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Tea Party and Christian Conservatives: Similar but Not the Same

A diverse set of grassroots conservatives has emerged. Some are social conservatives. Some are not.

Is the tea party just a rebranding of Christian conservatives? Debate over this question is not new, but it has received new fuel recently.

David Campbell of Notre Dame University and Robert Putnam of Harvard University wrote an August 16 op-ed for the New York Times, reporting on their recent survey that shows that those who like the tea party are not the non-partisan fiscal conservatives described by the movement's leaders. Campbell and Putnam find that the tea party has attracted Republicans—not just any Republicans—social conservatives who want religion to play a greater role in political life.

"The Tea Party's generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government," Campbell and Putnam concluded.

First Things editor R. R. Reno agreed that tea party supporters were religious conservatives. However, he took issue with Campbell and Putnam's conclusion that it was religion, not fiscal issues, that were drawing people to the tea party.

"The religious and social conservatism of the Republican Party intermixes with the fiscal and economic conservatism in all sorts of close and complex ways," Reno wrote. "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."

Campbell and Putnam are not the first to find a link between the old-fashioned conservative Christian movement and the tea party movement. A link, however, does not mean that the two are the same.

Among the general public, neither the tea party movement nor conservative Christians are well-known. In last year's religion poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, only 28 percent of registered voters had heard enough about both groups to voice an opinion on them. For the vast majority of Americans, neither is something they have heard of or care about.

Of the one-in-four American voters who do have an opinion, most disagree with both groups. But of those that do find at least one of the movements attractive, very few agree with conservative Christian only. Instead, most conservative Christians also like the tea party. Many who like the tea party, however, do not agree with Christian conservatives.

The tea party, then, is a larger movement that the vast majority of conservative Christian political activists find appealing. Christian conservatives are now part of a larger grassroots conservative movement that includes others who are not driven by social issues. By appealing to the tea party, a politician could appeal to both social conservatives and fiscal conservatives. Appealing to Christian conservatives alone could alienate many grassroots conservative activists.

We can see a similar relationship in Congress. In 2010, Michele Bachmann founded the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives. Most of the members were social conservatives who scored perfectly on voter guides by Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council.

The 2010 election swept in 84 freshmen Republicans, many of whom rode the tea party wave into office. Upon arriving in Congress, however, they were hesitant to join the Tea Party Caucus. Today, just 17 of these Republican freshmen have joined the group. These freshmen are, like those who started the caucus, social conservatives who are also deficit hawks and fiscal conservatives.

Among voters and in Congress, we see a similar pattern. Social conservatives are saying "amen" to the tea party. Even though many of them have joined the party, the party is larger than social conservatives. A diverse set of grassroots conservatives has emerged. Some are social conservatives. Some are not. But the tea party applies to them both.

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