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Setting The Stage – Part II – The Tea Party & The Religious Right, Religion in 2010 and What It Means for 2012

Posted by: John Schroeder at 04:16 pm, November 11th 2010     —    5 Comments »

There is little doubt that the election just finished has shifted the religious/political landscape, but probably not as much as people think.

On the left it is being widely discussed that the Dems have given up on faith outreach.  It is being pretty widely debated, and frankly, I don’t much care.  I think it would be smart if they did.  There is a left leaning religious vote but it is not that big.  When it comes to how to use resources, that vote is not a big bang-for-the-buck constituency for the Democrats.  What is clear is that there is a strong correlation between the religiously active and committed and the politically conservative.  Dems would clearly be smart to look elsewhere for votes.

Some have attempted to paint the 2010 mid-terms as a “religion free” election - but that just was not true.  Catholics were in this cycle — as they are increasingly – quiet major players.  The left of course screamed “religious foul” and painted pictures of bizarre unthinking creatures committed to the end of life on the planet.  Yeah, well – not so much so.

Some claim the evangelical voice has lost credibility.  Some are working hard to say that social conservatism is not dead.  Some are pointing out now is not the time to lose heart.  When there is this much highly divergent discussion, you can be sure of one thing and one thing only – change is afoot and where things will settle is not yet determined.

I see no clearer sign of that change than in the resignation of Marvin Olasky as the Provost of King’s College.   We have discussed Olasky many times on this blog.  He is editor of “World Magazine” – home of the infamous to our readers Joel Belz “Mormons Lie” editorial.  Olasky later made some remarks that were seemingly conciliatory towards Mormons on a political level, but it was more implied than overt.  Belz is Olasky’s boss, so it has been hard to get a read on precisely where Olasky has stood.  That said, his resignation as Provost of one of the leading religiously based educational institutions in our nation, essentially losing a political in-fight with the new college president, Dinesh D’Souza, can be read as a clear repudiation of the confrontive and combative style of politics that has been practiced by the Religious Right in recent years.

So what really is going on?  Statistically it appears that most the Tea Partiers are conservative Evangelicals.  Some have described the Tea Party this way:

However, despite being dominated by religious people, the Tea Party organizations don’t focus on social conservative issues. There is, in fact, little agreement on which issues are significant. When the Washington Post contacted 647 Tea Party groups, they found that less than half of the organizations considered spending and limiting the size of government to be a primary concern.

So if the Tea Party is not a movement, what is it? Mostly a marketing tactic, and an attempt at rebranding. The term Tea Party is mainly a label for very conservative Republicans and conservative independents who always vote for the GOP, even when they shun the Republican label. It’s a way to set themselves apart from those they deem insufficiently conservative, like RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) and ruling class elites.

“Rebranding” is actually a very smart way to think about the Tea Party.   But the new brand is not entirely settled.  Sometimes branding is not so much substantive as it is style.  The author above wants the new Tea Party brand to be deeply and combatively conservative, but I do not think that takes in all the lessons of 2010 – it was not a clean sweep for the “Tea Party.”  Consider this from Thomas Kidd:

We know that election 2010 represented an overwhelming repudiation of the Obama administration’s policies, and that the Tea Party movement played a major role. There was a great deal of speculation about the connection between the Tea Party and the Christian Right, with polls indicating that Christian conservatives represented the core of the Tea Party.

But what of evangelical Tea Party candidates? They didn’t fare quite as well as some had expected. This failure was most obvious in the once-promising candidacy of Sharron Angle in Nevada, and the doomed race of Christine O’Donnell (a cradle Catholic turned evangelical, turned Catholic again) in Delaware. Among the ‘mama grizzly’ candidates backed by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, South Carolina governor-elect Nikki Haley is the only prominent winner. Even she did not make her faith a major issue in the campaign, aside from defending the sincerity of her Christian convictions against charges that her conversion from her family’s Sikhism was opportunistic. Similarly, Marco Rubio, Senator-elect from Florida, identifies generally as a Roman Catholic, but he has attended an evangelical church for several years.

On balance, the election of 2010 reveals Americans’ discomfort with evangelical candidates who wear their faith on their sleeve, or even worse, use evangelical lingo on the campaign trail.

For the “Tea Party” to really be successful as a rebranding for conservatives, it has to look at the entire scope of what happened last week.  Conservatism wins in this nation – but overtly religious conservatism, not so much.  Conservatism is, and should be presented as, a matter of reason, not dogma or doctrine.  The fact of the matter is conservatism works in this nation becasue it is reasonable.  We do not need doctrinal statements, or confession of belief in conservatism; we need sweet reason.

Thomas Kidd concludes his piece this way:

Evangelicals today might take a cue from their forebears: we don’t need our candidates to talk ‘churchy’ to win our votes. In some cases, we should vote for candidates who do not share our personal faith at all. At some level, successful politicians will have to build consensus, and the way to do that in America is to emphasize shared political values, not personal faith. That was true in 1776, and it was true in the election of 2010.

The rebranding effort that is underway can and should be the umbrella under which the Religious Right resides and accomplishes what it could not standing alone.  It will mean that sometimes they will have to be less dogmatic – but in the course of that they will be more successful.

Such an effort will have to combine with continuing the fight on some other fronts – most especially education and personal evangelism.  Which takes us to the next and final post of this series – tomorrow.

Lowell adds . . .

Well, I don’t have too much to add.  One thing I think Evangelicals need to learn (and, if John is right, they are learning it) is that successful national candidates do not wear their religion on their sleeve.  Mike Huckabee can win GOP primaries in places like Iowa and Georgia by doing that, but not a national election.  Accordingly, a candidate’s supporters should not expect him or her to do so, either.

Now, if you are a voter and have religious goals you want to accomplish – and heaven knows, we Mormons have plenty of such goals – then you vote for candidates who will support keeping the government out of the way of those goals; but you don’t need a candidate who shares those goals.  If it is true that the tea party groups are indeed overwhelmingly composed of religious people, it looks like they are learning to focus on legitimate secular goals (smaller government, lower taxes) rather than religious social issues.  I hope that it what is going on.

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