Having A Party: Religious Right Gets An Invitation To Tea

The tea party movement may have been started by people with largely secular conservative goals in mind, but I don’t expect it to stay that way.

For months I’ve been trying to figure out what to make of the “tea party” movement.

Is it merely another band of anti-government, low-tax activists with a libertarian populist edge – or will it become the next wave of the Religious Right? Do the tea partiers intend to stay focused on issues like smaller government or will they take on social issues?

Part of the problem is that there is no formal tea party organization per se. If you asked me to name the nation’s leading Religious Right organizations, I could reel off several in no time. They have offices, websites and directors. They publish things, file court briefs and lobby in Washington.

But who speaks for the tea party movement? Where are the offices of this movement? What exactly are its plans?

I first got wind of the tea party movement through e-mails I received from the American Family Association (AFA). Last year, the AFA began aggressively promoting tea party events. According to the AFA, “tea” stood for “taxed enough already” – leading me to believe there was no overt social-issues edge to the movement.

But that alone made me suspicious. If it was all about taxes, why was the AFA so interested?

I got even more suspicious when, last fall, tea partiers showed up at the Family Research Council’s annual Values Voter Summit. In fact, a special session was held on how to host a tea party event. The moderator of that discussion was an AFA staffer, and the speakers acted as if there was no doubt that social issues would be a part of the tea agenda.

Not long after that, a California woman named Merry Susan Hyatt announced that tea party activists were helping her gather signatures for a ballot initiative she is promoting that would require public schools to “provide opportunities to its pupils for listening to or performing Christmas music at an appropriate time of the year.”

Now my friend Sarah Posner, a journalist who tracks the theocratic right, has just published a provocative piece outlining more links between the tea party movement and the Religious Right. Sarah interviews Allen Hardage, a veteran Religious Right activist who says the tea partiers won’t go anywhere unless they adopt familiar Religious Right issues.

“You cannot restore this country to the founding fathers’ vision and exclude the fact that they understood our rights and ability to grow as a nation from our reverence to God,” Hardage said.

Posner notes that earlier this year, Hardage orchestrated a webcast called “State of the Union/Voice of the People” that he claims had 83,000 viewers. Speakers included representatives from the anti-government, low-tax crowd, but also on hand were FRC President Tony Perkins and Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America.

As Posner put it, the web-based event had the effect of “uniting religious right and tea party leadership in the same broadcast.”

Furthermore, Hardage admires former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed and says tea party activists should look to him for examples of leadership.

The tea party movement may have been started by people with largely secular conservative goals in mind, but I don’t expect it to stay that way. The tea partiers have all of the energy in the conservative movement right now. Religious Right leaders like Perkins and the gang at the AFA are savvy enough to see that. They’re not going to let that activism, enthusiasm and money slip through their fingers.

Critics have scored the tea party movement for being a collection of people who are angry over any number of perceived injustices. I’ve been unnerved myself over some of the signs and unruly behavior I’ve seen at tea rallies.

Yet we must admit that anger generates energy. Anger has fueled the Religious Right for many years. Eventually, someone will come along and figure out how to tap the tea partiers’ energy and direct it a little better. If that someone is a leader of the Religious Right, the tea party movement could easily end up being the next wave pushing theocratic, ultra-conservative politics in America.

We need to keep our eyes open and pay close attention to developments. This story is far from finished.

P.S. This piece contains some interesting information about this topic as well.