Catholics and the Tea Party Movement

Since it became the latest media sensation, commentators have attempted to exploit whatever demographic or philosophical fault lines they can discover within the Tea Party protest movement. One of the media’s favorite themes so far has been the alleged tension between fiscal and social conservatives, or between libertarians and Christians. Some believe that incidents such as Ryan Sorba’s anti-gay outburst at CPAC, and its overwhelmingly negative response from the mostly young, libertarian crowd, was a stark example of this tension. Others are skeptical about the alleged religious component to what appears to be an almost entirely fiscal protest.
There’s just one problem with this hypothesis: It isn’t based in fact.

Let’s begin with demographics. Admittedly, not much research has been conducted on the make-up of the Tea Party movement, though this hasn’t stopped many in the media from characterizing it as a conglomeration of angry white males. But the National Review Institute and McLaughlin & Associates conducted one national survey that provides us with a helpful demographic snapshot. The study shows that 60 percent of Tea Partiers are Protestants, 28 percent are Catholics, and 2 percent are Jews. Sixty-nine percent attend religious services regularly. Sixty-eight percent are pro-life, while 26 percent identify as pro-choice. If there are tensions between fiscal libertarianism and social conservatism in the movement, they aren’t reflected in the demographics.
And what about the supposed ideological or philosophical fault lines within the movement that have yet to surface? The problem with this claim is that it is based on the erroneous assumption that the Tea Party should be about social issues and has deliberately avoided them. It is an attempt, in other words, by Tea Party opponents to redefine the movement in a way that creates the very tension they are suggesting.
On the contrary, there are many reasons for libertarians and social conservatives to work with one another, especially in the present political climate. Consider first that the Tea Party’s origin is not the Republican Party, but rather with popular political figures such as Rep. Ron Paul, who is both pro-life and a libertarian (though officially a Republican congressman). Even those who usually disagree with Paul acknowledge that he is one of the most principled and consistent statesmen in America today; where are the tensions in his pro-life libertarian outlook? If they exist at all, they can be reconciled by his (and the larger movement’s) commitment to a faithful interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.
True, there are many conservatives who believe that the most pressing moral issues of our day — such as abortion, marriage, and education — must be addressed at the federal level. I used to be one of them. Libertarian constitutionalists like Paul, however, have long argued that these matters are best addressed by state and local governments. It is a subsidiarist position aimed at restoring the proper balance between local and national rights and duties, while the federal government is restricted by the Constitution. Thus the practical aim of the pro-life movement coincides with what ought to be the philosophical aim of the Tea Party: to overturn Roe v. Wade as an unconstitutional decision and return the legislation of abortion to the states.
The same may be said for any number of similar issues. Consider, for instance, the debacle of Proposition 8 in California, which voters approved by a large majority in order to ban same-sex marriage. The California courts moved promptly to strike down the will of the people. It seems highly unlikely that principled libertarians in the Tea Party movement would reject the outcome of a legitimate democratic process and opt instead for fiat rule from the bench.
And consider freedom of education, which for Catholics is one of the top three non-negotiable issues during elections along with abortion and defense of marriage. With a movement aimed at reducing the size and scope of the state and encouraging fiscal responsibility, can there be any doubt that Tea Party members and conservative Christians share a common goal in reducing the role of the federal government in education and promoting school choice?
There are good policy reasons for cooperation between the libertarians and social conservatives within the Tea Party movement, and there are good practical reasons as well. As one commentator points out, the Tea Party movement is politically inexperienced. Its members are willing recruits, many of them becoming involved in politics for the first time — but there is a lack of coordination and political strategy. This was evident in the recent primary results, which were mixed at best for the Tea Party challengers. Who better for the fledgling Tea Party to turn to than the 40-year veterans of the pro-life movement for guidance, if not leadership?
What other movement on the Right has been battling the federal government, from the streets to the courts and everywhere in between; can decide the outcome of elections on the national stage; has a large grassroots following; and isn’t co-opted or corrupted by the influence of professional politicians and corporate sponsors? With due admiration and respect for the tenacity and instincts of the Tea Party protesters, an army without experienced officers is a rabble waiting to be swept off the field. Pro-life Christians have the experience and the proven resolve to lead the fight at all levels of politics.
There is no reason for Americans who are fed up with high taxes, runaway spending, and the growth of federal government to eschew friendship with social conservatives. What’s more, these groups should coexist as subscribers of a political philosophy held by all of the individuals in the movement, for there is an inexorable link between moral corruption and tyranny that can only be ignored at our peril. This link was well known to the founding fathers of the United States, who by and large insisted that civic and moral virtues were the requisites of liberty. Provided that the focus remain within the bounds of the Constitution, libertarians have every reason to join social conservatives in the fight against moral corruption as a matter of preserving liberty.


  • Joe Hargrave

    Joe Hargrave is an adjunct professor of political science at Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, Arizona.

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