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:  http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/mathew_n_schmalz/2010/09/partyreligionsectcult.html

Filed Under: American ReligionFeaturedJames Dennis LoRussoPoliticsViews, News, & Issues

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  1. J.F. Sullivan says:

    Unfortunately this seems like yet another unintended consequence of the mutliculturalist approach to identity that tends to affect and infect all areas where identification and ideology meet. Whether someone adopts an ethno-racial, national, political, religious, or sexual identity – a predetermined ideology and set of positions tend to come along with it. Thus, if I am a Republican, Tea Partier, Evangelical etc., by my very adoption of that identity, I then have to sign on for whatever agenda is being pushed by that group and fight to the death, even if that means making decisions or taking positions that defy logic or even common sense. In this case Schmalz is attempting to re-position the Tea Party as religious, and plug them into an identity category for which there is an already established oppositional identity and ideology camp, which might include atheists, rationalists, scientists and scholars – in addition to any politically motivated opposition that already existed. If this is indeed the case, can we ever get to a place for discussion if the so-called middle ground has ceased to exist? If positions on both sides of any discussion have become so profoundly entrenched and polarized, have we moved past open dialogue to the point where the only way to manifest a conversation is to engage it from within the worldview of the opponent using the opponent’s accepted interpretations of reality?

    For example, if you are trying to have a discussion with a scriptural literalist who believes that dinosaurs and humans must have coexisted in order to satisfy Genesis, is there a scientific argument available that will allow you to engage that person, or is the only real way to start a dialogue to accept the Genesis premise and proceed from within that context? Just like Israel/Palestine – if the two sides are fighting a cosmic war, how effective are traditional peace negotiations with their decidedly uncosmic outcomes going to be?

  2. J. Fuller says:

    How incredibly objective, rife with name calling and euphemisms. Not sure how many intellectual “debates” are characterized by such. My guess would be there are no plans to submit this article to a scholarly journal.

  3. JDLoRusso says:

    Thanks for the comments so far… J. Fuller, I do appreciate your concerns about the objectivity of my words. However, I’m not sure where I call names. Still, you’re right, this article is not for submission to a scholarly journal, but rather for general readership, and this was precisely the point about which I am writing. When scholars speak to the public, simply reinforcing sterotypical imagery of those on the political right, in this case the Tea Party movement, works against productive dialogue. In this way, objectivity is not necessarily a goal here (and I would honestly hesitate to claim such a goal even in work intended for scholarly audiences), but rather calling on those of us in the field of religious studies to remember that our public voice should be illustrative and inclusive, not “otherizing.” Thanks for reading…

  4. Kenny Smith says:

    I think the author raises a number of excellent points here, perhaps most of all that those of us who make career of studying religion inherit a profound responsibility for contributing to broader cultural debates in a constructive manner. What a superb and potent reminder!

  5. W says:

    “his 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.”

    Converse with who? The Tea Party prides itself on being decentralized and ostensibly grass roots — although anybody worth taking seriously knows that it’s half astroturf.

    Grievances? Is there any *specific* policy the Tea Party is upset about? Because every time I read anything, it’s all general platitudes and vague boogeymen: “washington insiders”, “big government spending”, “higher taxes” (which increases are we talking about, again?), and best of all “socialism”. The most specific opposition I can think of — on health care — was time and time again weak if not insane, confusing the private but regulated plan under discussion for socialized insurance (e.g. Canada) and in turn with socialized actual care (e.g. England)…. when we got a chance to move the discussion beyond nonsense like “death panels”.

    Positions? Has the Tea Party published a platform of any kind?

    IMO, the reason the Tea Party isn’t taken seriously by a lot of people is that there doesn’t appear to be any “there” there, at least on the policy front. If I’m missing a substantial discussion that’s going on (but somehow, no doubt, subverted or ignored by the mainstream media, right?) by all means, feel free to point me to it. I’d be *ecstatic* to actually be able to engage with someone in or even marginally sympathetic to the Tea Party that takes their own ideas seriously enough to actually bother with articulation.

  6. JDLoRusso says:

    W, thanks for your comment here, becuase I do share in your frustration of finding voices with which to converse in the Tea Party movement. Still, painting the individuals that participate OR agree with the “platitudes” espoused by their leading voices (Beck, Palin, etc.) as nonsensical or insane (your words) simply performs the same demonizing of the “other side” of which you accuse them. Before dismissing the frustrations of the Tea Partiers as the result of some great manipulation of the unsophisticated masses, we might want to look more closely at why the movement resonates so strongly with people. Progressives will not succeed in opening dialogue in any other way. Would you care to listen to someone who labeled your own views as nonsense or as a sect/cult and not genuine political activism? Probably not, I presume. These people, no matter how much progressives wish, are not going to vanish. They are, after all, our fellow citizens and we need to keep that in mind when confronting them. Otherwise, we only contribute to the polarization that we so loathe

  7. Hts says:

    Jfuller: that is just your opinion dude..

  8. Chris says:

    W, I’m not sure if I am the ‘marginally sympathetic’ person you are looking for, but if you want to understand the tea party grass roots, I would point to the American history lessons of middle- and high-school textbooks. Just like there’s a whole generation of Chinese little prince(sse)s brought up on grandiose notions of Chinese history and China’s place in the world, I think there’s a vast swath of middle America that has been taught something about the American social contract that has been long out of sync with the reality of modern America. As they look at the financial crisis and what’s followed, they realize how much the establishment’s vision (and the actual operation) of America differs from their own. Their vision, and what I think you’ll find if you peer into their history schooling, is that America is a place of equal opportunity guaranteed by the unobstructed functioning of free markets, and of individual rights but few, if any, social obligations. I think the American left has a hard time understanding that vision — given the plain reality of racial and economic relations, they can’t see how you could possibly connect equal opportunities to unfettered free markets — but nevertheless the vision is there and it’s internally consistent as long as you never collide with the unseemly underbelly of life in the US. And if you live in a homogenous community in rural America, you may never. I would also point out that people who have been told to accept their place in our purported meritocracy can become its radical defenders — call it Stockholm syndrome if you want.

  9. Lindy says:

    I think I’m probably echoing much of what’s been said by previous commenters. But my perspective is that of someone who has been (for the better part of a decade) one of the few progressive voices in an academic institution (with a very explicit religious affiliation) that has been sliding toward the right with increasing rapidity.

    Here’s the thing. The very notion of attempting to listen to, understand, appreciate the perspectives of those in the tea party movement is a notion that is grounded in certain principles that the tea partiers don’t subscribe to. While we on the left are naively talking about “taking them/their agenda seriously” or “trying to hear what they’re saying” or “coming to the bargaining table,” they are exploiting this naivete in order to consolidate gains and control the rhetorical space.

    I have watched over the last few years at my institution as the progressives have consistently lost ground (they’ve pretty much been routed as of this year) by making these very same naive attempts. And those on the right have utilized the bargaining table as a screen to hide the byzantine and authoritarian maneuvers they were actually engaged in, all while the progressives were patting themselves on the back and mumbling about “transparency” and “conversation.”

    It’s a lot less subtle at the Fox/Beck/Tea Party level, but the same basic setup is in place. At what point do we on the left begin to acknowledge that tolerance has limits, and that listening to incoherent, nativist, racist rants should not be on the agenda. Time for the revolution.

  10. JDLoRusso says:

    Lindy, Your point is well taken. I do think that your position is quite salient in that certainly compromise and discourse are NOT virtues emphasized in the circles of the extreme right. However, it appears that the only option that you leave for progressives is to employ the same tactics from the left and abandon these virtues as well. I’m not suggesting that we naively enter into bargaining with our political adversaries, but I believe that principles that are essential to a functioning democracy must be upheld if we are not ultimately seeking an authoritarian politics ourselves. In fact, I’m only saying that by taking their frustrations seriously (not necessarily as truth), we can better understand the sources of the malignancy and, ultimately,progressives are better equipped to change the direction of our national debate. In a sense, it appears to me as if the progressives (not nearly all progressives) lack even a loose consensus about how to engage this current climate, and many seem content to just sit by and complain about “the lunacy” on the right while not attempting more fruitful forms of activism. All in all, if dialogue and respect don’t work, then aren’t we really saying that democracy is an untenable form of government?? I, for one, am not ready to make this claim