The Tea Party is not just a bunch of rubes completely senseless about the consequences of their obstructionism. Neither are they merely corporate shills. They are marching on a course of action that is designed with a conscious purpose: to redeem the soul of America and put themselves in power over us and the Constitution. Theirs is part of a dwindling tradition, but they are determined to revive it. We need to understand how powerfully they are driven, and how willing they are to destroy all the majority of us value.
Americans are obsessed with redemption. From the “cleansing” of U.S. military action to the “cleansing” of the addicted and troubled Hollywood celebrity, the public and private sectors of our lives focus on “rebirth” from the perceived corruption we have to the redeemed nation and individual soul we can become.
Born of late 18th and early 19th century “Great Awakening” religious movements, the dominance of transformational salvation infused our intellectual history and personal beliefs. In Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920, historian Jackson Lears sets out the power of redemptionist views in domestic, foreign, and military policy.
He notes that in the years following the Civil War the war and Reconstruction were embraced by politicians and much of the public as acts of cleansing destruction followed by the recreation of the nation anew, reborn as a more perfect union. From that point through the War in Iraq, this perception of war or of any calamity such as the Great Depression, as the foundational principle for ‘rebirth’ has persisted.
Lears argues that this view is rooted in a highly specific Evangelical Protestant beliefs about penitence, submission, and rebirth. Not present in all versions of Protestantism or even in most, the wave of Evangelical then Pentecostal religiosity that swept especially the South and many rural areas nevertheless solidified the view and made it almost universal regardless of religious specificity. Every war of imperialism was envisioned as the redemption of other parts of the world. We ‘saved’ them from the clutches of whatever enemy we destroyed. Conquered areas were quickly populated by Evangelical missionaries making manifest the religious aspects of redemption – salvation of the individual – as war had saved the country now conquered. The Vietnam standard of “destroy the village to save it” was an aspect of the redemptionist mindset.
For conservative Evangelicals but particularly for fundamentalists, society today is corrupt beyond toleration. Starting with the mid-1970s “I Found It” campaign promoting being “Born Again”, the quest for personal salvation quickly became political then global in scope. Reacting against the secularization of society and all that included – feminism, liberalism, homosexuality, racial equality, respect for laboring people, and public programs for those in need – it is no coincidence that the religious movement arose just as post-World War II booming prosperity was slowing and the war of imperial power in Vietnam was lost. Embracing the redemptionist model (even some of the Left welcome chaos and rebuilding) took on an urgency among the fundamentalists for the reclamation of national “soul” and the promotion of renewed American global power.
As we moved toward the millennium, True Believers strengthened their grip on the one party that embraced or at least tolerated their views – the GOP. When personal and metaphysical rebirth coincided with materialistic corporate rebirth, a pact was born between God and Mammon that was relentless. The year 2000 was, for the fundamentalists, a critical moment. It was the prophesied time for the End Times and Second Coming. Perceived to be the end of the “Sixth Day of Creation” – the 6000 years since Adam and Eve – solidifying American and Christian control over the world was essential for the return of Jesus.
Fundamentalists today are accurately labeled “Dominionists” for their desire to spread their control of all aspects of life in Jesus’ name. They remain strongly allied with secular corporate forces to create and populate the resistance to Obama and secular change. They believe that they and they alone are “The Elect” shown by their wealth and power to be God’s chosen. They have asserted that Constitutional protections are for themselves alone and that America is a Christian nation, though they reserve the term “Christian” for their version, no one else’s.
When historical events they set in motion did not materialize as desired, when their secular yet spiritual leader George W. Bush retired from office and President Barak Obama, deeply feared as the Anti-Christ, was elected, the forces of redemptionist prophecy doubled down. The much anticipated rebirth of America was almost at hand when voters snatched victory away.
Dominionists dread the pushback against their control. They fear their loss of power will retard Jesus’ return as well as the triumph of unfettered capitalism and their own dominance. Acceptance of social transformations within domestic society – care for the poor, the equality of LGBT people, the authority of labor over its own work and all other secular movements - means there will not be, either at the personal level nor the global one, the Armageddon they see as essential.
If American society as led by President Obama embraces full equality of all people, those whom Fundamentalists see as steeped in sin will not need to seek salvation and change by rebirth and renunciation of their existing ways of life. More to the point, the Dominionists under real democracy cannot be “The Elect” entitled to special privileges, to wealth, to power They will have to share governmental rights and all resources with those whom they see to be unfit to share the nation’s and God’s bounty.
It is no coincidence that the powerful leadership of the Tea Party from Michelle Bachmann to Ted Cruz are Dominionists. Even Libertarian Rand Paul is part of the movement. Although they do not remotely represent a majority, they have not captured their party so much as they have found a means to hold it, and the nation, hostage to their religious beliefs.
At the core of these beliefs lies an objective that must be understood: shutting down the government and allowing the nation to default and become ungovernable is perceived as an essential good. The sheer joy of the Tea Party members at blocking the continuing resolution is not an act of delusion. It is entirely cold and calculated: America as it stands must be destroyed so a new Christian America can be reborn.
They believe that once this happens, once the entire framework of the Republic collapses, they and they alone will redeem the national soul. Economic, governmental, and social collapse will be the nation’s “Tribulation” – the period of suffering that precedes the return of Jesus to earth, of a Christian American triumphalism.
Americans, they think, will turn to the Tea Party, will defer to them, believe in them, and will renounce the evils of democratic equality, of inclusion, of economic justice, of multi-lateral existence. In the chaos of this Congressionally-induced Tribulation, they believe that voters will put the Tea Party in charge of the Great Cleansing that they see as essential to American Redemption.
Nothing will deter them because you don’t say “No” to God.
Our only alternative to their obstructionism lies in the very democracy and Constitutional values they seek to destroy. No one can be passive in the face of such delusions because unchecked, the havoc those delusions can create is very real. The rational outnumber the deluded. But democracy is not a spectator sport where one can simply be angry with or dismissive of the Tea Party. Every voice of every citizen has to be raised against the goal and the process that has been inflicted upon us. Nothing short of our national survival as a democracy is at stake.