The Tea Party as a Religious Movement: A Response

(Cross-posted at Juvenile Instructor)

Over at Religion Dispatches, Joanna Brooks has a two-part post asking “Who Says the Tea Party isn’t a Religious Movement?” In challenging Lou Ruprecht’s answer of “no,” Brooks notes that “for the Mormon sector of the movement (including Tea Party icon Glenn Beck), … the Tea Party taps into a powerful and distinctive complex of Mormon beliefs about the divinity of the U.S. Constitution and the last-days role of righteous souls from the Rocky Mountains in saving it from destruction.”

It seems to me that Brooks is spot-on in highlighting the religious dimensions of the Tea Party movement in the Jello Belt (that’s the Mormon Corridor in the intermountain West for those unfamiliar). And others have stepped forward to back her up, noting not only the distinctly Mormon characteristics of Tea Partiers in Utah, Idaho, and Arizona, but also the role religion plays in the minds of Tea Partiers elsewhere. Writing at the recently launched Religion in the American West blog, Brandi Denison explored the legacy bequeathed to Tea Partiers in western Colorado as a result of “the entanglement of land, religion, and capitalism in the American West.” “[T]he connections among land, Christianity as a justification for capitalism, and Christianity as site of refuge are strong and powerful ‘assemblages’” among Tea Party activists today.

While readily agreeing with those conclusions then, I’d like to take issue with the interpretation offered by Doe Daughtrey, a graduate student in Religious Studies at Arizona State whose research focuses on the intersections of Mormonism and New Age Paganism. As quoted in the second half of Brooks’s post at RD, Daughtrey suggests that

In a secularized, routinized, or demythologized Mormonism (which looks more like mainline Protestantism than the mystical tradition established by Joseph Smith), the religion is missing that distinctiveness, that tension of persecuted otherness. Beck and the Tea Party movement reenchant the experience of being Mormon . . . or at least they reawaken the Mormon cultural memory of prophetic millennialism.

Beck, a convert to Mormonism, recalls the strident prophetic voice that distinguished Mormonism from 19th-century Protestant groups. Many Mormons have a long cultural memory of persecution. Though they may welcome their church’s modern emphasis on their similarities to other religionists, I believe there remains a longing in them for the 'peculiar people' identity conveyed by the divisive prophetic voice and the historical experience of conspiracy.

While I fully agree (and was indeed among the very first to argue) that Beck is tapping into Mormon folk millennialism of yesteryear, I’m afraid Daughtrey has otherwise missed the boat on this one. To begin with, Mormonism today can hardly be accurately characterized as “secularized” in any meaningful sense and looks little like mainline Protestantism. As Matt Bowman notes in a comment left on the RD post:

Contemporary Mormonism looks far more like evangelical Protestantism than mainline Protestantism, in nearly every way possible. Iannacconne's work on strict churches is relevant here, as is the recent Pew Survey of American religions, which demonstrates that Mormons have _not_ actually 'disenchanted' in the way Daughtrey argues. Rather, Mormons engage in devotional practices like scripture study and prayer at rates more comparable to sects like the Jehovah's Witnesses and conservative evangelicals than to mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics. Consequently, Mormons experience things like personal answers to prayers, divine healings, and other spiritual experiences at much higher rates than almost any other religion in America.

Furthermore, while Beck (and his fellow Latter-day Saint Tea Partiers) are recalling a prophetic voice from an earlier era, that voice belongs to Ezra Taft Benson, who served as Secretary of Agriculture to Dwight Eisenhower while contemporaneously serving as an LDS apostle (and later in the 1980s and 90s as Church President), and not Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. It is Benson’s unique combination of politics and religion that combines scriptural teachings concerning moral agency and the Latter-day Saint “plan of salvation” with intense fears of socialist subversion here and now that Glenn Beck has echoed time and time again. It is Benson quotes and youtube clips that dot the pages of Mormon Tea Partiers’ blogs across the internet, and it is him who all of my conservative facebook friends in Utah quote as their status update anytime President Obama does something else with which they disagree.

But perhaps even more striking to me is Daughtrey’s claim that the Tea Party represents for Mormons a chance to “reenchant the experience of being Mormon.” Glenn Beck has done nothing to “recall the strident prophetic voice that distinguished Mormonism from 19th century Protestant groups.” And politically-far right Mormons, of course, are joining with other like-minded folks from a variety of faiths in organizing for their unique brand of activism. In fact, it seems to me that Glenn Beck has consciously (veiled references and sometimes subtle allusions to folk Mormon doctrines notwithstanding) attempted to market himself and his message as one that appeals not only to Mormons, but also to other politically conservative Christians. And it his utter success in accomplishing this---to the point of soliciting the willing assistance of David Barton on his show and managing to secure an invite to speak at Liberty University's commencement exercise---that has confused me since the beginning. Why hasn’t Beck’s Mormonism been the divisive wedge for evangelicals and others who generally refuse Mormonism (and Mormons) a seat at the table of orthodoxy?


melanie said…
I think you're right on the mark about the lack of secularization of Mormons in the movement. When speaking with members of the Utah chapter of Eagle Forum (which Phyllis Schlafly herself told me was the most active and influential chapter in the country), across the board they tended to quote the Doctrine and Covenants when asked about why they were activists. There is nothing secular about how these people see what they do.

As for Beck's acceptance by evangelicals, I find it unsurprising. Cleon Skousen achieved this in the 1950s with his anti-communism, and Mormons in the 1970s achieved it with their opposition to the ERA. Even the Moral Majority, by and large evangelical, sought to recruit Mormons during the 1980s and used LDS syndicated columnists in their newspaper, The Moral Majority Report, and celebrated Utah's conservative victories.

It seems like there's a long standing tradition of Mormon acceptance when it's politically expedient. It's almost like conservative Mormons are too politically effective to be shunned.
Christopher said…
Thanks for your comment, Melanie. You're certainly right to point out the many instances where Mormons have been accepted by evangelicals--most prominently with the Moral Majority. But it seems to me that Beck's acceptance represents something new here. In every example you cite, Mormons were included/accepted/tolerated/utilized toward larger conservative ends by evangelicals, but always as grassroots participants and never as leaders. It seems that the politically-conservative evangelical leadership recognized Mormonism's immense potential for grassroots activism in several areas of the west and utilized it to their advantage. But even Skousen in his heyday was something of a sideshow. Beck, on the other hand, is the most prominent spokesman and default public leader of the Tea Party movement. And no Mormon, so far as I know, has ever achieved that sort of prominence among this crowd.
John G. Turner said…
I had never heard Beck until this summer's stay in Utah.

First of all, why did he choose the creepy introductory music?

Second, who is his sidekick?

Tying more into your post, Beck said recently that he considers David Barton "the most important person in America today." (rough paraphrase) Seemed a bit of an exaggeration to me.

I'm a bit puzzled as to Beck's success. Rush Limbaugh, I can entirely understand. Politics aside, Rush is a great entertainer and extremely humorous. If one falls in the middle of the political spectrum, one could probably enjoy the occasional Limbaugh hour. Beck seems humorless, not very entertaining.

Beck's emphasis on U.S. History is, however, very interesting.
Christopher said…
I'm glad you finally had the chance to hear Beck, John. I'll try and tackle each of your questions:

1) No clue. I do not understand much of what he chooses to do.

2) His sidekick (and actually, his head writer and producer) is Stu Burguiere. The duo has worked together for quite some time now.

3) You think Beck labeling David Barton "the most important man in America" is only a bit of an exaggeration? :)

4) While I don't find much of what Beck says or does funny (and least not intentionally funny), his disciples regularly use his status as an "entertainer" to defend any inaccuracies in his several diatribes. I've heard him described on more than one occasion as "hilarious."

5) Beck's intense interest in a particular narrative of U.S. history is indeed very interesting, and that interest may indeed be shaped by his Mormonism as well. (As an aside, Beck's views of U.S. history are the one aspect of his show I do in fact find "hilarious").
Kelly J. Baker said…
Christopher, thanks for the great post. I am meditating on the Tea Party these days as a possible afterward for my manuscript on the 1920s Klan, which I realize is quite a can of worms! We should email sometime because I would like to hear more of your perspective on this. I was sort of surprised it took so long for analysis of the religion of the movement.
Christopher said…
Thanks, Kelly. I'd be happy to chat more via email with you, though I should let you know up front my interest in and knowledge of the Tea Party and religion is fairly limited to the Mormon angle. Feel free to contact me at chrisjones13 AT gmail DOT com.

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