It is the 18th-century Gadsden flag ("Don't Tread on Me"), not the Cross, that decorate Tea Party rallies and bumper stickers. There is good reason for this: the movement is not about religion, it is about politics.
At first glance, the Tea Party is not necessarily "secular". The Public Religion Research Institute's recent American Values Survey, “Religion and the Tea Party in the 2010 Elections”, found 47% of voters aligned with the Tea Party movement identified themselves as either part of the Religious Right or the conservative Christian movement.
Yet the social conservatism of the Religious Right is not, nor is it likely, to be front and centre in Tea Party politics. Where is God? The answer, surprisingly, is that he is peripheral.
The Tea Party's raison d’etre and primary concerns --- beyond rolling back government, lowering taxes, and reforming welfare --- pushes back the family values agenda. This has not gone unnoticed. “As far as I can tell the Tea Party movement has a politics that’s irreligious,” said Richard Cizik, former Vice President for Governmental Affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). The Obama health care legislation has brought social and economic conservatives together to fight Government funding of abortion, but this is a special case.
The general feeling amongst some religious activists is one of unease. The “younger Evangelicals who I interact with” said Cizik, are “largely turned off by the Tea Party movement --- by the incivility, the name-calling, the pathos of politics”.
In September, the Religious Right put forth a new initiative, in a conference sponsored by the "Faith and Freedom Coalition", to the Tea Party. The fear of a Godless nation under threat from secularisation was present, but so was a new cause with the focus on deficit spending, taxes, and Obama’s healthcare reform and stimulus legislation.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition is the new venture of Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and the political advisor and liaison with evangelicals for George W. Bush. Reed, perhaps better than anyone, know how to engrain and manipulate a cause, mobilizing a younger, more racially diverse crowd by using cutting-edge technology. The Faith & Freedom Coalition’s website highlights amongst its principles “limited government, lower taxes, and fiscal responsibility to unleash the creative energy of entrepreneurs”. Family values are further down the inventory.
This was also true of the annual “Values Voter Summit”, sponsored by the Family Research Council, with with Republican big hitters such as Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Phyllis Schlafly on the podium. Former Senator Rick Santorum told the conservative Christian audience of about 2,000 that they "should not have to put the values issues” in the back of the bus. However, "we have to have a truce on the values issues because the economic issues are paramount. We can have no economic freedom unless we have good, virtuous moral people inspired by their faith.” Religion anchored the debates but the fight was generally over the policies of the Obama administration and the midterm elections, with general praise of the Tea Party.
Fear, not God, is the common denominator here. The social safety net Obama offers Americans is the framework that both the Religious Right and the Tea Party use to instil anxiety and demonise the President and his policies. The slogans of a “Socialist America or Godless America” may bind their causes but the worries over Socialism and Godlessness are not one and the same.
God remains on the sidelines for a reason. The Religious Right is more cautious these days than it was a decade ago. At the close of the day, what brings power is not the Church but the Statehouse, the Congress, and the White House.