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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Tea Party and the Christian Right Redux

In today’s Washington Post, Amy Gardner reported, with apparent surprise, a phenomenon that, frankly, anybody who was really paying attention already understood: in Iowa, cradle and graveyard of presidential aspirations, the Tea Party Movement, and conservative activism generally, is heavily dominated by religious folk deeply interested in those cultural issues Republicans are said to have put aside.
That’s undoubtedly true, but Gardner’s claim that this “sets Iowa apart” is not so clearly true. It’s impossible to miss the dominance of cultural issues in Iowa, given (a) the astonishing 2008 Caucus win by Mike Huckabee, who had nothing else going for him, and (b) the state of semi-hysteria bred among Iowa conservatives by the 2009 Iowa Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. That decision, which for obscure Iowa constitutional reasons cannot be overturned until after 2012 at the earliest, led to the successful recall of several Supreme Court justicies in 2010.
But the interplay of cultural and non-cultural issues among Tea Party types which Gardner documents in Iowa is common, if less visible, in other parts of the country. Consider her observation about Iowa social conservative warhorse Bob Vander Plaats:

In the wood-paneled back room of a pizza joint in Winterset last week, about 30 miles west of Des Moines, Vander Plaats invoked the unmistakable language of the tea party. He said that politicians will lose if they “overreach their constitutional authority.” He said Iowans want a pro-family president who also takes the right positions on states’ rights, the Constitution and the separation of powers.

Talk about “overreaching their constitutional authority” is not, in fact, the “unmistakable language of the tea party movement.” Long before conservative activists put on wigs and beat drums, it was the language of the Christian Right, whose obsession with overturning Roe v. Wade, and with opposing church-state separation, constantly fed constitutional originalism. Similarly, the importation into the constitutional design of the Declaration of Independence, which is semi-universal in Tea Party circles, originated with the Christian Right, which used the Declaration to smuggle God into the Constitution, along with a notion of natural rights that supported, in their own minds at least, the rights of “the unborn” and the prerogatives of the traditional family.
More generally, it’s hard to identify Christian Right pols who haven’t strongly identified themselves with the Tea Party Movement (two of its best-known leaders, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachman, are highly illustrative of this fact), and hard to find Tea Party spokesmen who favor any policies that would in any way discomfit the Christian Right. Where they aren’t the same people, they are certainly strong allies, and essentially two sides of the same radicalized conservative coin with the same apocalyptic vision of a righteous nation led hellwards by evil progressives. Iowa is not an outlier in this respect, but perhaps just a place where the political context makes it easier to see.

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