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Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

Is the Tea Party a religious movement? Over at Religion Dispatches, Louis Ruprecht says no, it’s an old-time rebellion against taxes and centralized government authority–as in the original Boston Tea Party and the post-Revolutionary disturbances in Western Massachusetts (Shay’s Rebellion) and Western Pennsylvania (The Whiskey Rebellion). On the contrary, responds Joanna Brooks; at least in her Mormon neck of the woods, the Tea Partiers seem motivated by traditional LDS views of the Constitution, resentment of the ir ownchurch establishment, and perhaps as well, a desire to recover some of that old Mormon fire-in-the-belly.

I’m with Brooks, and not just with respect to the followers of Joseph Smith. We know from polling data that the Tea Party movement includes a disproportionate number of white evangelicals. And while taxes and big government are the manifest motives, virtually all the politicians supported by the movement are on board with the agenda of the religious right. 

If we’re looking for historical precedents for the conservative, anti-establishment populism of the Tea Party, I’d propose the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s. Officially called the American Party, it was a semi-secret movement arrayed against the existing political powers-that-be (Whig and Democrat). While their agenda varied from state to state, the Know-Nothings shared a deep hostility to the Roman Catholic immigrants who had begun flooding into the country from Ireland and Germany. They called themselves Native Americans, and they represented a white Protestant longing for the imagined stability of their forebears’ pre-industrial communities. For them, religion was of part-and-parcel of the program.

Mutatis mutandis, the Tea Partiers are the Know-Nothings of today: latter-day Nativists who long for an imagined past of small government (with Medicare, to be sure), of Christian values, of heterosexual white people running the show and people of color knowing their place. Yes, Virginia, it’s a religious movement. 

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