEA party finds a pro-choice fisical conservative and gets them lets say on the tickets I hope people don’t blame the “GOP ESTABLISHMENT” .Who knows if this will happen but again we need to watch this to see what develops in this movement

  28. Joe Hargrave says:

    Well jh,

    Those are some cogent points. And I have to say, in truth, I’m not bothered by the direction the tea party is taking on “culture issues”, provided it continues to recognize that the states, through various legitimate political processes, and even smaller levels of government (county, city, etc.) have a right to pursue a cultural agenda.

    The tea party, disorganized as it is, can co-opt nothing. It is more appropriate to say that it, like all outside political movements, places pressure upon the main political party whose ideological camp it is in. It’s a little like the anti-war movement and the Democrats. Pressure is what comes from below, from the people; co-option is what comes from above, from the establishment.

    As for a pro-choice fiscal conservative, here is the deal. Just as we don’t think it matters if someone is “personally pro-life” or not, it also doesn’t matter if someone is “personally pro-choice.” What matters is the position they take on Roe. You can be pro-choice and think that Roe was an unconstitutional, or at least constitutionally-dubious, ruling. If a candidate puts fidelity to the constitution ahead of his views on abortion, ipso facto that means they will take up the mainstream pro-life objective: to defeat Roe, to overturn it, and return abortion to the states to legislate.

    It also means that they really can’t have any objection in principle to other legitimate attempts to restrict abortion at the state level. We live in a political culture in which to be “pro-choice” ultimately means to be in favor of the federal government ensuring unrestricted access to abortion, a position that no constitutionalist can possibly take.

    It is a position that I can say, without using it as a smear word at all, is 100% socialist. It is a part of every socialist platform I have ever read, from the 1917 Bolsheviks to the European social democrats to every American political party on the socialist left today.

    This works both ways though; as a constitutionalist, I have to recognize that a state can legalize abortion through legitimate political channels. If we don’t like that, then it is our job to change the culture. Christianity didn’t spread because it was enforced by the Roman Empire; first it spread, by creating a culture for itself, and then the authorities had no choice but to recognize it.

    Christians today are like most citizens today; they want the government to do that which they are unwilling or unable to do. When we’re genuinely unable, that’s tragic, and that’s why I advocate new social models for people with shared values to break away and organize themselves.

    But all too often we are unwilling. This isn’t limited to the left, but to the social conservative right as well. I want to see laws passed against abortion, but law is not autonomous. If laws conflict with the culture, they will be unenforceable and they will fail. Moreover, pro-lifers can’t fall into the trap of “permanent revolution”, insisting upon a state of affairs that can only exist if the entire world or at least a giant section of it shares the same worldview.

    All of this I am going to cover in Part II.

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