Despite the tea party’s well-known fiscal focus, the anti-tax budget-slashing movement’s most underappreciated energy source may be its evangelical Christians.
I suspected as much when I attended a couple of early tea party rallies. News coverage focused on the signs, speeches and slogans that promoted free markets, fiscal responsibility and constitutionally limited government. But my conversations with participants revealed another widely shared agenda: Stop abortion rights, same-sex marriage and the other social evils in the eyes of the religious right.
David Brody, the Christian Broadcasting Network’s Washington-based chief political correspondent, was making similar discoveries. If it often looks as though tea partiers are driven by something resembling religious zeal, you’ll understand why after reading his new book “The Teavangelicals: The Inside Story of How the Evangelicals and the Tea Party are Taking Back America.”
Along with numerous profiles and interviews, Brody recounts polls like a 2010 American Values Survey that indicated nearly half of self-identified tea party members said they were part of the “religious right or conservative Christian movement.”
For example, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life found 60 percent of registered voters who agreed with the religious right said they also agreed with the tea party. Some 44 percent of white evangelical Protestants surveyed said they agreed with the movement. Only 8 percent said they didn’t. Almost two-thirds of tea party supporters opposed same-sex marriage, and 59 percent said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
Whether you agree with their social views or not (I don’t), it is fair to say that with attitudes like that, the tea party doesn’t sound so new. Their social conservatism sounds much like the religious right of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition that backed President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
The tea party movement emerged mostly from grassroots libertarian activism, and it endures with the help of big dollars from backers like the Washington-based nonprofit FreedomWorks. But polls indicate their rank-and-file supporters at rallies and elections would be mighty sparse without the robust presence of dedicated evangelicals.
That’s OK if your movement is led by a talented coalition builder like Reagan. But sharp differences on social issues, Brody observes, pose a potential threat to the movement’s long-term unity.
After all, the movement’s more secular tax-fighters tend to lean more live-and-let-live libertarian across the board, including on hot-button social issues like abortion rights, same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization that the religious right so passionately opposes.
So, what holds the coalition together now? Well, there is You-Know-Who. The guy in the White House.
“Mitt Romney is lucky,” Brody told me in an interview. The presumptive Republican nominee “has done virtually nothing with the evangelical crowd, but he’s got a core group that will come out just to vote against President Barack Obama.”
That’s a big deal. President George Bush was re-elected in 2004 with the help of an unusually high turnout of religious conservatives, including in black churches, heavily encouraged by Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political strategist.
Which made me wonder whether Obama or Romney will pull off a similar appeal to religious conservatives this year. I asked Brody in a later email exchange how he thought teavangelicals would respond if the president resumed a theme that he pushed as a candidate in 2008. In a high-profile speech at a black church, he won big applause with a strong appeal for marriage before parenthood, personal responsibility and responsible parenting.
Sure, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, as many will recall, was irritated enough to threaten Obama’s reproductive organs in a sharp sound bite picked up by a Fox News microphone. But Jackson’s disapproval appeared only to bring more applause for Obama, even from conservatives.
Brody was intrigued by the suggestion. “I think if President Obama did a speech like that it would make teavangelical voters wonder why Romney hasn’t done the same,” he wrote. While a speech like that wouldn’t win a lot of white teavangelicals, it could endear him a bit more with independents and “African-American teavangelical voters” and “actually make Romney look weaker in this area.”
Maybe. It is a speech that may not happen, but I’d like to cover it if it did.