If American politics were a TV show, it would by now have jumped the shark. Then again, American politics is a sort of TV show, considering its surreal plot lines, its cast of kooky narcissists, and an epistemology that blithely combines absolutist religious convictions with post-modern relativism: belief that the Bible is literally true comfortably co-exists with disbelief in simple, verifiable matters of fact, like the President's place of birth or the absence of an HCR death panel mandate. It's not surprising that, under the influence of the Tea Party, freedom is just another word for no abortion rights (and no contraception or cancer screenings for poor women).
Not long ago, the Tea (taxed enough already) Party was often presumed to stand for what its name implies -- low taxes and limited government services (or at least limits on programs and services not enjoyed by its members.) But a new Pew Forum survey offers some quantitative evidence that Tea Party members tend to be religiously inspired, social conservatives; the movement "draws disproportionate support from the ranks of white evangelical Protestants ... most people who agree with the religious right also support the Tea Party."
Pew's findings are unsurprising. You might have inferred the Tea Party's religious motivations from the statements and policies of its established or aspiring political leaders, at state and federal levels. I'll refrain from offering an extended litany of their wacky assertions and legislative ideas. Just keep in mind a few examples.
One of the subtler but also most hysterical expressions of legislative sectarianism is the wave of state proposals aimed at banning the non-existent threat of Sharia law. At first glance, you might mistake this trend for an effort to keep religion out of government, but a law intended to impose special disadvantages on one religion is no less sectarian (and violative of the First Amendment) than a law intended to extend special advantages to another.
So it's not surprising to find proposed bans on Sharia law in conservative states, like South Dakota and Texas, alongside extreme anti-abortion proposals. (You can find atheists and agnostics who oppose abortion rights, but generally the anti-abortion movement is overwhelmingly religious and tends to divide along sectarian lines: according to Pew, "most religious traditions in the U.S. come down firmly on one side or the other.") The notorious South Dakota bill that would arguably legalize the killing of abortion providers has been tabled; but a bill pending in Texas requires doctors to conduct pre-abortion sonograms for women and to impose on them a description of the fetus's arms, legs and internal organs. Supporters of this bill insist that it is "pro-woman;" its purpose is empower them and "ensure there are no barriers preventing women from receiving the information to which they are entitled for such a life-changing decision" -- barriers like a woman's right to decline a sonogram or description of the fetus.
But the right wing's aggressive sectarianism extends far beyond the usual battles over abortion and other culture-war casualties. Just listen to Mike Huckabee gush over Israel (biblical Zionists have been carrying on about Israel for years, but these days they have Tea Party stars on their side.) Michelle Bachmann claims that "if we reject Israel, then there is a curse that comes into play." Note former Senator Rick Santorum's defense of the Crusades, which, he laments, have been maligned by "the American left who hates Christendom." Remember the Bible-based environmental policy of Illinois Congressman John Shimkus, now chair of the House Environment and Economy Sub-Committee. "The Earth will end when God declares it's time to be over," Shimkus famously declared in a 2009 hearing. Reading from the Bible and citing God's promise to Noah not to destroy the earth (again), Shimkus said, "I believe that's the infallible word of God and that's the way it's gonna be for his creation."
Pay particular attention to Indiana congressman Mike Pence's revealing declaration that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a federal bill prohibiting workplace discrimination against gay people "wages war on freedom of religion in the workplace." If religious beliefs legitimized workplace discrimination, as Pence advises, then Title Vll of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would be unconstitutional at least as applied to people with religious compunctions against hiring women or members of particular racial or religious groups: If you believe that God did not intend women to hold traditionally male jobs, for example, or if you simply don't like Mormons, then, in Pence's view of religious freedom, you have a constitutional defense to employment discrimination claims by female or Mormon job applicants. But I bet that Pence would hesitate to defend a constitutional right to discriminate categorically against women or Mormons in the workplace; and if I'm right, it means he recognizes religious biases as defenses to discrimination claims as long as they're biases he shares. Pence's position on ENDA demonstrates the confident, theocratic approach to governing enabled by the Tea Party's electoral successes.
Of course, Pence and Shimkus, among others, are hardly the first theocrats to land in office. There's nothing new about the religious right's drive for political power, which helped sweep Ronald Reagan into the White House in 1980, when liberal stalwarts were swept out of the Senate. What does seem new is the increased dominance of the Republican Party by sectarian religious extremists and their acquisition of power during a prolonged economic crisis and even longer war -- a period marked by national pessimism, fear of terror, and a bipartisan assault on civil liberty unprecedented in its scope (thanks to technology) if not its intentions. In other words, what's worrisome is our vulnerability, susceptibility to demagoguery, and diminishing margin of error. We don't have time for the unexamined certitudes of religious zealotry.
If only Tea Partiers and their legislative surrogates would take seriously the Constitution and the founding fathers they so frequently invoke. Then they'd respect the First Amendment's prohibition on government-established religion, which codified the Founder's belief in a secular, civil government that accommodates diverse religious practices and beliefs. They'd understand that the Establishment clause doesn't merely bar the federal government from requiring us to attend a federal church; it bars Congress from turning sectarian religious beliefs into law (unless they coincide with practically universal moral codes, like prohibitions on murder.) "People place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution, they don't put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible," Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin once said (to appropriate acclaim.) It's an accurate statement of law and constitutional ideals, but, sad to say, an increasingly aspirational description of political practice.