Acton Commentary

Missing the Boat on the Tea Parties


There has been good deal of ink, digital or otherwise, spilled over the Tea Party movement in the last few months, and there’s little sign of abatement anytime soon. As was seen in yesterday’s primaries across the country, the Tea Party phenomenon has tangible political impact. But even so, part of the reason so much continues to be written and said about the movement is that it is still so little understood, both by its critics as well as those who are more sympathetic.

Chuck Colson, for instance, cautions in Christianity Today that the Tea Parties are more dangerous than previous populist movements. “A massive wave of anti-government sentiment could shatter the political consensus, which may well leave the country virtually unmanageable,” he warns. Colson is certainly right to point to the dangers of political divisiveness, and indeed, the level of current political discourse on both the Left and the Right offer little in the way of constructive dialogue.

Colson criticizes the Tea Parties for making “no attempt to present a governing philosophy” and instead simply embodying anti-government attitudes. Again, Colson is correct to draw the line at anarchy; Christians are, in his words, “to be the best citizens,” supportive of good government in the most fundamental and authentic ways. But by characterizing the Tea Parties as “anti-government,” Colson runs the risk of playing precisely the kind of divisive rhetoric that concerns him most.

Indeed, one of the clearest lessons to emerge from the reactions surrounding the Tea Parties is just how ideological and polemical political discourse has become. When liberals characterize conservatives, they typically invoke images of the extreme margins: close-minded racists, homophobes, and anti-abortionist assassins. As Cal Thomas puts it, “If you don’t like President Obama’s policies, you are a racist who is setting him up for assassination by a neo-Nazi who is waiting in the (right) wings for sufficient inspiration.” But when conservatives characterize liberals, they too tend to use those at the radical extreme to represent the entire movement: rabid pro-abortion advocates, NAMBLA members, and outright socialists.

Oftentimes there is some kind of superficial justification for such characterizations. An infamous Facebook page, for example, has members who support the following “prayer”:

DEAR LORD, THIS YEAR YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTOR, PATRICK SWAYZIE. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTRESS, FARAH FAWCETT. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE SINGER, MICHAEL JACKSON. I JUST WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW, MY FAVORITE PRESIDENT IS BARACK OBAMA. AMEN.

There is simply no defense for this kind of “joke,” harmless or not, and certainly not for any purportedly Christian prayer. Colson rightly contends that Christians are instead to be “praying for our leaders and holding them in high regard.” And the danger for conservatives is that such idiocy provides fodder to those on the Left who are zealous to demonize their opponents.

Even so, lost in all these caricatures, of which we are all all-too-often guilty, is the vast, complex, and muddled middle of American politics, a middle that represents the bulk of both major parties. This middle remains politically cynical and disenchanted with the kind of polarizing language used by both parties. If political discourse is to become constructive, as Colson hopes, we all need to refine our thinking to more sympathetically and accurately represent the positions of those with whom we often disagree. Indeed, this kind of tolerance in the best sense is a critical virtue of statesmanship, a virtue in short supply nowadays.

So if we were to sympathetically describe the characteristics of the Tea Party movement, we might point to the explicit positions articulated at the center of the movement’s consensus. As the Contract from America, for instance, puts it, the Tea Parties are about “the principles of individual liberty, limited government, and economic freedom.” Note here the emphasis is on “limited” government, which is not to say that the Tea Partiers are “anti” government. This is an important distinction, and one that Colson largely glosses over.

Ray Nothstine provides a compelling outline for how the Tea Parties might “awaken America’s moral culture.” Nothstine is properly points to the most praiseworthy aspects of the civil rights movement as a model for appropriate civil protest. True social change comes not from laws or politics, but from renewal of our personal, familial, and ecclesiastical commitments.

For Christians in particular, our public statements and private thoughts should conform to the biblical standard: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16 NIV). In a classic exposition of this commandment, the Heidelberg Catechism rightly teaches that part of what God requires of the Christian is to, as far as possible, “defend and promote the honor and reputation of my neighbor.” We ought to mourn that so very little of our public discourse meets this standard. The mark of the Christian is not ultimately in the love shown to those who love us, but in the love shown to our enemies and opponents.

Colson is at pains to protect the nation’s political consensus. But it’s not clear that there is in fact any consensus to protect. If we are to rebuild such unity, however, it will be on the basis of principled disagreement, civil discourse, and genuine care for others, our opponents most of all.