Tea Party, Meet the Religious Right

Next month's Tea Party National Convention has been making news for the fat fee Sarah Palin is commanding -- $100,000, according to many reports. But the gathering, to be held at Nashville's Opryland Hotel, is interesting for another reason as well: It marks the attempt of the old-school Christian right to take over the tea-party movement. Speakers joining Palin include Rick Scarborough, Roy Moore, and Joseph Farah, men who are radical even by religious-right standards. Their presence shows that the tea-party movement is no longer merely populist, libertarian, or anti-government, if it ever was. It is theocratic. Indeed, after several months in which the religious right seemed lost and dispirited, it has found a way to ride the tea-party express into renewed relevance.

From the beginning, of course, there's been overlap between the tea parties and the Christian right. Both have their strongholds in the white South, and both arise out of a sense of furious dispossession, a conviction that the country that is rightfully theirs has been usurped by sinister cosmopolitan elites. They have the same favorite politicians -- particularly Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann, who is also speaking in Nashville. Glenn Beck, the media figure most associated with the tea-party movement, has a worldview deeply shaped by apocalyptic Mormonism; he is contemptuous of the idea of church-state separation and believes the United States was founded to be a Christian nation.

Nevertheless, so far, the tea-party movement has appeared as something quite distinct from the Christian right. Its rhetoric has been markedly libertarian; at its rallies and on its Web sites, one is generally more likely to see Gadsen flags than crucifixes. Movement leaders spend much more time fulminating against taxes than against homosexuality. Many in the movement were fans of Ron Paul, whose foreign-policy isolationism is far removed from the crusading spirit popular among many religious conservatives. To people who study the right, it was easy to hear echoes of, say, The Christian Anti-Communism Crusade in the tea partiers' overheated fears of socialist tyranny. But the movement mostly kept religion in the background.

Meanwhile, as the tea-party movement grew, the Christian right was in a funk. A generation of leaders like Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy had died. Erstwhile up-and-comers from Ralph Reed to Ted Haggard were felled by scandal, as were political allies from Larry Craig to Mark Sanford. Shortly after Obama’s election, Focus on the Family laid off a fifth of its work force, and James Dobson later stepped down as chair. Just last month, Rod Parsley, a high-profile Pentecostal televangelist who was heavily involved in Ohio politics, issued a desperate plea to his supporters to help stave off a "demonically inspired financial attack" which threatened to bust his church's budget. (The church’s financial woes were partly caused by a $3.1 million settlement his ministry paid to a boy who was physically abused in its day-care center.)

Naturally, enterprising theocrats would look to the tea parties for salvation. And Scarborough, for one, is nothing if not enterprising. For years, the Baptist minister has been positioning himself as a next-generation Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. In 2002, he left his post as pastor of Pearland First Baptist Church to form Vision America, a group dedicated to organizing "patriot pastors" for political action. That year, Falwell identified him as one of the new leaders of the Christian right. The author of books like In Defense of … Mixing Church and State and the pithier Liberalism Kills Kids, Scarborough spent the Bush years organizing conferences that brought together conservative Republicans with preachers and activists working for the imposition of biblical law.

The fall of Scarborough's closest political ally, the once-formidable Tom DeLay, eroded Scarborough's political influence. So did the broader decline of the religious right. "His group has been puttering along with a tiny budget, and he has practically no national presence," says Rob Boston, assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "His goal was to be the next Jerry Fawell, and it has not worked out. The tea-party movement could be the vehicle to give him a much-needed boost."

Roy Moore, a hero of the Christian right just a few years ago, also has much to gain by joining forces with the tea-party movement. In 2003 Moore, then-chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, installed a 2.6-ton granite Ten Commandments monument in the judicial building. After defying another judge's order to remove it, he was stripped of his position, a martyrdom that turned him into a conservative folk hero. But Moore's attempt to parlay his cult status into public office was a debacle; he challenged the state's governor in the Republican primary but lost overwhelmingly.

As mainstream evangelical leaders like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen cultivated a kinder, gentler image, Moore's fierce, punitive moralism came to seem like a throwback. This is a man, after all, whose judicial opinions seem to sanction the execution of gay people. In a 2002 decision awarding custody of three children to their allegedly abusive father over their lesbian mother, he wrote that homosexuality is "abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature, and a violation of the laws of nature and of nature's God upon which this Nation and our laws are predicated." The state, he wrote, "carries the power of the sword, that is, the power to prohibit conduct with physical penalties, such as confinement and even execution. It must use that power to prevent the subversion of children towards this lifestyle, to not encourage a criminal lifestyle."

Late last year, when Uganda's government began considering a law making homosexuality a capital crime, high-profile Christian conservatives in the United States felt compelled to speak out against it. Moore's views, then, might seem to be beyond the pale, but thanks to the tea-party convention, he'll once again have a national stage. He needs it, because he's again running for governor in 2010.

Farah, too, is a fundamentalist with little use for libertarians. (Indeed, he once wrote a column titled, "Why I Am Not a Libertarian," in which he explained, "We cannot ignore that a libertarian society devoid of God and a biblical worldview would quickly deteriorate into chaos and violence.") His Web site, WorldNetDaily, has often attacked Ron Paul for his softness on "Islamofascism."

Lately, Farah has been feuding with the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, the most influential right-wing confab in the United States -- because CPAC isn't conservative enough. There are two issues at stake. First, CPAC won't let Farah hold a panel about Obama's supposedly foreign birth at its February conference, which takes place less than two weeks after the tea-party convention. Second, CPAC is accepting a co-sponsorship from GOProud, a gay conservative group. A WorldNetDaily headline from late December read, "CPAC leaving conservative roots? Censorship of Obama questions, cooperation with 'gays' cited."

Palin, of course, has also made news for snubbing CPAC, ostensibly because she objects to the financial activities of its chief organizer David Keene. The odd result of all this is to render the Tea Party National Convention the fundamentalist alternative to CPAC, a gathering that has always been immensely congenial to fundamentalists.

For those who oppose the right, all this offers cause for both hope and alarm. Neither the tea parties nor Sarah Palin are likely to expand their appeal by association with the most bellicose of religious reactionaries. Some have speculated that a third party may emerge from the Nashville convention, an outcome that can only benefit Democrats in upcoming elections. But we've now reached a point where CPAC, a conference whose co-sponsors include The John Birch Society, represents a comparatively moderate sector of the GOP. That may turn out to be bad for the Republicans, but it's even worse for America.