A popular narrative in the media, and among some establishment Republicans, is that the tea parties are a sign that the economy is the only issue of concern, and that “social” or “moral” issues are at best a distraction, and at worst, politically harmful to Republicans. Back in June, pro-life Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said that “the next president, whoever he is, ‘would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We’re going to just have to agree to get along for a little while,’ until the economic issues are resolved.” And on Sunday, the New York Times asked five people (including AEI’s Norman Ornstein), “How Big Is the G.O.P. Tent?” Not one of them argued that Republicans ought to robustly defend both “social” and “economic” issues (as these are usually defined). Weirdly, of the five contributors to the discussion, only Michael Lind said what ought to be common knowledge: that Americans tilt Right on both abortion and marriage, so these issues are generally political winners for Republicans.
I think this narrative that economic issues should increase and moral or social issues should decrease misses crucial subtleties. Of course, concern over run-away government spending and growth is the animating feature of the tea parties. We should rally as many people around that theme as possible. There’s no reason to insist that Dick Armey talk about, say, embryonic stem cell research or the importance of daily prayer. And of course, some percentage of America is “fiscally conservative” but “socially liberal.” But what evidence is there that the average tea partier, or the average American conservative, is a social liberal or a socially liberal libertarian? And what evidence is there that the average conservative or tea partier even separates economic issues from social/moral issues?
In reality, millions of conservatives, including many of those who show up at tea party rallies, see out-of-control government growth as itself a moral issue. And concern about the other “social” issues isn’t going anywhere. The battle over Proposition 8 in California and the debate over federal funding for embryonic stem cell research are two obvious examples. The Ground Zero mosque debate is another. Does anyone really think these issues won’t be politically relevant in November?
In light of Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally in Washington , D.C., last Saturday, the problems with compartmentalizing the electorate and the tea parties along social and economic lines should now be obvious. In the weeks leading up to the event, the media generally described it as a big tea party. And indeed, the vast majority of visible symbols at the event were the yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags that have become the default brand of the tea parties. But as it happens, over the last several weeks, I had the chance to interact with the organizers, to attend both the main event and the private event in the Kennedy Center on Friday night, and even to stand with a group of religious leaders at the conclusion of the rally. So I knew the word processing macro used by reporters when writing on the tea parties was not going to fit the reality.
If the tea partiers are basically a bunch of libertarians who are unconcerned about secularism, abortion, Judeo-Christian tradition, the definition of marriage, and so forth, then whence came those hundreds of thousands of people praying, singing “Amazing Grace” and honoring Martin Luther King Jr. precisely because he called Americans to an ideal of human equality, grounded both in our founding and in the Judeo-Christian tradition? Where were the booths calling for the legalization of pot and prostitution? I didn’t see any, but I did see a lot of crosses, Stars of David, and other religious imagery right alongside fliers with the limited government sentiments we’ve come to expect from tea parties.
Public displays of religious faith, calls to repentance, prayer, and so forth, inevitably lead to outcries of creeping theocracy. But, as Jonah Goldberg notes, the event was profoundly ecumenical and universal in aspiration, and included Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish leaders and groups. In fact, Beck’s own Mormonism has led some conservative Christians to criticize the event (I think unfairly). But the centrality, indeed the priority, of God before partisan politics, was unmistakable. I’m hoping that the Restoring Honor rally will persuade the Republican chattering class that claims of the imminent demise of “social issues” have been greatly exaggerated.
Lest I be misunderstood, however, I am not saying that the event was merely a re-assertion of social conservatism as a political force. Rather, I think the event is the most visible sign to date of something that has been happening largely behind the scenes for months: a spontaneous, multi-ethnic, and ecumenical movement of religious Americans who are convinced that moral and spiritual renewal are essential to long-term economic and political renewal. (See here and <a href="http://www.torenewamerica.com/pray-and-act"here, for example). The movement is conservative but not narrowly partisan. And as of Saturday morning, it is no longer behind the scenes.