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How do you spell tendentious? Sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell on religion and politics. Without evidence they assert that the Tea Party is controversial not because of its strident fiscal conservatism, but rather because Tea Party activists are religious.

R.R. Reno In a recent op-ed in the New York Times , the duo held forth on the nature, influence, and significance of the Tea Party, which they say has become a toxic brand. In 2010, polling found that 18 percent of Americans viewed the then-new Tea Party movement unfavorably. Today 40 percent have a negative view. Meanwhile, only 20 percent approve of the Tea Party.

Are these statistics surprising? Many Tea Party activists want deep changes to control spending, for example, a constitutional amendment prohibiting deficit spending. This ardent fiscal rigorism, which dovetails with rhetoric about radically reshaping the role of government (Ron Paul has called for eliminating the Federal Reserve), provides a more plausible explanation for why, as the Tea Party has gained influence, more voters have become negative toward or ambivalent about the movement.

Think about it. If you are a liberal of any stripe, then the success of the Tea Party in reshaping the priorities of the Republican Party, and through the Republican Party the debate in Washington, will fill you with horror. In view of the fact that slightly less than a third of Americans self-identify as liberals, is it at all surprising that 40 percent of Americans don’t like the Tea Party? They don’t like the Tea Party because it represents a strident fiscal conservatism that gives the strong impression that it wants to detonate a political bomb that will destroy modern welfare state.

The ambivalence of others is equally understandable. As Putnam and Campbell point out, Joe and Jane Q. Public”the independent, middle-of-the-road voter”favor smaller government. But Joe and Jane Q. Public typically want smaller government without any deep changes to the twentieth-century social contract that revolves around the modern welfare state. They are often small “c” conservative, which means that even in their unhappiness with the way things are going, they remain largely loyal to the status quo and thus tend to be skeptical about big “C” conservative ideas that promise to dramatically reshape the way we do business in Washington.

Thus, liberals and liberal leaning American actively dislike the Tea Party because they are liberals or liberal leaning. Meanwhile, the large center-right plurality in America remains ambivalent because their political commitments are diverse and perhaps contradictory (which I do not regard as necessarily a bad thing), which is to say ambivalent.

But this explanation does not satisfy Putnam and Campbell. Instead, they conclude that the Tea Party is a potent but unpopular movement because of . . . religion. Huh?

Putnam and Campbell admit that their polling data show that Tea Party supporters want what their leaders say they want: smaller government. But the same data show that they want “deeply religious” leaders, and that they, “approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates.”

No doubt this is true. The religious and social conservatism of the Republican Party intermixes with the fiscal and economic conservatism in all sorts of close and complex ways. But it is willful of Putnam and Campbell to conclude that it’s the religious dimension that constitutes the most salient”and most controversial”dimension. This is the fallacy of composition: the presumption that a part amounts to the whole.

For example, they write, “This inclination among the Tea Party faithful to mix religion and politics explains their support for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.” Call me naive, but I had thought the enthusiasm for Bachmann revolves at least as much around her anti-debt absolutism, her denunciations of government spending, and her refusal to participate in any compromises with Democrats.

And Rick Perry? Last I checked he did not accuse Barack Obama or Ben Bernanke of theological errors. Instead, he threw red meat to the Tea Party folks in Iowa. On Obama: “I think the greatest threat to our country right now is this president trying to spend his way out of this debt.” On the Federal Reserve: “Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous or treasonous in my opinion.”

Apparently I’m mistaken . According to Putnam and Campbell, “Their appeal lies less in what they say about budget or taxes, and more in their overt use of religious language and imagery, including Mrs. Bachmann’s lengthy prayers at campaign stops or Mr. Perry’s prayer rally in Houston.”

How do they know this? Are they suggesting that if a moderate Republican opened his speeches with long prayers and speckled his speeches with biblical references, then Tea Party folks would swing behind him? The idea is absurd, which suggests that Putnam and Campbell’s claims about the Tea Party are implausible.

By my reckoning, the two sociologists are led to this specious conclusion by their own political inclinations. They assert that most Americans “increasingly oppose” the “infusion of religion into politics.” True, perhaps, (the authors don’t provide the data), but nonetheless tendentious. Many Americans are uncomfortable with the enthusiasm and directness of American Evangelicalism. But this does not translate, as Putnam and Campbell suggest, into an “opposition to mingling religion and politics.”

Instead, as is always the case in a two-party system, voters divide along complex lines. It is foolish to imagine that Bachmann’s prayers are sole or main source of her controversy as a candidate. The Tea Party evokes the disdain (and anxiety) of nearly all liberals and some moderates because they are opposed the all the main aspects of the American conservative coalition: self-confident religiosity, socially conservative attitudes, unrepentant patriotism, a presumption in favor of free-markets, and a populist dislike of government.

The shibboleth about “not mingling religion and politics””and that’s what it is, a political slogan suited to our present debates and not a neutral description of social reality”obscures rather than illuminates this essentially ideological opposition. This is what liberals often do. They don’t disagree but instead appeal to a supposed meta-principle. They just want to keep things “fair” and “open” and “inclusive,” they say, while accusing those with whom they disagree of being “divisive” or “extremist” or “failing to give public reasons,” or in this case, of “mingling religion and politics.”

In truth, although many mouth the platitude, few actually are opposed to “mingling religion and politics.” They just oppose mingling certain kinds of religion with certain kinds of politics.

Martin Luther King, Jr. mingled religion with politics in a way the thrilled progressives in his day. More recently, Catholic bishops have defended pro-immigration polices on biblical and theological grounds. I know plenty of liberal friends who are horrified by the Tea Party who are quite happy with this way of mingling religion and politics. And I know plenty of conservatives who regard Jim Wallis, a spokesman for the religious left, as anathema. They think his kind of religion sells out to progressive political fashions, regarding him as a pious shill for socialism.

That’s why it’s foolish to generalize about religion and politics. Most people, even unbelievers, rather like it when public figures pray or preach for the success of what they already believe and support.

R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things . He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis . His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .


David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam, Crashing the Tea Party

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