America has long been the incubator for many spiritual beliefs dating back to the Great Awakening and even earlier. Only one of them, Mormonism, took root and flourished as a true religion born out of our own homeland. Today, however, we have a new faith growing from the soil of this nation: the Tea Party. Despite its age-old attributes and its motto “already taxed enough”, it is a religious movement, rooted in the traditions of American spiritual renewal. This religiosity explains the political fanaticism of the Tea Party.
The hallmark of a national political party in a democracy is its pluralistic quality, that is, its ability to be inclusive enough to attract the largest number of voters who may have competing interests on a variety of issues. Although it can defend certain basic principles, a party is often flexible in their application, as are its representatives in their application. Despite the heated election rhetoric and the elation of elected officials, they generally seek consensus with the minority in order to achieve their legislative goals.
But when religion is thrown into the mix, all of that is lost. Here, religion does not mean theology but a separate belief system which as a whole provides basic answers on how to live one’s life, how society should function, how to deal with social and political issues, which is right and wrong, who should rule us, and who should not. He does this in a way that meets deep-rooted emotional needs which, at their deepest level, are devotional. Given the confusions of a secular world rapidly transformed by technology, demography and globalization, this movement has taken on a spiritual aspect whose followers have had a religious experience which, if not in name, at least in virtually every other aspect. , can be considered as a Faith.
Seen in this light, the behavior of Tea Party followers makes sense. Their zeal is not the mercurial enthusiasm of a Republican or a traditional Democrat who grows and wanes with the party’s fortunes, much less the average voter who may not exercise the right to vote in every election. These people are true believers who participate faithfully in the primaries, giving them political weight far greater than their actual number. Collectively, this can give the impression that they are preeminent, allowing their tribunes to declare that they represent the will of the American people.
While a traditional political party may have a line it will not cross, the Tea Party has a set of principles set in stone, all of which are sacrosanct. It is not a political platform to be negotiated but a catechism with only one answer. It is now commonplace for Tea Party candidates to swear that they will not sacrifice an iota of their principles. With this in mind, shutting down the government rather than bending to the law becomes a moral imperative. While critics may denounce a tactic such as “regulate or ruin,” the Tea Party brothers instead celebrate it as the act of a defiant Samson knocking down the pillars of the temple. For them, it is not a question of demolition but of rehabilitation, of cleaning up the sanctuary desecrated by the Liberals. They see themselves engaged in nothing less than a project of national salvation. The refusal of compromise is a slogan of their candidates who wear it as a badge of pride. This would seem disastrous in the give and take of politics, but it is in keeping with sectarian religious doctrine. We do not compromise on an article of faith.
This explains why Tea Party loyalists often appear so belligerent. You and I may have a reasonable disagreement on tax policy or foreign policy, but if I attack your religious beliefs, you will understandably become indignant. And if I challenge the credibility of your doctrine, you will respond with just indignation. To question the validity of Moses separating the Red Sea or the virgin birth or Muhammad ascending to heaven on a flying horse is to confront the basis of a believer’s deepest values.
Therefore, on questions of government, economy, race and gender, the Tea Party promulgates a doctrine to which the faithful must subscribe. Democrats and independents who oppose their dogma are infidels. Republicans who don’t obey all tenants are heretics, who are primary rather than burnt alive.
Like all revealed religions, this one has its own Devil in the form of Barack Obama. This Antichrist in the White House is an illegitimate ruler who must be opposed at all times, along with his inferior demons, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. They are responsible for everything that has gone wrong in the country over the past six years and, indeed, they represent a liberal legacy that has betrayed the ideals of America for most of a century. Washington is seen the same way Protestant fire-eaters once saw Rome: a siege of corruption that betrayed the pillars of the faith. The only way to save America’s sanctity is to take control of Washington and undermine the federal government while affecting to fix it. The drumbeat of hellish sermons from talk-radio talkers and Fox News talkers is essential to this endeavor. This national revival tent not only exhorts the faithful but its radio preachers ultimately became the arbiter of doctrinal legitimacy, determining which candidates are worthy of their anointing and which lack purity.
Having created an image of Hell, the Tea Party priesthood is to provide the faithful with an image of Heaven. This Eden is not located in space but in time: the Republic in the decades after civil war where the plantocracy reigned in the South and the plutocrats reigned in the North. Blacks knew their place in Dixie through the beneficence of state rights, and the robber barons of the North had a pleasant relationship with the government before the advent of labor, union and income tax laws. The immigrants were not yet at high tide. It was still a white, masculine, Christian and proud country. When the pillars of the Tea Party cry “Take back America!” »You have to ask who and what? They seek to bring it back to the golden age and to recover it from the lower orders: immigrants, minorities, the “takers” of the “47%” and their liberal facilitators.
The most important text for any religious movement is a sacred text, and the right wing has appropriated nothing less than the Constitution to be its Bible. The Tea Party, its acolytes in Congress and its allies in the Supreme Court have claimed the only interpretation of the Constitution with the ethics of “originalism”. Legal minds turn to the text to read the thoughts of the framers like a high priest would study the bowels at the Forum. The emphasis is on the text rather than the context and the authors; writing rather than the reality in which the words were written. This kind of thinking is a form of literalism that is akin in mind to religious fundamentalism and literal biblical truth that has stood up as a bulwark against modernity.
One thing the Tea Parties and the Liberals both recognize is that the Constitution prohibits the establishment of a religion. The ban was put in place for a good reason: to prevent the wars of religion that rocked Europe in the previous century. The Enlightenment was to transcend such sectarian violence hostile to the social order as well as the concomitant religious oppression that weighed on individual conscience. By investing a political faction with a religious dimension, the Tea Party poses a challenge to both religion and democracy.
Jack Schwartz supervised Press daypages from the book and was a longtime editor in several New York dailies.