The Religion of the Tea Party: A Cautionary Tale to Scholars

By James Dennis LoRusso 

In the last 18 months, the political landscape in the United States has undergone seismic shifts.  The ever-widening ideological chasm between progressive and conservative renders constructive dialogue problematic at best, and no phenomenon better symbolizes this dilemma for both sides of the political spectrum than the Tea Party.  On the right, the Tea Party increasingly captures the essence of frustration that characterizes life in America of the twenty-first century, while the left views the movement as a nativist agenda threatening the very principles upon which the United States claims to rest.  Little hope remains for an end in sight as both sides cling firmly to claims of the moral high ground.  From outbursts by Congressmen during Presidential Addresses to the daily mockery of ignorant and misled “teabaggers,” the political dialogue in the United States resembles less a reasonable debate among concerned members of the community than a bar room brawl.  From Washington down to street corner conversation, people dig trenches from which they can defend their positions, rather than sitting down at the bargaining table to think seriously about the problems expressed on each side.  

Even scholars of religion, it seems, have now become complicit in this inability to bridge the gap.  Good public scholarship makes a crucial contribution to intensely debated issues in democratic societies, as it aims more to clarify the various positions rather than justify one or the other.  Discerning an opponent’s position facilitates mutual understanding, encouraging productive discourse, which is the essence of healthy democracy.  Still, public scholarship can occasionally deepen the rift, as Matthew Schmalz, Professor of Religion at Holy Cross, seems to have done with his latest opinion piece in the Washington Post last week, “Is the Tea Party Movement Religious?”  In this article, Schmalz characterizes the Tea Party as not merely supported by elements of the American Religious Right but as a kind of “religious” movement itself.  Instead of illustrating how we should understand this group and encouraging dialogue, however, the article provides an oversimplified interpretative lens through which to view the Tea Party, and thus, obscures understanding and diminishes opportunities for reconciliation between opponents.  Additionally, Schmalz’s article serves as a cautionary tale for scholars of religion who might scan the peaks and valleys of popular culture for indications of “religion” where none is explicitly attested.  

Schmalz begins his analysis of the Tea Party by defining religion as “beliefs and practices concerning superhuman entities,” which of course allows him to point out how Tea Partiers tend to treat the Constitution and Founding Fathers as superhuman.  Adequate definitions for religion, however, as Schmalz even admits, are hard to find, and this seems hand-crafted for the specific purpose to proving the religious nature of the Tea Party.  In fact, the definition renders any form of rhetoric, propaganda, or ideology as a form of religion.  While some scholars might certainly include ideologies such as Marxism or nationalism as religions, certainly this definition cannot account for everything identified with or as religion.  Some religious beliefs and practices fail to address anything superhuman, and I suspect that members of religious communities participate in traditions for reasons quite unrelated to official religious doctrine.  For instance, individuals might attend worship or celebrate a holy day merely to be in community with friends or family.  My point is that religion can be much more and much less than Schmalz contends.  Ideologies are not necessarily all religious, and religions cannot be reduced simply to human behaviors related to the supernatural.  

In addition to definitional problems, Schmalz’s claims depend on an overly simple, and rather obstructive view of how religions function that does not account for actual aspects of human history.  He uses terms such as “sect” or “cult” to describe the way religious movements might break apart from larger traditions and become antagonistic towards the surrounding culture, rendering the Tea Party as a kind of sect of the Republican Party.  The usefulness of terms such as “sect” and “cult,” and for that matter “religion”, depend entirely on the context in which they are deployed.  At what point is a new religion no longer a sect?  Are religions never antagonistic towards the larger society?  In probing the history of religion in America and the world, we might discover that these distinctions obscure rather than clarify our understanding of these groups. 

Indeed, we probably learn more about the people using these terms than the communities to which they refer.  If I name something a sect, I decrease its authority to stand on its own by associating it with another larger and “more legitimate” organized tradition.  In this way, Schmalz seems to say that the GOP is legitimate, while the Tea Party is just some spinoff that distorts orthodox political conservatism.  Further, as legendary religious studies scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith argues, “religion” has often been used throughout modern history to marginalize a group perceived as threatening, evident in the nineteenth century American debates about the “Catholic Religion” or even the discussion raging today about whether Mormonism constitutes a version of Christianity or a separate religion.  Likewise, in portraying the Tea Party as a religion, Schmalz invokes in his readers a sense that this movement is not just politics, but driven by deeper more profound differences from “us.”  Therefore, the Tea Party as religion becomes something irrational and full of individuals zealously committed to particular and uncompromising beliefs.  Under such conditions, how can healthy debate about our problems occur?  Clearly, one cannot reason with the Tea Party if it’s religion, motivated by irrational beliefs about society.  

Through all of this type of rhetoric, so prototypical of all the progressive polemics against the Tea Party, an important goal is dismissed: any attempt to take the grievances and positions of the Tea Party movement seriously.  In order to converse with the Tea Party, after all, the left must listen to them first.  Name-calling stifles debate, and when scholars participate in such practices, we merely make the already slow and difficult task of democracy nearly unattainable.  All in all, to name something as a “religion” is a political move, and scholars cannot enter into the circus of American politics lightly.  We must be cautious and always ask in both our scholarly and our public assertions, is it helpful to understand something as “religious” or as a “religion? And, how so?  If such a move merely serves to reify existing prejudices and biases, then we have done a disservice to our society, the academy, and ultimately, to ourselves as human beings in the pursuit of knowledge.

Link:  Dr. Mathew N. Schmalz  article can be accessed at:

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