Social conservatives put religious twist on ‘tea party’ message


For most of a year, the small-government advocates of the “tea party” movement have stolen the spotlight from the Republican Party’s veteran performers: the Christian conservatives who have long driven voters to the polls for the GOP.

Now the veterans are stealing the tea partyers lines.

In news releases, mission statements and interviews, prominent social conservatives increasingly are using the small-government rhetoric popular with the tea party activists and long used by economic conservatives -- but with a religious bent.

Their websites explore the morality of debt and the risks to religious freedom posed by growing government. Like the tea party activists, they reverently invoke the Founding Fathers, but emphasize the role the founders’ faith played in their writings.

The rhetorical shift is evidence of the potency of government growth as the galvanizing issue on the right. While economic and social conservatives have a history of tensions, many conservatives see the unified opposition to President Obama’s healthcare plan and stimulus spending as an opportunity to strengthen the bridge between the two camps before the November elections.

“The reason why social conservatives and economic conservatives can play well together . . . is the guy who wants to go to church all day just wants to be left alone. So does the guy who wants to play with his gun all day, and the guy who wants to make money all day,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “They don’t agree on how to spend their time, but they do agree on their central issue: They want to be left alone.”

Social conservatives emphasize that the economic message isn’t at the expense of their bread-and-butter issues -- opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and defense of what they describe as family values. They note that the fight over federal funding for abortion continues to bedevil the healthcare overhaul bill.

Still, social issues took a back seat to talk of constitutional principles and government spending at the podium at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual showcase of the right.

Of the two likely Republican presidential contenders who spoke at the event, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made virtually no mention of social issues, a noted departure from a past CPAC appearance. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty noted briefly that “God is in charge” while focusing most of his remarks on his work cutting spending in his state.

The movement is reacting to the cycle of issues, driven by current events, leaders of the religious right say.

“There’s an ebb and flow,” said Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition. “After 9/11, abortion wasn’t the big thing to be discussed. We’re in an economic crisis, so we’re going to talk about it. We’ve always believed taxing and spending is a moral issue; how much your son or grandson is going to owe is a moral issue.”

“This is not a replacement strategy,” said Rick Tyler of Renewing American Leadership, a year-old public policy group aimed at fostering the connection between social and economic conservatives.

“We will always have the abortion fight; that should never be given up,” Tyler said. “But when the central issue of the times is jobs and the economy, we can’t just abandon the field. We must provide a Christian message about jobs and economy that is based in faith.”

Renewing American Leadership was co-founded by former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The group argues that the strength of both American capitalism and government lies in their Judeo-Christian roots.

The alternative, “socialism, and its American cousin, progressivism,” has been “hostile to free enterprise and Judeo-Christian morality,” according to a white paper on the group’s website.

Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, is also talking about economics to religious voters through his new advocacy group, the Faith and Freedom Coalition. The group is trying to boost turnout among evangelicals and already was active in New Jersey and Virginia, where Republicans won governorships last November.

Reed and others are trying to make up for lost ground in 2008, when voter turnout among social conservatives did not keep pace with growth among Democrats’ key constituencies. Democrats further frustrated Republicans by making modest inroads with religious voters in 2008, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

A new generation of leaders on the religious right is shifting attitudes, said Lee Edwards, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. When the Rev. Jerry Falwell led evangelicals into politics in the late 1970s, economic conservatives were wary of the newcomers, and social conservative leaders were more narrowly focused on what they saw as defending their churches and schools.

“I think you’ve had a long maturation process,” Edwards said. “Some of the old generation of leaders are gone and a new generation of leaders is much more comfortable with compromise, more pragmatic, more opening to working together.”

Today that means embracing the tea party movement and its rhetoric.

Ken Blackwell, a research fellow at the Family Research Council who has also been active in the tea party movement in Ohio, is among those who see tea partyers as the “younger siblings” in the movement.

Social conservatives are happy to embrace the economic message and those carrying it under the tea party banner “as long as they don’t start advocating against traditional marriage or for abortion,” Blackwell said, putting the tea parties in their place.

“The sibling is not now the parent,” he said.

Tea party leaders, too, have drawn their lines in the sand.

“We’ve let things like social issues distract us,” said Jenny Beth Martin, a founder of the online umbrella group Tea Party Patriots. Her group does not wade into the issues of abortion or marriage. “You know what’s the most important social issue today? Putting food on the table.”