The shotgun marriage of tea party and evangelicals

In the wake of the Tea Party candidates that rode the GOP wave into the House of Representatives last Tuesday, … Continued

In the wake of the Tea Party candidates that rode the GOP wave into the House of Representatives last Tuesday, conservative Christian leaders were quick to declare their affections for the new movement. Ralph Reed, former Christian Coalition architect, claimed, “tea party and evangelicals are not at odds. These movements are inextricably intertwined.” Both Glenn Beck and Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) have claimed that there is a spiritual component and spiritual revival component to the Tea Party movement.

(A crowd on the Mall at Glenn Beck’s ‘Restoring Honor’ rally)

But despite the haste with which the elite leaders of these two groups seem to be proceeding with this shotgun marriage, a closer look at the rank and file members of these groups suggests that, as it is with many couples who rush to the altar without knowing their partner well enough, the road ahead may not be entirely smooth.

Now, these two groups certainly have much in common. Both groups are primarily made up of white, conservative Christians who are strongly committed to electing Republican candidates. The American Values Survey, conducted a few months before the election by our organization, Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), found that 83% of voters identifying with the Tea Party and 71% of white evangelical voters were leaning toward voting for Republican candidates. The exit polls bore this out: on election day, 89% Tea Party supporters voted for Republican House candidates, as did 79% of white evangelical Christians. Notably, the American Values Survey also revealed that these similarities are driven not only by affinities but by significantly overlapping memberships: nearly half (47%) of Americans who identify with the Tea Party Movement also identify with the Christian Right.

So far, so good. But these groups’ happy union is challenged by a classic relationship problem: misplaced worries that there are serious divisions where there are few, and blind confidence that there are no divisions where significant differences lurk.

To hear Tea Party elites tell it, the success of this relationship depends on staying focused on fiscal issues. As Tea Party express director Amy Kremer asserted during a panel conversation in which I participated on CBN’s The Brody File, “We are focused completely on the fiscal issues…. We don’t touch the social issues simply because that’s when we’re going to divide people.”

This concern, however, actually turns out to be unfounded. A closer look at rank and file members of these groups (not to mention the rhetoric of actual Tea Party candidates) reveals that on social issues these two groups are happily singing from the same song sheet. Less than 1-in-5 in either group favor allowing gay and lesbian people to marry. Similarly, nearly two-thirds (63%) of those who identify with the Tea Party, like 7-in-10 white evangelicals, say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

Surprisingly, the relationship troubles may begin just where both Reed and Kremer think they’re least likely–on the terrain of economic policy and on issues of discrimination. For example, Americans identifying with the Tea Party are significantly less worried than white evangelicals about the consequences of a lack of equal opportunity for all Americans. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of those identifying with the Tea Party report that it is not that big a deal if some people have more of a chance in life than others. Among white evangelicals, only half agree with this statement. Likewise, nearly 6-in-10 (58%) of those identifying with the Tea Party say that over the last few decades the government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities. Less than 4-in-10 (38%) of white evangelicals agree, and 59% disagree. There are also considerable differences on raising the minimum wage and top priorities for the new Congress between these two groups.

As Brookings Institution Senior Fellows E.J. Dionne and Bill Galston astutely observed in a post-election paper drawing on the PRRI findings, “The Old and New Politics of Faith,” these differences reflect real tensions between what might be called compassionate conservatism from the Bush-era and a newer, harder-edged Tea Party conservatism. As the differences that were overlooked in the heat of political passion become clearer in the fuller light of post-election day, it’s possible each group may look in the mirror and wonder exactly what they’ve gotten themselves into.


Robert P. Jones Dr. Robert P. Jones is the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute and a leading scholar and commentator on religion, values, and public life.
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