At the annual Values Voter Summit last weekend, Billie Tucker, co-founder of the Jacksonville, Florida–based First Coast Tea Party, recounted how "some people say, ‘don’t you put God in the tea party, Billie, you’ll run people off.’ " Tucker, a business consultant whose company, despite her anti-government rhetoric, has contracts with the city-owned electric utility, pledged to reject such advice. "I’m putting God back into the United States of America!" she declared; the audience erupted in applause.
Although many tea party groups focus on "fiscal" issues over "social" ones like abortion and LGBT rights, the Tea Party movement shares activists, organizers and ideology with the religious right. Many of the attendees at the Values Voter Summit, as well as at the conference of fallen GOP golden boy Ralph Reed’s new Faith and Freedom Coalition the previous weekend, are involved in local tea parties.
But the issue isn’t just whether or not tea party groups mobilize around particular religious-right issues like abortion or gay marriage. The intersection goes a lot deeper—to the very basis of the Tea Party’s claim that government is trampling individual freedoms. Many tea partiers, like religious right activists, find the roots of their thinking on government in the Bible.
According to Julie Ingersoll, associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida, this view on government’s limited role is based on Christian Reconstructionism, a fundamentalist movement that advocates for the rule of Biblical law (which includes imposition of notions of "traditional family") and which holds that God ordained government with limited (essentially law enforcement) authority. Some activists, ranging from religious right figures to pro-gun and militia groups and secession advocates, emphasize a divine edict to rise up against what they characterize as the federal government’s "tyranny" when it exceeds the authority God granted it.
At his conference, Reed said in a speech, "people have not only the right but the have the duty and the obligation to overthrow that government, by force if necessary," if government violates those God-given rights. Reed quickly backtracked, claiming he wasn’t advocating a government overthrow but rather voting in the midterms.
At both the FFC and VVS conferences, speakers, including 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee, claimed that America was founded on biblical principles, and that individual freedoms are given by God, not the government. The rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights (but not in other amendments to the Constitution), the argument goes, are ordained by God. The proof of this, advocates maintain, is in the words "endowed by our Creator" in the Declaration of Independence, a document Michele Bachmann told the Value Voters Summit "goes hand in hand with what we know the truth to be."
Mat Staver, chairman of the Christian right legal advocacy group Liberty Counsel and dean of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University School of Law, both co-sponsors of this year’s VVS, told me "there are rights that come from God" and "when government doesn’t protect [those rights], it’s our duty and responsibility to change it, worst case scenario, throw it off and start over." He added that the federal government has "tyrannical aspects" and that the healthcare reform law in particular "is worse than the 1765 Stamp Act that the revolutionaries got upset with or the Boston Tea Party."
Katy Abram, who also spoke at the VVS tea party panel and is an organizer of the Lebanon, Pennsylvania 912 Project, told me that 350 activists in her group are receiving educational training on the Constitution from the Institute on the Constitution. The IOTC, founded by one-time Constitution Party presidential candidate Michael Peroutka, offers a twelve-part course on the "biblical" basis of the Constitution. The Constitution Party was founded by Christian Reconstructionist Howard Phillips and claims its goal is "to restore American jurisprudence to its Biblical foundations and to limit the federal government to its Constitutional boundaries." Once considered a fringe of the conservative movement, the Constitution Party and its adherents are becoming more visible in the tea party era.
But a rift is appearing between the religious right and the Tea Party activists who want to avoid religion. Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, identified not a divine hero but CNBC personality Rick Santelli as her inspiration. Kremer sparred with the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, saying on his radio show, "If we go and allow religious and social issues to become a big part of this movement, this movement is going to fall apart."
The divide between religious and secular conservatives is nothing new for the GOP. Survey data on the religious beliefs of Tea Partyers is sparse, but suggests their religious leanings are much like conservative Republicans. An April New York Times/CBS News poll of Tea Party supporters found that 38 percent of them, compared to 27 percent of the general population, attend church every week, and that 39 percent of Tea Partyers, compared to 28 percent of the overall population, self-identify as evangelical.
But the uprising energy of the Tea Party movement is beginning to coalesce with the organizing savvy of the religious right—and putting the force of religious zeal behind the Tea Party’s anti-government fanaticism. Reed is focused on get-out-the-vote drives in key districts where, he told activists at his conference, just a few votes could make a difference. In a session on how to organize a state chapter, Colorado Faith and Freedom chair John Ramstead told activists that the "most receptive" people attending training sessions are coming from tea parties.
"Sociologists tell me that the Tea Party hasn’t yet jelled as a movement," said Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates and an expert on right-wing populist movements. "But still, data indicates the religious right makes up about 10–15 percent of the population. Many of them are part of the Tea Party. But the Tea Party has also brought out political newbies. If those newbies are even another 5 percent of the population, the Democrats aren’t going to know what hit them."