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Christian Stempert June 29, 2012
Evangelical book publisher Zondervan and the Huffington Post hosted a panel discussion at the National Press Club on June 27 on the “Teavangelicals” – the evangelicals Christians involved in the Tea Party movement. The inspiration for the panel was a recently released book, titled The Teavangelicals: The Inside Story of How Evangelicals and the Tea Party are Taking Back America by David Brody, the Chief Political Correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Brody said he was first interested by the Tea Party movement in 2009, when he saw prayer circles forming at a number of Tea Party rallies. After talking to participants at events all across the country, he discovered that more than half of the people that identify with the Tea Party movement also identify themselves as “conservative Christians.” Brody became even more intrigued following the midterm elections, when the Tea Party movement was able to drive many big-government incumbents out of office in record numbers.
Another one of the panelists was Robert P. Jones, the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). According to a PRRI “American Values Survey,” about 11 percent of Americans say that they identify with the Tea Party Movement, including 21 percent of white evangelical Protestants. Nearly half of those who identify with the Tea Party also say they consider themselves conservative Christians.
For the most part, the mainstream media has acted somewhat surprised by this, said Brody. “We have to remember that evangelicals aren’t one-trick ponies,” he said. It’s the result of “intellectual laziness” on the media’s part that the most people think of evangelicals only in terms of social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. “Evangelicals have pocketbooks too,” added panelist Eric Marripodi, of the CNN Belief Blog. “We often forget,” said Jones, “that the Moral Majority [of the 1980s] did have a fiscal component…What we’re seeing here is just a shift in emphasis [from social issues] to fiscal issues.”
But despite the large degree of overlap, the Tea Party does have some differences of opinion with the majority of evangelicals. According to the PRRI, 61 percent of evangelicals favor increasing the minimum wage, whereas 56 percent of those that identify with the Tea Party movement oppose such a measure. Likewise, 59 percent of the Tea Party opposes allowing undocumented workers currently in the U.S. to earn legal working status and a path to citizenship; only 49 percent of evangelicals agree with them.
Toward the end of the discussion, Jonathan Ward of the Huffington Post, who was moderating the panel, finally brought up the question that everyone was waiting for: What does evangelical involvement in the Tea Party mean for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and the November elections?
The panelists had mixed responses. Robert Costa, of the National Review, said that Romney has been taking “Teavangelical” support for granted. For the most part, they are so opposed to a second term of President Obama, that they don’t need too much courting by the Romney campaign. “What Mitt Romney has that John McCain did not,” said David Brody, “is three-and-a-half years of Barack Obama.”
Eric Marripodi had a different take. “Mitt Romney is not the ‘Teavangelicals’’’ guy,” he said. “Just look at the Republican primary.” Early in the primary, evangelicals were far more likely to go with candidates such as Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, or Rick Santorum than they were Romney, in large part because of his Mormon faith. However, since Romney effectively secured the nomination several months ago, his favorable ratings among evangelicals have risen to almost 70 percent. If anything, his faith and his strong family life help evangelicals to identify with him, even if they don’t completely understand Mormonism.
Regardless of the outcome of this election, Brody said, “the key here is not looking at one or two election cycles…We’re looking at a 20-24 year period. This is a long-term project.” What we can expect to see from “Teavangelicals” and the candidates they support is a growing number of wins at the local and state level over the next few years. “The Tea Party is less flashy [than it was in 2010],” said the CNN blogger. “But now is doing the hard work on a small, statewide level.” It will be important, though, noted Costa, that “Teavangelicals” not have “unreasonable expectations of their power and scope” with regard to the presidency, and even Congress, since that could lead to discouragement and future failures.
For the time being, Brody stressed that it is important for the “Teavangelicals” to find common ground with other evangelicals, many of whom are registered independents. The Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision and the HHS contraceptive/abortifacient mandate are significant issues for many evangelicals concerned with the national debt and religious freedom – not just those that associate themselves with the Tea Party. Bottom line: come November, evangelical Christians could make or break the election for President Obama or Mitt Romney.
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