Just as cultists become even more fanatical when prophecy fails, the failed insurgency of Chris McDaniel is merely emboldening Mississippi’s tea party activists. Why? Courting outrage at The Daily Beast, Jack Schwartz says it’s because the tea party is more like a fanatical religious movement than a political one.
While a traditional political party may have a line that it won’t cross, the Tea Party has a stone-engraved set of principles, all of which are sacrosanct. This is not a political platform to be negotiated but a catechism with only a single answer. It is now a commonplace for Tea Party candidates to vow they won’t sacrifice an iota of their principles. In this light, shutting down the Government rather than bending on legislation becomes a moral imperative. While critics may decry such a tactic as “rule or ruin,” Tea Party brethren celebrate it, rather, as the act of a defiant Samson pulling down the pillars of the temple. For them, this is not demolition but reclamation, cleansing the sanctuary that has been profaned by liberals. They see themselves engaged in nothing less than a project of national salvation. The refusal to compromise is a watchword 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. One doesn’t compromise on an article of faith.
This explains why the Tea Party faithful often appear to be so bellicose. You and I can have a reasonable disagreement about fiscal policy or foreign policy but if I attack your religious beliefs you will become understandably outraged. And if I challenge the credibility of your doctrine you will respond with righteous indignation. To question the validity of Moses parting the Red Sea or the Virgin Birth or Mohammed ascending to heaven on a flying horse is to confront the basis of a believer’s deepest values.
For some reason, people are still surprised that conservatism has diminished to its reactive core of highly-motivated true believers. A movement born of evangelical racism that responded to Ronald Reagan’s encoded charisma, and that has actively undermined its chosen political party since 1992 whenever it could not have its way, is still shocking! all those rational people inside the Beltway with their seemingly-irrational behavior. Yes, “real Republicans” are proud of their success at making the GOP more extreme, but they are also impatient from waiting so long for the promised land where the GOP promotes their most insane agenda items as national public policy.
While tea parties are a conservative brand born of the religious right, their fundamentalism is not identifiable by leaders, denominational identities, or even an explicit sectarianism. Instead, tea parties must be understood as a discrete, but related, phenomenon:
A new analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that Tea Party supporters tend to have conservative opinions not just about economic matters, but also about social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. In addition, they are much more likely than registered voters as a whole to say that their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on these social issues. And they draw disproportionate support from the ranks of white evangelical Protestants.
The analysis shows that most people who agree with the religious right also support the Tea Party. But support for the Tea Party is not synonymous with support for the religious right.
Rather than wait for a top-down counterrevolution against modernity, tea parties have turned our state governments into laboratories for tax cuts, climate change denial, “Agenda 21” lunacy, anti-sharia laws, and most tellingly, another wave of creative new abortion restrictions. The last one is significant, because tea party activists sometimes go to great lengths to deny the meaningfulness of their ideological overlap with the evangelical right, but in practice tea parties invariably default to the kind of patriarchal authoritarianism represented by the Hobby Lobby decision.
As Schwartz points out in his article, the ‘bible’ of tea parties is the United States Constitution — or rather, tea partiers’ own vision of it as a dead letter that was set in stone tablets by their god at the top of Mount Vernon. From the Bureau of Land Management to the Federal Reserve to food stamps, every activity they dislike in the modern-day federal government is deemed an “unconstitutional” violation of their god’s plan. This reading is only as literalist as ideological consistency allows: the same people who argue for the broadest possible interpretation of the Tenth Amendment are just as likely to argue that the words “promote the general welfare” in the preamble somehow don’t mean what they plainly say. Cliven Bundy’s fanatics are still pretending that the plain language of the clause in Article IV, Section 3 allowing Congress to regulate federal properties somehow doesn’t mean the federal government has a right to own property. Like committed cultists, they will never, ever stop pushing this line, no matter how bizarre they seem to the rest of us.
You might think this would create tensions with Christians, who are called upon to oppose the dehumanizing idolatry of mammon. Unlike their Jesus, the god of tea parties doesn’t care about social justice, or healing the sick, or caring for the poor. But so far, those dissonances have not disturbed the conservative culture war coalition in any appreciable way, nor am I holding my breath waiting to see it happen; their united, existential war against a godless 21st Century is simply far too important to them.