PARTIES AND ELECTIONS
The Soul of the Tea Party
by Colin Woodard December 01, 2010
Now that the election is over, an uneasy libertarian–Christian conservative alliance shows its cracks.
Earlier this month, a group of Tea Party activists put Congressional Republicans on notice with a terse letter reminding them not to take their eyes off the ball. The elected officials’ mission, theactivists wrote, is to reduce spending, taxes, regulations, and the deficit, not to further the social-issues agenda of the Christian right. “We urge you to stay focused on the issues that got you and your colleagues elected and to resist the urge to run down any social issue rabbit holes in order to appease the special interests,” said the letter signed by 17 leading Tea Party activists and aconservative gay group and sent to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the incoming House speaker, John Boehner, earlier this month. “The Tea Party movement is not going away and we intend to continue to hold Washington accountable.”
The activists—including statewide coordinators from Arizona, Florida, Ohio, Nebraska, and Maine—had begun to worry about a social-values coup. In the days afterthe midterms, Senator Tea Party, as Jim DeMint of South Carolina is called, had been on Fox News saying, “You can’t be a fiscal conservative and not be a social conservative.” (The Washington-based Family Research Council backed him up, calling on “one million Americans to pray on a regular basis for Sen. DeMint” as he faced his critics.) On Nov. 3, 65 leading conservatives—including FamilyResearch Council head Tony Perkins, Eagle Forum leader Phyllis Schlafly, Tea Party Express chair Amy Kremer, and Edwin Meese III—wrote Rep. Boehner, Sen. McConnell, and Republican Governors Association chair Haley Barbour urging them to renew their “commitment to restoring traditional moral values” by banning abortion and same-sex marriage.
And so, the fight is on for the soul of the Tea Party. On oneside: libertarian-minded grassroots activists. On the other: the leaders of the wealthy, powerful, and better-established Christian right, who’ve dominated conservative populism in the United States for decades. Roughly half the people who say they support the Tea Party also say they are part of the religious right. Christian conservative leaders have long espoused limiting government intrusion inthe economy—Jerry Falwell regularly condemned social programs and praised Milton Friedman—making the Tea Party attractive to their followers. But many of them also want government to enforce moral standards—banning abortion and gay marriage, for instance—a notion that’s anathema to libertarians who want government off their backs. “Principled libertarians aren’t going to like Big Religion tellingthem how to act and are going to have to draw the line,” says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
At issue: whether the amorphous grassroots movement can wield the sort of influence on congressional leaders that it did on congressional candidates, or if it will be drowned out by old alliances. “In a battle royale between the religious right TeaParty and the libertarian Tea Party, I would have to bet with the Christian conservatives,” says Lynn.
The libertarian insurgents are currently gathered around Andrew Ian Dodge, a science-fiction writer and amateur rocker (with a penchant for writing lyrics about reducing the size of government), who serves as the unpaid coordinator for Maine’s Tea Party Patriots. Unlike folks on the Christianright, he and his allies aren’t tied in to a network of endowed think tanks, private universities, and broadcasting outlets that help to amplify their message. And Dodge is skeptical of groups like the Tea Party Express, which, he says, is “a Republican front run by Republican apparatchiks.” As an outsider, he’s enjoying having a chance at being on the inside, and he’s not going to give up his...
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