The Soul of the Tea Party

Photos: Inside the Tea Party Tannen Maury

Earlier this month, a group of Tea Party activists put Congressional Republicans on notice with a terse letter reminding them not to take their eyes off the ball. The elected officials' mission, the activists wrote, is to reduce spending, taxes, regulations, and the deficit, not to further the social-issues agenda of the Christian right. "We urge you to stay focused on the issues that got you and your colleagues elected and to resist the urge to run down any social issue rabbit holes in order to appease the special interests," said the letter signed by 17 leading Tea Party activists and a conservative gay group and sent to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the incoming House speaker, John Boehner, earlier this month. "The Tea Party movement is not going away and we intend to continue to hold Washington accountable."

The activists—including statewide coordinators from Arizona, Florida, Ohio, Nebraska, and Maine—had begun to worry about a social-values coup. In the days after the midterms, Senator Tea Party, as Jim DeMint of South Carolina is called, had been on Fox News saying, "You can't be a fiscal conservative and not be a social conservative." (The Washington-based Family Research Council backed him up, calling on "one million Americans to pray on a regular basis for Sen. DeMint" as he faced his critics.) On Nov. 3, 65 leading conservatives—including Family Research Council head Tony Perkins, Eagle Forum leader Phyllis Schlafly, Tea Party Express chair Amy Kremer, and Edwin Meese III—wrote Rep. Boehner, Sen. McConnell, and Republican Governors Association chair Haley Barbour urging them to renew their "commitment to restoring traditional moral values" by banning abortion and same-sex marriage.

And so, the fight is on for the soul of the Tea Party. On one side: libertarian-minded grassroots activists. On the other: the leaders of the wealthy, powerful, and better-established Christian right, who've dominated conservative populism in the United States for decades. Roughly half the people who say they support the Tea Party also say they are part of the religious right. Christian conservative leaders have long espoused limiting government intrusion in the economy—Jerry Falwell regularly condemned social programs and praised Milton Friedman—making the Tea Party attractive to their followers. But many of them also want government to enforce moral standards—banning abortion and gay marriage, for instance—a notion that's anathema to libertarians who want government off their backs. "Principled libertarians aren't going to like Big Religion telling them how to act and are going to have to draw the line," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

At issue: whether the amorphous grassroots movement can wield the sort of influence on congressional leaders that it did on congressional candidates, or if it will be drowned out by old alliances. "In a battle royale between the religious right Tea Party and the libertarian Tea Party, I would have to bet with the Christian conservatives," says Lynn.

The libertarian insurgents are currently gathered around Andrew Ian Dodge, a science-fiction writer and amateur rocker (with a penchant for writing lyrics about reducing the size of government), who serves as the unpaid coordinator for Maine's Tea Party Patriots. Unlike folks on the Christian right, he and his allies aren't tied in to a network of endowed think tanks, private universities, and broadcasting outlets that help to amplify their message. And Dodge is skeptical of groups like the Tea Party Express, which, he says, is "a Republican front run by Republican apparatchiks." As an outsider, he's enjoying having a chance at being on the inside, and he's not going to give up his seat so easily. "Look at me: I'm a hairy guy with an earring. It's a new environment on the American right where someone like me fits in, one driven not by an individual but by a core belief system." A belief system that is made up of the nonreligious tenets of fiscal responsibility, free-market economics, and limited government, according to Dodge.

His appearance—shoulder-length hair, goatee, black overcoat and wide-rimmed black leather hat—suggests an aging Dungeons & Dragons master. But he's a former Young Republican with two government degrees, a decade of experience in Conservative politics in Britain (where he met his wife), and communications skills honed stumping against a strong European Union while working for Margaret Thatcher's Bruges Group. In the past 20 months he's gone from writing self-published sci-fi and fantasy novels in relative obscurity in a small Maine fishing hamlet to one of the most sought-after voices of the Tea Party's grassroots, interviewed regularly by national and international media. His message to fellow Tea Partiers: keep focused on the movement's core values and don't get coopted by either the Christian right or the GOP establishment. "This is a movement that's brought conservatives of all types together and look what it's accomplished," he says. "I want to build on our success, not to ruin the coalition by bringing 'God's will' into it."

Dodge and like-minded libertarians think the government has no business legislating morality. "Those folks are looking to use the Tea Party movement as a vehicle for their own agenda and are pushing for a fight," says Christopher Barron, chair of the Washington-based conservative gay group GOProud, who wrote the text with Dodge. "This is the Tea Party at a crossroads. Is it going to continue to be this vigorous movement that resurrected conservatism in this country, or will it be picked apart by establishment conservatives?"

So is a split imminent or inevitable as an unstable electoral coalition turns to the more fraught task of governing? In the immediate future, probably not, says the Rev. David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta and author of The Future of Faith in American Politics. "With everyone focused on the deficit and the unemployment rate, they'll probably be able to finesse these differences," he says. "But people will be jockeying for the 2012 [presidential] nomination who will represent different flavors, and that will generate considerable pressures."

For his part, Lynn predicts the honeymoon period, such as it is, will last three to six months, when the GOP starts organizing for 2012. A split would leave a much-reduced Tea Party, since 32 percent of its supporters say they are completely opposed to abortion, and 40 percent are against same-sex civil unions, according to an April New York Times poll. Gushee expects cracks to develop even over fiscal issues, as younger evangelicals balk at efforts to abandon the social safety net, or if Rep. Ron Paul and incoming Sen. Rand Paul challenge military spending. "Most evangelical Christian conservatives I know would at least be uneasy about the prospect of the government leaving the poor to their own devices and having churches pick up the slack," he says.

But Dodge thinks things will hold together, at least so long as Democrats control either the Senate or White House. "The Republican Party will be setting out to destroy the Tea Party once we've served their purpose because we're a threat," he says. "But for now, anyone who tries to cause trouble and split groups will be told, hey, the battle's not over yet." Some might say it's just beginning.

Colin Woodard's fourth book, a history of America's ethnoregional nations, will be published next year by Viking Press.