Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Tea Party and Christian Conservatism: A Marriage Made in Heaven?

Michelle Kirtley


October 22, 2010
by Michelle Kirtley

Since the 2008 election, America has been captivated by the ascendance of the Tea Party, a grassroots, activist movement which arose in opposition to big government and the associated evils of rising deficits and taxes.  A survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in early September shines light on some key demographic trends within the Tea Party movement. Significantly, the poll found that of the 11% of Americans who claim to be “part of” the Tea Party, almost half also describe themselves as part of the Christian conservative movement, compared to only 22% of the population at large.

Many Tea Party members insist that all federal activities and programs have explicit constitutional authority.  Some want to abolish the Department of Education, for example, because there is no mention of the federal government’s educational responsibilities in the Constitution.  The adoption of this constitutionalist agenda among Christian conservatives is readily explainable.  Christians, because of what the Bible teaches, recognize the limitations of government, and reject seeking an ultimate source of hope in government.  In addition, an unbiblical sacred/secular dualism common among Christians contributes to a mistrust of earthly remedies to social ills.  Furthermore, many Christians feel that the things they value are under assault from a rise of secularism over the past few decades, not only in American culture but also in federal law and the courts. Their resulting defensive posture towards the federal government has been easily translated into broader anti-government sentiment.  Additionally, our mythology of America as a “Christian nation” (a view held by 92% of the Tea Party in the PRRI poll) spiritualizes the language of the Constitution, making a fundamentalist approach to the Constitution not so very different from a fundamentalist approach to faith.  Finally, our current economic landscape—a deep recession, high unemployment, and historic deficits—focuses attention on fiscal policy.  And to the extent that the Tea Party concern for government spending and debt converges with a Christian ideal of stewardship, the marriage of Christian conservatives and the Tea Party is understandable.  

The apparent contradiction between the strains of libertarianism in the Tea Party and the widespread support among Tea Party Christians for federal limitations on abortion rights and gay marriage exposes a troubling reality: many American evangelicals have an inconsistent political theology that inadequately addresses the proper role of government.  Tea Party Christians appear to be guided by a framework that desires government to be active, even in the absence of explicit constitutional authority, in issues of personal morality while reducing its influence in most other areas of society.  

However, this framework does not allow Christians to adequately meet their obligation to pursue justice for their neighbors.  What would Tea Party Christians think about the role of the government in supporting faith-based charitable institutions? Would they be able to develop consensus in the movement to support federal laws preventing human trafficking or encouraging adoption?  What about aid to Africa?

I am not suggesting that a limited government philosophy is incompatible with Christianity. The new book by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, and the work of Jennifer Marshall and her colleagues at the Heritage Foundation are examples of a more coherent marriage of conservatism and Christian social thought.

Overall, the trends captured in the PRRI poll highlight the urgent need for organizations such as the Center for Public Justice to educate Christians in the development of a robust framework for evaluating the role of government  more rigorously (and more biblically).  The demographic data underlying these trends suggest that the time may be ripe for a movement of Christian policymaking that assumes that government is neither panacea or poison but a gift of God to be stewarded for His glory and the justice of all people.  

—Michelle Kirtley is the Associate Editor of Capital Commentary and a former science and health policy advisor on Capitol Hill.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”