The Religious Right and the Tea Party: Marriage of Convenience or Just a Passing Fling?

I spent two weekends in September attending conferences sponsored by religious right groups in Washington, DC. They were nothing if not eye-opening.

The first gathering was sponsored by a new group called the Faith & Freedom Coalition. This organization was founded last year by Ralph Reed, former executive director of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition.

Reed left the Coalition in 1997 to become a political consultant and lobbyist—and to launch a political career. But he became ensnared in the scandal surrounding disgraced casino lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which dashed Reed’s hopes of becoming lieutenant governor of Georgia. After trying and failing to launch a career as a novelist, Reed decided to return to his religious right roots.

It’s hard to know what to make of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. Although Reed claims to have 400,000 supporters, only about 200 people showed up for his inaugural conference. Reed brags about mobilizing a younger, more racially diverse crowd and using cutting-edge technology. Yet most of the attendees at his first event were white and past retirement age; only about a dozen people showed up for a breakout session on how to use Facebook as an organizing tool.

Can Reed get back into the game? It’s too early to tell, but I wouldn’t write him off.

The other conference, the annual “Values Voter Summit” sponsored by the Family Research Council, drew a much bigger audience. About 2,000 people packed the ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel to hear speakers like Newt Gingrich, Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly. Busloads of students from Liberty University added a youthful vibe. The energy level was high.

Yet both events shared one thing in common: Anger. There is a lot of hate and rage out there in Religious Right Land. Speakers lashed out at favorite targets: President Barack Obama, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the “liberal media,” gay people, Muslims, feminists, and so on.

But increasingly, one of the religious right’s favorite targets is anyone who dares adopt a secular worldview.

At Reed’s event, a California pastor named Jim Garlow snarled, “Godlessness has created havoc in our culture. If we didn’t face secularism, we wouldn’t have babies being ripped up in the womb. If it wasn’t for secularism, we wouldn’t have the definition of marriage being destroyed. …We wouldn’t have oppressive taxation if it wasn’t for secularism. We wouldn’t have debt so excessive that we are literally stealing—it’s a form of theft—from generations yet unborn if it wasn’t for secularism.”

During a special Values Voter Summit session on church-based political organizing, Kenyn Cureton, the FRC’s vice president for church ministries, urged attendees to gird themselves for a “spiritual battle.”

“When you think about it, you know, the real enemy is not the poor, deluded souls who are advancing these evil agendas,” Cureton said. “Really, they’re just simply pawns in the hands of their malevolent master. They’re simply doing the bidding of the devil, OK?”

How are these “poor, deluded souls” to be dealt with? An invocation that Bishop Harry Jackson, a Maryland preacher known for his anti-gay activism, gave during the summit’s closing banquet provides a clue. The reading was from the Book of Psalms 68:1, which states, “May God arise, may his enemies be scattered; may his foes flee before him. As smoke is driven away, so drive them away. As wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.”

Let the wicked perish? Gee, I don’t think they like us!

The problem with rhetoric like this—and by extension the problem with the religious right’s entire approach to politics—is that it is based on rage, hate, and fear. There are always enemies to despise. The constant manipulation of these most base emotions is unhealthy for individuals and for our body politic.

Politics is supposedly the art of compromise, yet how can you find any common ground when your opponents aren’t just wrong about an issue but are in fact tools of Satan?

This demonization of entire segments of the U.S. population feeds a dangerous “us vs. them” mentality. At the Values Voters Summit, it was never enough for speakers to say they disagreed with liberals, secularists, and progressive Christians. These groups were always portrayed as hating America, seeking to subvert the Constitution and longing to destroy the country.

Here’s more bad news: Groups like the FRC are reaching out to the Tea Party movement in the hopes of forging a lasting alliance that will change the face of U.S. politics.

I’ve been attending religious right meetings for a long time. Usually the talk is about issues like legal abortion, same-sex marriage, religion in public schools, and other “values” concerns. At Reed’s confab and the Values Voter Summit, the big focus was on deficit spending, taxes, Obama’s healthcare reform, and the stimulus legislation.

These aren’t traditional religious right issues, and their prominence at these gatherings was no accident: The religious right hopes to either co-opt the Tea Party or attach itself to that movement. The cynical among us might add that groups like the Heritage Foundation, which cosponsored this year’s summit, are trying to win a new flock of converts for their minimalist approach to government. It’s normally difficult to convince people who rely on Social Security and Medicare to join anti-government movements—unless you first convince them that government is out to destroy religion.

Some would argue that there is already significant overlap between the religious right and the Tea Party. Summit attendees heard three women who are active in local Tea Parties talk about how their religious faith motivated them to act. One claimed God literally woke her up at 3 a.m. and ordered her to form a Tea Party group.

Of course, not all Tea Partiers are on board with this religious crusade. About a week before the Values Voter Summit, I received a call from a distraught young man in Idaho who is active in a local Tea Party and has been trying to persuade members that James Madison was a strong supporter of church-state separation. The man told me that most members had embraced a revisionist “Christian nation” history of America and could not be persuaded to stick to the fiscal issues that concerned my caller.

If the religious right has its way, the “leave-us-alone” libertarians who don’t want Big Government or Big Religion running their lives will be pushed out of the Tea Party, and the movement will morph into just another vehicle for conservative religious social engineering. This new manifestation may include a lot of anti-government rhetoric to keep the Tea Partiers interested, but the end result will be the same: People who believe, by virtue of their religion (which is the only true one, of course) that they have the right to employ the power of the state to make decisions for you and forge a “godly” society.

While I must reject the religious right’s calls for “spiritual warfare,” I do believe political battles lines have been drawn. The resurgence of the far right means that humanists and the values we hold dear—tolerance, self-determination, secular government—will be constantly tested in the months and years to come.

It is vital that we stand up for them. Remember, at the end of the day, we are all “values voters.” The question is whose values will prevail.

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