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The Tea Party's Tension: Religion's Role In Politics
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The Tea Party's Tension: Religion's Role In Politics

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And Im Melissa Block.

For Tea Party leaders, religion is the elephant in the room. No one wants to talk about it but everyone knows its there. The movement focuses on economic rather than social issues, but many people who identify with the Tea Party movement are also religious conservatives.

And NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports that some of them are not satisfied with a strictly secular focus.

(Soundbite of conversations)

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: At the Mad Fox Brewery in Falls Church, Virginia, its happy hour, which pretty much captures the mood of the two dozen middle-class conservatives who are reveling in their surprising political success.

Mr. JONATHAN MOSELEY (Former Campaign Manager, Christine O'Donnell '08): I bring you news from the front of the Tea Party revolution, from the battle of Delaware.

HAGERTY: These members of the Northern Virginia Tea Party listened for an hour as Jonathan Moseley, Christine O'Donnell's former campaign manager, describes her upset victory in Delaware's Senate primary.

O'Donnell is a conservative Christian. But no one mentions that, in part because people here don't all agree about religion's role in politics. On one end of the spectrum, theres Stacey Hagga who's here balancing her toddler on her hip.

Ms. STACEY HAGGA: I mean, I personally, I don't know the last time I was at church. So for me I wouldnt, you know, that it's a really strong perspective. I think people are just generally concerned about the economy and the direction of our country. And I have my two-year-old here - I'm just concerned about his future.

HAGERTY: Then there's Sandy Smith, a registered nurse. She says the Founding Fathers were Christian men who created the nation on Biblical principles.

Ms. SANDY SMITH (Registered Nurse): Thats what started this whole downfall of America, was taking God out of everything. It's like whats happened? Why aren't fighting to save that, you know? Cause we're out here trying to fight for those principles.

HAGERTY: And finally, there's Michael Giere, a mortgage banker and Evangelical Christian.

Mr. MICHAEL GIERE (Mortgage Banker): We are a Judeo-Christian country. And I don't care who says we're not, we obviously are.

HAGERTY: Giere says religious conservatives are the sleeping giants in the Tea Party.

Mr. GIERE: The discussion of the day is on economics. But when you start peeling back that onion, absolutely there is devout faith spread throughout the Tea Party and throughout the Tea Party leadership.

HAGERTY: And, in fact, polls show that Tea Party members are far more likely to be weekly churchgoers and conservative Christians than the population as a whole.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: Ladies and gentlemen, Glenn Beck.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HAGERTY: At an August rally, more than 80,000 people gathered on Washington's Mall and listened with rapt attention as the Fox News commentator whipped up a religious revival.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. GLENN BECK (Fox News Commentator): Something beyond imagination is happening. Something that is beyond man is happening. America today begins to turn back to God.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HAGERTY: Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association says that moment marked a turning point in the relationship between religious conservatives and the Tea Party.

Mr. BRYAN FISCHER (Director, Issue Analysis for Government and Public Policy, American Family Association): There was a spiritual energy there that we haven't seen in typical Tea Party events. And, you know, my word to the Tea Party leadership is: Sit up and take notice. This is a winning issue for you, just from a purely strategic, pragmatic standpoint, to capture the spiritual energy of the American people.

HAGERTY: For their part, religious conservatives have benefited hugely from the rise of the Tea Party. John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, says that evangelicals and conservative Catholics were dispirited after the 2008 election.

They were disillusioned by what they saw as President Bush's unfulfilled promises and a disappointing Republican presidential candidate. At the same time, once powerful organizations like the Christian Coalition have petered out. Enter the Tea Party movement.

Professor JOHN GREEN (Political Science, University of Akron): So there was an opening on the right for organizations and candidates and groups that could appeal to the different elements of the religious coalition. In many ways, the Tea Party has filled that niche.

HAGERTY: Green says in this year's primary elections, religious conservatives have gotten exactly what they wanted.

Prof. GREEN: If you look at many of the candidates around the country that have won Republican primaries that are identified with the Tea Party, many of them hold quite conservative views on social issues. And therefore, are likely to appeal to conservative Christians, as well as other kinds of conservatives.

Ms. CHRISTINE O'DONNELL (R-DE, Senatorial Candidate): Ladies and gentlemen, the people of Delaware have spoken.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HAGERTY: Christine O'Donnell, for example, has spent much of her career as an evangelical activist. In fact, every Tea Party candidate who won his or her Senate primary opposes abortion.

And yet, there is still tension between these two groups. You could hear it recently on Bryan Fischer's nationwide radio program, when Fischer interviewed Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express. Fischer told her evangelicals want some signal that the Tea Party movement supports their views on abortion and marriage.

Mr. FISCHER: So can we hear that message from the Tea Party leadership?

Ms. AMY KREMER (Chairman, Tea Party Express): You're not going to hear it from me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KREMER: And I'm sorry to disappoint you.

HAGERTY: In an interview, Kremer explains that the movement is a big tent, including not just religious people but atheists and libertarians.

Ms. KREMER: As long as we stay focused on the fiscal issues, that's the glue that holds us together. If we start delving into the religious aspect or social aspects, that's when we're going to become divided, and thats when, you know, people are going to disagree.

HAGERTY: But Fischer says the strategy could alienate Christian conservatives.

Mr. FISCHER: And if they begin to discover that the leadership of the Tea Party movement isn't going to fight for them on those issues, then I think they're going to lose some of their enthusiasm for the movement. And they'll either go back to being disengaged or they'll invest in that energy in some other direction.

HAGERTY: It appears that these groups are mostly patching over their differences. But the question is: After the election, could their diverging priorities lead to the break up this political marriage?

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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