Gathering at the Omni Shoreham in Washington, 1,800 activists and their leaders seemed resigned to being subsumed by the broader Tea Party movement, or rendered irrelevant by it.
This year's conference, sponsored by the political affiliate of the Family Research Council, emphasized matters important to Tea Party leaders: freedom was linked with free enterprise; ominous were warnings offered about a march to socialism; global warming was said to be a good thing; and taxes were deemed to be too high and largely misappropriated.
But these messages did not receive nearly the degree of enthusiasm from attendees as the traditional religious right decrees against abortion and same-sex marriage. And despite efforts to tread carefully on issues of race, one of the biggest laugh lines of the conference was the racially charged parable told by Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., about the circumstances faced by Republicans in Congress, which he compared to having to play a ball thrown by a monkey.
Yet religious right leaders, who have long played to racial resentment, seem alarmed at how the overt racism of some of the Tea Partiers could harm their own movement -- decades in the making -- of politicized Christian evangelicals and conservative Catholics.
"Unfortunately, the very fine people who are the leaders of the Christian right, are responding -- they're in a reactive mode ... instead of laying out a long-term vision of victory based on a restoration of constitutional government and adherence to constitutional principles," Howard Phillips, one of the founders of the religious right, said in an interview I conducted with him on the eve of the Values Voter Summit.I wouldn't think that last part would have much impact because the people who are using those symbols and language don't think they are racist in the first place. But the other stuff is probably good advice.
So, what's a religious right leader to do?
Step One: Get with the Tea Party program.
Step Two: Encourage followers to venerate the Constitution -- or the religious right interpretation of it -- as a document written by the hand of God, playing into the Tea Party movement's promotion of certain constitutional amendments and its appropriation of the symbols of the American Revolution.
Step Three: Damage-control the Tea Party movement by sending out a message to lay off the overt racism.
To the progressive eye, the Tea Party movement and the religious right look much the same. Both movements find their fervor in the anxiety and anger of middle-class, conservative white people who fear their own disempowerment by the changes under way in our culture.
The tipping points may vary between the various constituency groups within the two movements, but the operative force is fear of change. The religious right found its footing in opposition to feminism, civil rights and gay rights; the Tea Party movement builds on that list to include fear of the structural change taking place in the world (and there is much to fear): loss of American global hegemony, a struggling economy and the challenge to their idea of American identity as a nation epitomized by white men eager to light the torch of freedom throughout the world.
But these two movements are not the same.
At the the Washington Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill on the weekend of the Tea Party march, participants flooded the hotel bar, partying loudly and smoked with abandon on the sidewalk outside the hotel.
At the Omni Shoreham this weekend, by contrast, the bar was empty, and only occasionally would one find a lone smoker hovering outside the hotel doors. The Tea Party movement is largely secular: when its members invoke the name of God, it is the generalized, civic-religion God of the slogan on our coins. When religious right adherents invoke the name of God, they have someone much more specific in mind: the personal savior who is the crucified Christ, through whom they were "born again."