The True Religion of the Tea Party

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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In evaluating the Tea Party, my colleague Christopher Flavelle puzzled over whether a movement that enjoys little popular support could legitimately be called "populist." According to the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, only 20 percent of Americans categorize themselves as "supporters" of the Tea Party, which accounts in part for the group's dismal favorable-to-unfavorable ratio of 21-to-47 in the poll.

The Tea Party is not easily pinned down, claiming the various mantles of an insurgency, a restoration and a mainstream movement of the silent majority -- all at once. It bears some similarities to a more familiar kind of institution, as well: an upstart religion.

In "The Churching of America 1776-1990," scholars Roger Finke and Rodney Stark surveyed booms and busts, entrepreneurialism, and monopoly in what they called the nation's "religious economy." An important thesis of the book is that as religious organizations grow powerful and complacent, and their adherents do likewise, they make themselves vulnerable to challenges from upstart sects that "impose significant costs in terms of sacrifice and even stigma upon their members." For insurgent groups, fervor and discipline are their own rewards.

Right now, the Republican Party is an object of contempt to many on the far right, whose adamant convictions threaten what they perceive as Republican complacency. The Tea Party is akin to a rowdy evangelical storefront beckoning down the road from the staid Episcopal cathedral. Writing of insurgent congregations, Finke and Stark said that "sectarian members are either in or out; they must follow the demands of the group or withdraw. The 'seductive middle ground' is lost."

No one would accuse Tea Party activists and politicians of being seduced by the middle ground. They demand a higher level of fealty to their goals than pragmatic middle-of-the-roaders can bear. And they justify their cause in explicitly godly terms -- even the apocalyptic. The paradox of the Tea Party is that it wants to fight for the nation's soul not from the sweaty storefront down the street, but from within the cool stone walls of the cathedral. Tea Partiers similarly believe they should rule the federal government from a back bench in the House of Representatives.

Republicans can't afford a splinter group drawing converts and sapping strength. But the conflict between Republicans and Tea Partiers may be coming to a head. House Speaker John Boehner will soon have to choose between the hard obligations of government and the narrow vision of the Tea Party. And then it will be up to the Tea Party to decide what its true religion is.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net