The unconventional Tea Party wisdom


The big news from yesterday’s survey from the Public Religion Research Institute is that the conventional wisdom on the Tea Party is wrong: It’s not a libertarian movement distinct from the religious right and unconnected to the Republican Party. This really should come as no surprise to those with eyes to see (surveys) and ears to hear (Tea Party adherents themselves). Not to get all smug about it, but last winter your humble servant wrote:

The fact that the Tea Party movement isn’t trumpeting the old family values agenda says more about the politics of the moment than the membership. These are, after all, Sarah Palin’s people. And Bob McDonnell’s. The newly elected governor of Virginia has impeccable Christian Right credentials–a degree from Regent University Law School and a perfect record of pushing social conservatism while representing Virginia Beach in the House of Delegates from 1993 to 2006. But in 2009, he ran for governor as a fiscal, not a social, conservative.

The CW came about because journalists paid too much attention to Tea Party manifestos and Tea Party spokespeople and too little to who actually showed up at the rallies. Over the past five years, moreover, there’s been a strong storyline about the end of the religious right–and having the Tea Party as the Next New Thing fit right into that. But as has happened regularly since the 1980s, reports of the religious right’s demise turns out to be premature.

What I find most interesting in the PRPI survey is the difference of opinion about whether America is, was, or has ever been a Christian nation. Whereas 49 percent of white evangelicals think America was so in the past as opposed to 43 percent who think it is today, 57 percent of Tea Partyers think it is today versus just 38 percent who think it used to be. It looks, in other words, as though the non-evangelical portion of the Tea Party is strongly of the opinion that America is a more Christian nation now than once upon a time. And, by the narrow margin of 42-37, the public at large agrees.

So even as the proportion of Christians in the American population continues to decline, a plurality of Americans–led by the most potent political force on the scene today–believe the nation to be more Christian than ever. Is this evidence of the religious right’s 30-year run? Or wishful thinking?