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Faith and the Republican nomination MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS


n his first week as a Republican Party presidential candidate, Texas Governor Rick Perry expressed his doubts about the theory of evolution. He also ques- tioned the consensus among scientists that greenhouse gases contribute to global warm- ing, telling a New Hampshire audience: “I think there are a substantial number of sci- entists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their proj- ects.” Meanwhile, reporters began mining Perry’s


otherwise forgettable book, Fed Up, published last autumn, in which Perry called social secu- rity a “Ponzi scheme” and “unconstitutional”. To the media which widely labelled these statements “missteps”, this was clear evidence that Perry, who has never run a national cam- paign, was not quite ready for prime time in the other 49 states. Questioning evolution and climate-change science were considered too extreme for most Americans, if not for most Texans. Risking the wrath of older Americans, who are more likely to vote than other age groups, by attack- ing social security also amounts to political suicide. But then a funny thing happened. Perry shot to the top of the polls. Perry’s meteoric rise did not happen in spite of his “missteps” on evolution, climate change and social security. He has become the front- runner because of those positions, which resonate deeply with the Tea Party activists who have become the dominant force in today’s Republican Party. Perry’s unwillingness to conform to “acceptable” opinions, and the consequent derision from most mainstream commentators, only reinforces the anti-elite populism, and fundamentalist Christian world view, that drives the Tea Party faction. “What’s fuelling Perry, what he’s channelling, is not really a political movement as we gen- erally understand the term,” says Professor Stephen Schneck, director of Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. “Its zeal, anger, conviction of righteousness and its prophetic engagement in the world have a fervour beyond mere partisanship or political ideology. Maybe crusade is the right word.” When the Tea Party first emerged in the summer of 2009, most political analysts con- sidered the movement in secular terms. The issue that most aroused the Tea Party was health-care reform or, as they call it,


4 | THE TABLET | 17 September 2011


One for the zealots I


“Obamacare”. They opposed the effort to reform America’s badly broken health-care system on both political and economic grounds and they proclaimed their opposition in absolutist terms: Obamacare was uncon- stitutional, undermining the US Constitution’s vision of limited government with narrowly defined tasks, and it also ran foul of their com- mitment to free-market principles. They were vehemently opposed to higher taxes although President Obama has, so far, only enacted tax cuts since taking office. Many analysts considered the Tea Party activists zealots, but they did not, at first, recognise that theirs was a religious form of zealotry. It has since become increasingly obvious that the largest single group in the Tea Party is white Evangelical Protestants. “It’s taken until recently for the ‘punditoc-


racy’ to acknowledge what we in the religion-and-politics biz have seen for a long time: that the Tea Party is all about white Evangelicals, aka the base of the Republican Party,” wrote Mark Silk, director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, last month. Several polls con- firm the confluence between the two groups. A recent Pew Research Center survey showed that 59 per cent of Tea Party supporters think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, compared to 42 per cent among all registered voters. Some 64 per cent of Tea Party sup- porters oppose same-sex marriage, compared to 49 per cent of all voters. These are precisely the people Perry was


theories of


Though still more than 13 months away from the finishing post, the race to the White House is already hotting up as the Grand Old Party’s hopefuls jockey for position behind the current front- runner’s welding of white Christian fundamentalism to the radical right wing


aiming at when he expressed his doubts about evolution and climate change. But the religious connections are not always understood by commentators. The day after the first Grand Old Party (GOP) debate in which Governor Perry participated, Washington Post political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson was asked about Perry’s refusal to step away from his comments about climate change. “No, I think, when the Tea Party, when folks from the Right hear climate change, they actually hear climate tax,” Henderson opined. It is undoubtedly true that Perry knows cli- mate-change regulations would harm the oil and gas industry in his state. And, it is also true that he shares the aversion to taxes that animates all Republicans today. But, his inter- est in challenging climate change was identical to his interest in challenging evolution: Perry wants Christian conservatives to see him as one of their own. Nor is Evangelical commitment to free-


market principles a new political reality. But what is different today is that all Republicans, and not just Evangelicals, have come to see economic and political issues in terms of orthodoxy. The Tea Party espouses the eco- nomic


such profoundly


anti-Christian thinkers as Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand, a hyper-individualism that sees all government activity as baneful, but they do so in absolutist terms. The US Constitution is read by the Tea


Partyers in the same way they read Genesis, in fundamentalist terms, seeing the document not as the product of late-eighteenth-century political theorists but as a virtually sacred text, the meaning of which is plain, and from which any deviation or amendment is not just sinister but heterodox. There is something decidedly strange about


the politics that issues from this conflation of theological attitudes with political and eco- nomic issues. The American founders are no longer viewed as exponents of ideas associated with the Enlightenment: they were the founders of a Christian nation and devoted to capitalism, even though eighteenth-century economic ideas were, obviously, unfamiliar with modern corporate and financial culture. “It’s ironic, but in their view of what the


market can achieve on its own, the Tea Partyers and many other conservatives are far more utopian than progressives or Obama, whom they often accuse of being socialists,”


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