God and the Tea Party

Whatever else might be said of the current political climate, there's no doubt that it's interesting. No one quite knows what might happen in the coming election but we do know that we've seen a pretty dramatic shift from 2008, when Democrats seemed unstoppable. Most of the excitement right now is happening in the Tea Party. But what is the Tea Party? I remember when I was at the first 9/12 rally in Washington, D.C., tmatt asked for a report on what the media missed in terms of religion coverage. The fact was that I saw almost no religious signage, even if the attendees included a fair number of churchgoers. The T-shirt worn by the girl in this picture was one of the few exceptions.

But then there was Glenn Beck's March to Restore Honor on August 28. That had heavy religion messages, although it was more civil religion than Mormonism. We looked at some of the coverage of the religious overtones of that event at the time. Barbara Bradley Hagerty has a piece for NPR that accurately reflects the tension within the Tea Party movement along religious lines.

She visits a local Tea Party event where concerned citizens are given updates on what's happening nationwide:

On the one end of the spectrum, Stacey Hagga says that religion and socially conservative issues are simply not a factor in the Tea Party movement.

"I personally don't know the last time I was at church," she says, shifting her toddler from one hip to the other. "I think people are just generally concerned about the economy and the direction of our country. I have my 2-year-old here and I'm just concerned about his future."

Nearby, Sandy Smith, a registered nurse, sees some religious undercurrents to the Tea Party movement.

"It's a movement about the Founding Fathers and what their faith was to this country, and how they brought faith over to this country," she says.

Smith is describing a "civil religion" that seems to appeal to many Tea Partiers: the idea that America was a divine experiment, that the Founding Fathers were Christian men who created a nation on biblical principles. She says America in 2010 has lost that.

One reader who submitted the story noted one problematic aspect to the story. Immediately after a discussion of evangelicals and the Tea Party movement, a quote from Glenn Beck is slipped in. His actual religious affiliation, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, isn't mentioned in the story.

Anyway, Hagerty doesn't just use anecdotes or quotes from one Tea Party meeting in Northern Virginia. She also looks at the data, which shows that Tea Partiers are more likely to be weekly churchgoers and conservative Christians than the population as a whole. She looks at how some conservative Christian groups are trying to pressure prominent Tea Party folks into elevating social conservative issues -- something that isn't happening.

And yet, there's still tension between these two groups. For example, [Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association] recently interviewed Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, on his nationwide radio program. Fischer told her that evangelicals want some signal that the Tea Party movement supports their views on abortion and marriage.

"Can we hear that message from the Tea Party leadership?" he asked.

"You're not going to hear it from me," she responded. "I'm sorry, I'm going to disappoint you."

The piece goes on to explain that the Tea Party includes atheists, libertarians and others who are primarily motivated not by social conservatism or religion but on concerns about the size and scope of government.

I was hanging out last night with some other journalists who live on my block and we were talking about how some reporters try to force a particular angle, tone or narrative into a story. As journalists, we know that it's pretty rare that a story can be told simply or that a source will give the perfect quote.

What I like about this story is that it explores the tension and includes a variety of viewpoints without forcing a particular answer. Is the Tea Party movement religious? Yes. Also no. Kudos to NPR for giving Hagerty the space needed to explore the issue accurately rather than forcing a simple answer on listeners.

I should also note how surprised I was to read in the New York Times that the United Church of Christ and the National Baptist Convention were co-sponsors of this weekend's One Nation Working Together rally on the mall. Even if there were 300-plus groups sponsoring, the religious influences of the rally were largely unexplored. There even was an interesting angle (unnoticed by the mainstream media) of the United Methodist Church backing out of its sponsorship at the last minute, citing concerns over the tone of the rally and of co-sponsors. They didn't state which co-sponsors were problematic but the march included the Communist Party USA and other radical groups. Once again, though, the religious left is largely invisible to the media.

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