Wearing my Jesus Goggles to the Tea Party

The post below appeared today on Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog. You can also read my more newsy recap of the event at Blast Magazine.

by Steve Holt

100415-tea-party-t-shirtsTea Party Express – the traveling band of conservative speakers, entertainers, and organizers — stops in Washington, D.C., today on its nationwide effort to “vote them out of office” in the 2010 mid-term elections. Sarah Palin, one of the most galvanizing conservatives in years, has joined the Express in an attempt to bring more mainstream conservatives into its ranks. The Alaskan drew several thousand fans, opponents, and gawkers to the Tea Party rally on Boston Common Wednesday, and I decided to head down to experience it for myself.

I did this for a couple of reasons. A big reason I went was to hear Mrs. Palin — to see what all the fuss is about and to bask in her aura. I was not disappointed. She gave the crowd what it came to hear: hard-nosed political rhetoric softened by her trademark small-town colloquial wit. She even worked a “drill, baby, drill!” into the speech, though strangely, she made no mention of President Obama’s move last month to expand off-shore drilling for oil.

My main reason for attending, though, was to be among the people. I have found myself characterizing the Tea Party in conversation without having ever attended a rally, and I wanted to get a clearer picture of who makes up this group comprising roughly 18 percent of Americans. Specifically, I wanted to come at the event with my Jesus goggles on, asking whether this is a group for folks who call themselves Christians.

I knew Tea Party supporters were a patriotic bunch, so the red, white, and blue didn’t come as much of a shock. What surprised me a bit was the support of militarism and American exceptionalism. Last summer, the Tea Parties formed around a largely economic platform: Washington is spending too much money and needs to stop. A good chunk of these folks, including many supporters of then-presidential candidate Ron Paul, were against excessive spending on defense and interventionism around the world. So I was surprised when nearly half the program was spent praising our troops and America’s interventionist campaigns overseas. Palin walked right into the debate over American exceptionalism, stating that as the greatest nation on the planet, America is, in fact, exceptional. (Implying that we can do what we please, thank you.)

This is a curious stance for Palin, a devout Christian. When Paul tells the Galatians (3:28) that they are “neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek,” he is telling them to remember that in Christ, they are one – regardless of nationality. Do we erase all national affiliation when we follow Jesus? No, but we affiliate ourselves first with the kingdom of God, which changes everything. Militarism – even in the name of “freedom” – is wrong for the Christian, in all cases, at all times.

Which brings me to the concept of “freedom.” This really is the operative concept within the Tea Party movement: freedom from excessive taxes and government intrusion of all kinds. This freedom, signs and speakers proudly announce, came at a price – the price of brave American soldiers in 250 years’ worth of foreign and domestic wars. But they opportunistically omit that our freedom also came at the cost of Native Americans, foreign and domestic soldiers and civilians, and our natural resources. I would argue that a Christian cannot blindly accept freedom that sacrifices lives and our Earth, not when the very core principles of our faith were violated to achieve it.

Finally, here’s a reflection I had Wednesday night upon reading the results from the first scientific poll of Tea Party supporters, released yesterday by the New York Times and CBS News. Before Wednesday, information about the group was largely anecdotal, so this poll gave the first clear picture of the demographics and beliefs of a typical Tea Party supporter. This person is likely supportive of the movement on idealogical grounds rather than economic grounds, which, as I mentioned earlier, was the platform for the group’s beginnings. Most likely to be rich, white, and older than 45, Tea Party supporters largely oppose what they perceive to be policies that disproportionately favor the poor over the rich. In other words, most point to differences in class as the reason why they support the Tea Party. Some even go further, citing fear that Obama will favor blacks in his political agenda.

As a Christian, this is troubling. That the fear of someone’s money being taken and given to the poor would drive them to organize in this fashion – and with so much anger, which I did observe Wednesday – should make us pause and rethink our collective moral compass. Capitalism set forth by Adam Smith exists for the common good of all people. Many in this country are being left out of that equation, African Americans being a notable example. We must, as a country, ask ourselves why this is. Surely it’s not because all of them are not trying hard enough to succeed. This might be my biggest issue with the Tea Party movement: at its core, it is selfish.

Are there good people who are involved in the Tea Party protests? Of course. Do they have legitimate concerns about waste and spending in Washington? You bet. Are militaristic, homogenous, often angry protests the best method for airing their concerns, especially for Christians?

I don’t think so.


10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Paul Anthony on April 15, 2010 at 9:41 pm

    Terrific pieces, both. Especially the one for God’s Politics. Somehow we’ve both ended up on the same side of the political and religious aisles. It’s about time you agreed with me! 🙂


  2. Posted by Jason on April 15, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    I love the article,
    Militarism – even in the name of “freedom” – is wrong for the Christian, in all cases, at all times.
    What a easy statement to make when you already have freedom given to you. So Chinese Christians,and the Christians being slaughtered in Africa, the Christians about to have their life taken now by the peaceful religion of Islam. They might not mind a little militarism currently right now.


    • Paul –
      I think we’d still have some significant points of contention politically, but you are nevertheless a bit closer to the light than you were in college. =) Thanks for the kind words, bro.

      Jason –
      Thing is, some of the most powerful stories of commitment to peace have come out of China … and countries in Africa … and even Europe during WWII. Peacemaking was not conditional on what type of state one lives in. Early Christians — and even Jesus himself — lived in an oppressive, violent regime and yet were committed to nonviolence.

      You are right when you say I know little of political strife. Thank God for this. But that doesn’t mean we cannot make strong statements about core components of the life of Christ and the early church. Militarism and nationalism have no part.


  3. Dear Steve, Thank you so much for your article. I have not been to a Tea Party, though suggested by a friend that I go. However, I came to the same conclusion. I felt to describe it one word would be that it is: selfish.


    • Thanks for the comment, Sheilah. I want to be clear that when I say “selfish,” I mean the Tea Party enterprise as a whole. Yes, individuals are, of course, selfish. We all are. But my intent is not to attack anyone personally for what I perceive as selfishness. It’s the idea that we should organize these protests under mainly selfish pretenses that I have an issue with. Someone in the Sojo comments made a great point that I wish I’d made: Our stuff (money, possessions, etc) is not ours anyway! It is on loan from God. (like Rush Limbaugh’s talent, as he likes to say)

      Maybe we should think of our possessions as a big, cosmic bailout. Might help us reframe the conversation.

      Thanks again!


  4. Posted by Geoff on April 16, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    Thank you for this, great post and so very accurate. We all should be praying for the Tea Party, they seem so…….lost.


  5. Posted by Chris on April 16, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    Great article, I am glad to see someone going to the Tea Party rally first hand. That sure was never on my calendar as something of interest. And my lack of interest in the Tea Party may make this a poor choice of where to play advocate, but here it goes.
    Preface, this comes with limited knowledge of the Tea Party, and zero firsthand experience. From my research I do get the impression that the core of the Tea Party argument is that big government is bad? That the government being responsible for everyone’s well being is a bad idea. If that is not the case, hold your comments and disregard the rest.
    If it is the core of movement, they may have something of value, something good to give this nation and it citizens. I wonder what Christ would think of a place where people rely on their government to care for (Feed, house, medical assistance, clothes, love on) the poor, the widows, the orphans? Isn’t that the responsibility of the Church (Not buildings, but the church, the people who follow Christ). If the Tea Party supporters want to put their time and money where their mouth is, and take care of those less fortunate, then I would be ok if they continue to spread the word that each should be responsible for ensuring the well being of their neighbors, not their elected officials they have never seen or met.


  6. You started me thinking, Chris, about the role of church in doing for the poor, widows, orphans, etc. what they can’t do for themselves. Seems to me, from God’s perspective, he doesn’t really care who does it, as long as these vulnerable ones are cared for. Yes, he would most like for his people to exercise their faith and do the feeding, housing, medical care, etc. But it seems his people aren’t always diligent in that responsibility. So, he’s probably very happy to have others step up to the plate and care for his beloved vulnerable lambs. And it appears he’s known all along that his people would sometimes let these children slip through the cracks…that’s probably why he mandated in his law that farmers leave the remnant of their crops in the field for the poor, and that olive growers not beat their trees twice so that the poor can come along later and harvest, and that grape farmers not go back and pick grapes after the first time so that “foreigners, orphans and widows” can enjoy the fruits for which they didn’t labor. Some of what the Tea Party is protesting is exactly what God wants.


  7. I enjoyed the “first hand” opinion of the post. I have a lot of friends who are part of the TEA party but I have not been to a TEA party myself yet.


  8. Posted by Priest on August 7, 2010 at 3:01 am

    Hey Steve, I’ve been catching up on your blog after checking out of my Google reader for a while. Enjoyed the post.

    Recently, I heard on NPR that the Tea Party is largely irreligious, and has stolen the thunder from the Religious Right. Similar ideologies, but much rougher around the edges, with as you noted, a strong commitment to militarism (which baffles me, since our military is a great example of Big Govt, is it not? The 2nd biggest tax drain, just one percent of the budget behind Soc Sec…). I’m not sure what’s worse–the syncretism of the Religious Right, or the more pure nationalism of the Tea Party.


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