Christianity and the Tea Party Movement

Is libertarianism compatible with Christian faith? Jim Wallis does not think so. Check out his article at The Huffington Post. He concludes:

1. “Individual choice is not the pre-eminent Christian virtue.”

2. Anti government ideology violates the teachings of the Bible, especially Romans 13.

3. A “supreme confidence in the market is not consistent with a biblical view of human nature and sin.”

4. “The Libertarian preference for the strong over the weak is decidedly un-Christian.”

5. The Tea Party movement is too white.

What do you think? Does someone want to defend the Tea Party Movement on Christian grounds?

10 thoughts on “Christianity and the Tea Party Movement

  1. Colleagues–great exchange in the comments section!

    I'd like to respond to John's challenge.

    I'll agree that there can't be a “Christian” perspective on a national debt level or a taxation rate (How would Jesus tax?).

    However, when government spending or regulation or legislation grows too big, it will tend to overawe or crowd out the mediating institutions of society. It will inherently begin to encroach on other spheres. The more authority government claims to possess, the less there is for other spheres or mediating institutions.

    I see the Tea Party as pushing back against this perceived encroachment.

    This is not to question the legitimacy of government. (I would wager 98%+ of Tea Partiers would grant some constructive role for government–at the very least, national defense.) Thus these protests are not delegitimizing the government (the regime, if you will) but they are protesting the course taken. In a representative republic, that is entirely within their purview. The protests and the debate, then, should go on as part of a prudential argument.

    And speaking of prudence–prudence is not merely a Christian principle, although there is a lot in Proverbs about wisdom. It is also part of a larger, Western inheritance of concern to Aristotle and Cicero. People of good will can disagree about prudential responses, but prudence in statecraft is not opposed to Christian principles.

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  2. Thanks for the comments. I agree with Jonathan and rhp997 that Christians can certainly be involved in the Tea Party Movement, but I would also push Christians (as I do with my students) to think Christianly about why they embrace this or that political system.

    There is much about the Tea Party Movement that I find admirable, particularly its grass-roots response to the relationship between corporate power and government. I think there is a populist streak in all of this that is healthy and very American. But is it Christian?

    Jonathan: While I am sympathetic to the sphere sovereignty position, I wonder if mounting debt or government bailouts of banks and car companies is enough to suggest that the government, as a “sphere,” is enlarging its power against the other spheres. When does the Christian's responsibility to obey the government (Romans 13, etc…) end and the resistance to sphere encroachment begin? I would imagine that Christians might disagree on this issue.

    Rhp997: I appreciate your Augustinian point about the two kingdoms and I am fully on board with it. But I guess I am enough a Calvinist to say that I want to evaluate the political movements I affiliate myself with based upon my theological view of the world. (This is what Jonathan is doing with his “sphere sovereignty” argument). This is not to say that there is only one form of government that Christians should support. Neither is it an argument for Constantinianism. But it is saying that Christians should be able to articulate theologically why they support one view of government over another. I think that this is what Jim Wallis was trying to do in this post, despite its flaws. (I also think that this is something that Michael Novak has done in defense of the free-market system, despite its flaws).

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  3. Wallis: Tea Party which is almost all white. Does that mean every member of the Tea Party is racist? Likely not.

    “Likely” not? OMG.

    John, I'd love for you to defend a word of this pap. Now, that would be interesting.

    The Romans 13 argument is a non-starter, since under our prevailing political theology, sovereignty not only rests with the people, but we are all citizen-rulers. We have no 'rulers” as a separate class.

    As for subsidiarity or “spheres,” these are all good arguments, but of course need proof in the real world as best for man [under natural law, or per Adam Smith, just the way things work]—spiritually, materially, preferably both. Any system where the people starve is immoral, be it free markets or command economies. And sometimes, lifeboat rules surely require the latter, so no system is self-evident.

    The question only becomes what is best to bring about the best, not the worst times, as it would hardly be arguable that God put us on earth to starve, so the material isn't beyond concern. But if economic liberty is best for man to thrive, or at least survive—if it's true that famines don't happen in market economies, but only in closed ones—then surely right reason obliges us to follow common sense.

    As for the Biblical or common sense consideration of private property, all I might offer is that

    “Send ye the tax collectors to the rich man's house; take all his stuff and give it to the poor…”

    is not in any editions of the Bible I'm aware of.

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  4. Full disclosure: I’ve attended two TEA Party rallies and am very familiar with the people and politics fueling the movement. I agree with the majority of the rally participants on certain key elements while disagreeing in many others. Unfortunately, I find much of the most recent TEA Party propaganda to be devoid of content – shamelessly pandering to the mob. Another topic for another day…

    “…but I would still be interesting in hearing whether or not the Tea Party movement can be framed as a “Christian” movement.”

    I certainly hope not! This question makes me a bit nervous as either “Christendom” or an anemic Gospel are seemingly presupposed. Should any form of government be even loosely equated with Christianity? Or is it really Christian ethics at the epicenter (which usually gets redefined as “Judeo-Christian”)? If Christianity is primarily a system of ethics (this is the way I read Wallis), the Gospel is absent (or anemic at best) and Christianity is redefined. If Christianity and government are indeed so interwoven as to declare one form “Christian” and all others anathema, then Christendom is presupposed. Perhaps my categories are too narrow or over-simplified?

    I submit that reasonable Christians ought be able to disagree over their preferred method of just governance – while uniting in worship of the Triune G-d. Put differently, the city of man is distinct from the city of G-d. Jonathan summed the thought nicely with his sphere of sovereignty comment.

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  5. John–well, you are certainly acting as a provocateur.

    The question you pose in the comment is different than the one you end the post with.

    Is the movement as a whole a “Christian” movement? Clearly not. Could Christians acting as Christians provide a theological rationale for involvement? Let me suggest yes.

    A caveat: I have never been to a tea party, but I know people who have. I consider myself relatively well-informed about the movement.

    That said–
    A variety of Christian traditions have thought about government and how it relates to other institutions in society. In the Catholic tradition, this theory goes by the idea of subsidiarity. In Calvinist circles, the concept is usually framed as sphere sovereignty. I'm more convinced by the sphere sovereignty approach.

    Sphere sovereignty suggests that God has created multiple spheres of authority and structure in society–the family, the church, and local government. Each sphere is competent in its own matters, and trouble develops when any sphere tries to enlarge its authority against others. Note how this accords with American structures of Federalism.

    Should the federal government–which has a justified and God-given purpose–step outside of its bounds, by expanding to impinge improperly on other spheres, that would be reason to protest–from the position of a Christian citizen. Should the federal government act irresponsibly in ways to endanger the standing of other spheres–let's say by racking up increasingly astronomical debts–that would be reason to protest. Motivated by these concerns, a Christian citizen might well want to participate in a tea party.

    For finding the proper role of government, I might recommend the little known but helpful work of political theology by David W. Hall, Savior or Servant? Putting Government in its Place.

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  6. Thanks for the posts everyone. Jonathan and rhp997, I appreciate the distinctions that you make, but I would still be interesting in hearing whether or not the Tea Party movement can be framed as a “Christian” movement.

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  7. In knocking down a throng of straw men, Wallis perpetuates multiple myths and confuses numerous categories – making a succinct rebuttal impossible. Unfortunately, this seems standard fare for the former Marxist turned “social justice” evangelist.

    In addition to Jonathan's astute insight, Wallis makes another fundamental error in categorizing libertarians as anti-government. Historically, anti-government advocates have been labeled anarchists; this distinction cannot be understated! Libertarians deem government a necessary evil – as opposed to a benevolent force for good – but this in no way makes them anarchists. Unfortunately (again), I think this confusion was deliberate on Wallis' part.

    Finally, I'm curious as to why Wallis feels the need to equate the Tea Party Movement with libertarianism? Does he really believe that even 10% of Tea Party goers could provide a ballpark definition of libertarianism…? What does he gain through the marriage of two so-called “extremist” positions?

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  8. Wallis's post makes at least one fundamental category error–he refuses to differentiate between Objectivism (of the Ayn Rand variety), Capital-L Libertarianism as a philosophical movement (of the von Mises or Hayek or even Ron Paul variety), and Small-l libertarianism as an ethos in opposition to government intrusion and in favor of liberty. Wallis wants to paint all “Tea Party” people as Ayn Rand objectivists, while I suspect most of them are on the far opposite side of the continuum, as small-l believers in liberty.

    This libertarian tendency has deep roots in the American political tradition and so shouldn't be at all surprising, if people fear that the government has grown to the point where it imperils American liberties.

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  9. I know many who would argue that the government's decision to increasingly take more from citizens crosses over from legitimate government practice into theft. And, of course, Christianity generally comes out against stealing.

    I'm not sure where you draw the line between the two, but that's a Christian argument I've heard.

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  10. I think the Religious Left's use of Romans 13 is interesting. On one hand, they need to defend it (to support their faith-based government lobbying). At the same time, they need to qualify it to allow for the kind of civil disobedience practiced by some of its more radical advocates. It's in that qualification that actual interpretive strategies get murky. Classical Anabaptist two-kingdom theology is so much easier!

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