Tents or Tea?

Members of the Tea Party love to play dress-up, but not just in those cute costumes from the 1700s they gad about in. No, I mean the so-called Tea Party has been rather successful in dressing up its theocratic values as libertarianism.

More recently, Occupy Wall Street and the larger Occupy movement has had an impact in large measure because the movement, whatever its fashion choices, seems to instinctively know what much of the media seems willing to ignore. And that is that the majority of Americans are frustrated with big government and big business taking the country in the wrong direction, and that citizens are interested in working together to solve the nation’s problems. Meanwhile, the Tea Party movement is really about denying liberty to people they don’t like, all in the name of their version of Jesus.

Don’t believe me? Look at the data recently published by researchers David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam regarding religious attitudes and American society. Writing in the New York Times in July, they reported:

Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates.

A Public Religion Research Institute poll conducted in 2010 found that 55 percent of self-identified Tea Party supporters agreed with the statement: “America has always been and is currently a Christian nation.” That’s even higher, according to the poll data, than the percentage of self-identified Christian conservatives who agree the United States is a Christian Nation. And a University of Washington poll conducted the same year reported that, among Tea Party supporters, 82 percent do not believe that gay and lesbian couples should have the legal right to marry. About 52 percent believe that “lesbians and gays have too much political power.”

The man sometimes described as the intellectual godfather of the Tea Party movement, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), labels himself libertarian while touting theocratic policies. Paul introduced legislation that would define human life as beginning at conception and remove challenges to prohibitions on abortion from federal court jurisdiction, thus denying individuals access to the courts to enforce individual rights. In 2005 he introduced legislation that would prohibit any claim based upon the right of privacy, including “any such claim related to any issue of… reproduction.” Such a law would allow states to outlaw contraception. Talk about government controlling your life!

When the public intellectual Cornel West gave a friendly shout out to various religious groups at an Occupy event in Los Angeles this past fall there was friendly applause, but the biggest cheer, described by the Los Angeles Times as a roar, came when West asked the crowd to recognize “the progressive agnostic and atheistic brothers and sisters” in attendance. Needless to say this would not happen at a Tea Party rally.

There have always been nonreligious people involved in social movements. The brilliant A. Philip Randolph was deeply involved in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, certainly more behind the scenes than Martin Luther King Jr., but Randolph’s influence and leadership was historic. And the contrast with the Civil Rights movement and our era is telling.

With the atheistic Randolph close by his side, Dr. King, while coming from a religious background, sought civil liberties for all. The Tea Party, while claiming libertarian values, seeks to remove civil liberties through theocratic laws imposed on the rest of us from on high.

Almost simultaneously, the Occupy movement is the first where the nonreligious are welcomed—and indeed have been cheered with enthusiasm. Regardless of what becomes of this evolving movement, it won’t be the last organized effort where such a thing occurs.

Why? First, the nonreligious have simply been growing as a population, particularly among the young.

Second, the willingness of the nonreligious to embrace social justice (much more so than the Tea Party theocrats) makes them a larger portion of any progressive social movement today.

Third, people are beginning to sense, including progressive religious people, that the shunning of the nonreligious is an injustice that must be corrected.

Fourth, the secular philosophy is gaining momentum intellectually. Dr. King’s vision was greatly admirable and deeply moral, but religious belief was not necessary to his social ends. Compassion and inclusion are quintessential elements of the humanist worldview. If one is to oppose civil rights for gay people, if one is to deny people accurate sex education or contraception, then religion is the most essential prerequisite from which these unjust attitudes spring.

Finally, the combination of the above factors makes secularism increasingly cool, in that secularism combines the edginess of its standing stigma with a spreading sense of truth, justice, and compassion. And it’s a trend increasingly embraced by celebrities and intellectuals, including intellectuals who have specifically embraced the Occupy movement.

In October, author and journalist Jeff Sharlet (The Family, C Street), launched the Occupy Writers website (occupywriters.com), where a growing list of writers and editors have declared their public support for Occupy Wall Street and the worldwide Occupy movement. Sharlet, who was a keynote speaker at the American Humanist Association’s annual conference last year, is joined on the list by other humanists and AHA awardees, including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, Barbara Ehrenreich, Robin Morgan, Philip Appleman, and 2012 Humanist of the Year Gloria Steinem.

With secularism gratifyingly ensconced in the Occupy movement, we secularists must now lead a social movement ourselves. Rather than a movement that embraces the clothing of our founders, the time is right for a movement that embodies the ideals of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. That movement is humanism.