The Tea Party paints itself as something new in American politics: it is not. United States’ history has always harbored such movements. Not really a political party despite its funding by corporate sources and promotion by partisan TV commentators, the Tea Party is a special interest group controlling the direction of the Republican Party; call it the “Tea-publican Party.”
I think the Tea Party itself functions like a civil religion, less interested in pragmatic politics than the new faith. Civil religion labors in the public arena – hence the name “civil” – and its purpose is to bestow moral urgency upon political choices. Its members are convinced that even if they are not in the majority, they alone act in the name of the common good. This self-image nullifies flirtation with pragmatism or compromise. In civil religion, “issues” become “causes” and opposing viewpoints based on fact and reason are subordinated to blind faith in self-righteousness.
Civil religions can be both good and bad. For instance, there would have been no end to slavery in the 18th century without the abolitionists’ creed. But there is a darker side such as that noted by the French commentator Alexis De Tocqueville who warned against excessive egalitarianism. The rejection of elites, he wrote in the 1800s, could become instead an enthronement of the lowest common denominator, placing mediocrity and anti-intellectualism before visionary leadership. He saw this twined with Evangelical Christianity’s reliance on individual interpretation of the bible instead of a hierarchy as in Catholicism.
Backward-looking civil religions carry special dangers. They may become xenophobic, blaming economic and social ills upon elements whose culture and religion violates what is imagined as “real America.” The sacred texts of such a civil religion are hodge-podge citations of bible and the U.S. Constitution. Absorbing the ever-present paranoid in American politics, conspiracies both right and left thrive, protected from factual truth by anti-intellectualism. Finally, backward-looking civil religions have gained political influence by filling the void created when one of the major political parties begins to implode.
These are very broad strokes of history, but they are verified in the Know-Nothings of the ante-bellum United States when the Whig Party proved incapable of surviving the slavery issue. Catholics suffered greatly from the Know-Nothings because their cause was a restoration of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) hegemony as the real America. The Know-Nothings soon disappeared, leaving space for the visionary Republican Party of Lincoln.
Know-Nothingism reappeared, however, when Catholic Al Smith ran for president in 1928 braving the Ku Klux Klan
that had marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, boasting that 15% of white Americans were KKK members. The Democratic Party thereafter split into a liberal New Deal wing and a right-wing faction of Dixiecrats. The latter eventually joined the Southern strategy of Republican Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority.
Today the East Coast Country-Club/Midwestern Republican Party is being co-opted by the Tea Party’s version of old-time WASP civil religion. The targets today are new: Islam, a religion identified with terrorists; and Latinos and Latinas (mostly Catholics), caricatured as “illegals.” But the xenophobia is familiar.
The Tea-publican Party’s religious fervor and blind faith in sloganeering thrive politically by feasting upon the carcass of yesterday’s genteel Republican Party (RINOs). The Tea-publicans say they want to “take our country back,” presuming somehow it is “theirs” alone. As I decipher their pronouncements, the half-white President Obama is not white enough, his religion not Christian enough, and his electoral majority not majority enough. These views would be rejected as racism and wing-nuttery at most times in history, but with the restructuring forced upon the U.S. economy by global forces, the past is more seductive for many than is the future.
A fundamental (and I would add “unavoidable”) shift in culture is underway that is lifting the Cold War burdens as the “world’s policeman” from America, regulating global capitalism by taxes and protecting this country’s middle-class by providing health care for all. The Tea-publican civil religion is opposed to that vision. Catholicism is not.
I view our Catholic heritage of hierarchy, theological reflection, and acceptance of science and reason as incompatible with this new civil religion. Once before we stood up to Know-Nothingism to forge a better America: today we can do no less.