Tea Parties, Totems, Taxation, and Tyrannies: Religion and the Tea Party, Part II

By James Dennis LoRusso 

In a piece last week from ReligionNerd, I critiqued a fellow colleague for his claim that the Tea Party looks increasingly like a religious movement.  Essentially, I argue that the particular manner in which he makes this comparison hinders rather than advances popular understanding of either the Tea Party or religion.  As I wrote this piece, the thought occurred to me that while I easily might make and defend such accusations, actually providing an example of how the study of religion can help us make sense of the Tea Party isn’t quite so simple.  Still, a difficult project shouldn’t keep scholars from attempting a resolution, which is why this article will be the first of a series showing how religious studies clarifies our understanding of Tea Party and, more broadly, American political culture.  

I must begin with a few words about “theories” of religion and how I am approaching them here.  To do this, I defer to an influential scholar of American religion, Thomas Tweed, who maintains that theories are useful when we see them as interpretations rather than claims of absolute truth.  In his book Crossing and Dwelling, he notes that a theory provides,

 a positioned sighting of the shifting terrain, a situated account of the complex ways that women and men have negotiated meaning and power through religions. 


Further, Tweed asserts that all theories have shortcomings, or “blind spots,” but as long as they are “internally coherent” and “contextually useful,” they remain helpful for bringing a subject into focus.  In this series, therefore, I do not intend to show merely how the Tea Party fits one definition of religion rather than another.  Instead, I will bring a particular theory of religion to bear on the Tea Party and explore what it tells us about American political culture generally.  In this way, we get a more comprehensive view of where the Tea Party movement (TPM) is situated in relation to a larger terrain.  In this article, I examine how the theories of Emile Durkheim, one of the founding figures of both sociology and religious studies, shed light on the Tea Party movement in America. 

Durkheim proposes the following definition of religion in his classic work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

a religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things… that unite its adherents in a single moral community called a church.

Now, even though no “church” of the Tea Party exists, its participants arguably believe in the sacred nature of things, namely the US Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and the Founding Fathers of the nation.  Further, these representations of the sacred seem to provide an anchor with which these adherents form a single moral community.  Thus, Durkheim’s definition illustrates how the Tea Party movement resembles other social groups that we more readily recognize as religious.  

In fact, the movement firmly espouses a belief that the sacrality of the Constitution has been transgressed; the government essentially “profaned” the Constitution when it moved to bailout failing financial giants and the fledgling housing market.  Prominent supporter of the TPM and bane of many progressives, Dick Armey, writes in his book, Give Me Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto

resolving the financial crisis supersedes any constitutional concerns, it was argued during the legislative debate over TARP.  But the constitutional constraints placed on government power are particularly relevant during times of crisis.  Once liberty is taken, it is seldom returned.

 Here, Armey imbues the 2008 financial crisis with an apocalyptic tone.  Congress moved outside the sacred boundaries of legislation established in the Constitution and upset the cosmic order, likely revoking for all time the liberties that it insured.  Without liberty, the moral community unravels; “America” ceases to exist, and government inaugurates a new era of control and paternalism. 

While some might cringe at the amplifying rhetoric Armey employs when he portrays the crisis, it important to remember that this is nothing new.  Truly, the use of religious overtones in political discourse has a long and vibrant history in American culture.  A good look at any presidential inaugural speech should suffice to demonstrate this point.  In Eisenhower’s first inaugural, he elevates US-Soviet tensions to a struggle between the Godly and the ungodly, stating that “the forces of good and evil are massed and opposed as rarely before in history.”  Even though progressives might see this simply as another example of American conservatism inappropriately co-opting biblical language for political ends, the political left has not been immune from this tradition either.  For instance, FDR, the darling of contemporary liberals, states how “the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization,” invoking Christian New Testament imagery to explain the financial crisis of another era.  Thus, in couching its ideas within religious dimensions, the Tea Party movement participates in an American political tradition.  

Merely discerning this tradition through history, however, is not enough for Durkheim.  For him, religion and society always remain entangled; one cannot exist without the presence of the other.  More specifically, religion represents a universal symptom for all societies in all times and places.  Collective representations, such as “the Bill of Rights” or “the Liberty Bell,” serve as more than historical documents or artifacts; they are surrogates, or what Durkheim calls “totems,” for American society as a whole.  When we exalt these materials, when we worship them as anchors of ultimate truth, Durkheim proposes that we actually constitute a sense of ourselves, and, therefore, make the social order “real.”  “The idea of society,” he writes, “is the soul of religion.”  In this way, any exhibition of nationalism, national pride, values, or even national history, constitutes, for Durkheim, an example of religion. 

All in all, I am not claiming that Durkheim is entirely correct, as many articulate and worthy critiques from astute scholars can attest.  Still, his ideas draw our attention to an inherent religious element within most, if not all, American political discourse.  The Tea Party movement proves no exception here.  Rather, Durkheim challenges us to ask: Is religion an essential component of politics and popular movements?  Perhaps the religious dimensions of the TPM are precisely the elements that render it potent and attractive to its adherents.  From this perspective, acting religiously becomes an asset, not an obstacle.

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