A new piece published by the Daily Beast spells out clearly what many liberals have always suspected about the Tea Party — that the Tea Party is a religious movement, in addition to being a political one, that appears to have deep roots in the tradition of American spiritual revivals.
It’s this religiosity that explains their zealotry and their fundamentalist embrace of ideological and political purity.
In a democracy, the mark of a true national party is often its pluralistic qualities; it’s ability to appeal to a broad number of people on a broad number of topics. To this end, while there may be certain planks that are basic to the party identity, parties tend to be polymorphic entities, and are situational in how their planks are applied. And, despite heated rhetoric during elections, there’s a general drive for all the parties to work together when achieving their goals.
However, once religion is thrown in the mix, all bets are off:
But when religion is thrown into the mix, all that is lost. Religion here doesn’t mean theology but a distinct belief system which, in totality, provides basic answers regarding how to live one’s life, how society should function, how to deal with social and political issues, what is right and wrong, who should lead us, and who should not. It does so in ways that fulfill deep-seated emotional needs that, at their profoundest level, are devotional. Given the confusions of a secular world being rapidly transformed by technology, demography, and globalization, this movement has assumed a spiritual aspect whose adepts have undergone a religious experience which, if not in name, then in virtually every other aspect, can be considered a faith.
Seen in this light, the behavior of Tea Party adherents makes sense. Their zeal is not the mercurial enthusiasm of a traditional Republican or Democrat that waxes and wanes with the party’s fortunes, much less the average voter who may not exercise the franchise at every election. These people are true believers who turn out faithfully at the primaries, giving them political clout in great excess to their actual numbers. Collectively, this can make it appear as if they are preponderant, enabling their tribunes to declare that they represent the will of the American people.
To further contrast religious movement with political party, the Tea Party has stone-engraved principles, all of which are sacrosanct, while a traditional party may have only a line or two that it won’t cross. It’s commonplace for the Tea Party candidates to make vows that they will not compromise even an inch; they would rather shut down the government than bend on legislation, since shutting down the government becomes a moral imperative to them at that point, and Republicans that disagree with any tenet are declared heretics and burned in primaries:
While critics may decry such a tactic as “rule or ruin,” Tea Party brethren celebrate it, rather, as the act of a defiant Samson pulling down the pillars of the temple. For them, this is not demolition but reclamation, cleansing the sanctuary that has been profaned by liberals. They see themselves engaged in nothing less than a project of national salvation. The refusal to compromise is a watchword of their candidates who wear it as a badge of pride. This would seem disastrous in the give-and-take of politics but it is in keeping with sectarian religious doctrine. One doesn’t compromise on an article of faith.
This explains why the Tea Party faithful often appear to be so bellicose. You and I can have a reasonable disagreement about fiscal policy or foreign policy but if I attack your religious beliefs you will become understandably outraged. And if I challenge the credibility of your doctrine you will respond with righteous indignation. To question the validity of Moses parting the Red Sea or the Virgin Birth or Mohammed ascending to heaven on a flying horse is to confront the basis of a believer’s deepest values.
Like any religious movement, they have their own Holy Text (that, like true fundamentalists, they’ve never read):
Most critical to any religious movement is a holy text, and the Right has appropriated nothing less than the Constitution to be its Bible. The Tea Party, its acolytes in Congress and its allies on the Supreme Court have allocated to themselves the sole interpretation of the Constitution with the ethos of “Originalism.” Legal minds look to the text to read the thoughts of the Framers as a high priest would study entrails at the Forum. The focus is on text rather than context and authors; the writing rather than the reality in which the words were written. This sort of thinking is a form of literalism that is kindred in spirit to the religious fundamentalism and literal, Biblical truth that rose as bulwarks against modernity.
And their own Devil, paradise, and Hell:
Like all revealed religions this one has its own Devil in the form of Barack Obama. This Antichrist in the White House is an illegitimate ruler who must be opposed at every turn, along with his lesser demons, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. They are responsible for everything that has gone wrong with the country in the last six years and indeed . . . Washington is seen in the same way Protestant fire-breathers once saw Rome: a seat of corruption that has betrayed the pillars of the faith. The only way to save America’s sanctity is to take control of Washington and undermine the federal government while affecting to repair it. Critical to this endeavor is the drumroll of hell-fire sermons from the tub-thumpers of talk radio and Fox News. This national revival tent not only exhorts the faithful but its radio preachers have ultimately become the arbiters of doctrinal legitimacy, determining which candidates are worthy of their anointment and which lack purity.
[. . .] the Tea Party priesthood must furnish the faithful with an image of Paradise. This Eden is not located in space but in time: the Republic in the decades after the Civil War when the plantocracy ruled in the South and plutocrats reigned in the North. Blacks knew their place in Dixie through the beneficence of states’ rights, and the robber barons of the North had a cozy relationship with the government prior to the advent of labor laws, unions, and the income tax. Immigrants were not yet at high tide. It was still a white, male, Christian country and proudly so.
There are some who would see the Tea Party as a branch of Christianity, but I would dispute that. When I look at the Tea Party, I see a modern religion carved from Gnostic traditions. Like Gnostic traditions, there’s significant overlap with Christianity, but their interpretation of the Bible is one colored by “hidden knowledge” (the apocalypse, the Rapture, and their “literal” interpretations — see also their various interpretations of the Constitution). I would narrow it even further; their notion of a “sinful, fallen world” and their unflinching cling on “hidden knowledge” suggests to me that they’re a distant branch of the Manichaeism.
In any case, their worldview is certainly Manichean. There’s little doubt there.
h/t The Daily Beast