The tea party movement has grabbed a great deal of attention over the last twelve months. With an election looming a number of tea party candidates will face the choice of the electorate in the first major election since this popular movement arose.

The questions I have about this movement have more to do with Christian social theology than politics, which I do not much care about.

what-is-the-tea-party One must understand that this is a movement, not a centralized party or the part of a political party. It is, if you read these blogs, a “starfish” organization. In fact, leaders have used this book to frame the tea party in its development. The movement focuses primarily on limited government and reduced taxation. It combines elements of political libertarianism and populism. While populist movements have grown out of a number of social factors in America’s past one thing makes the tea party movement different—it is not anti-Catholic. In fact, it is big enough to be religiously inclusive since a leading Mormon, Glenn Beck, is a darling to this movement. One recent survey showed that 28% of those in the tea party are Roman Catholics.

What seems to drive this movement is deep anxiety about the future. David O’Brien, professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton (Catholic) says, “I don’t recall a broad-based Catholic populist upsurge of anything of this variety

[in the past].”

Catholic social teaching, which I believe is sound at this point, sees an inseparable link between rights and responsibilities for both citizens and the government. Both should promote “the common good.” The tea party movement argues for rights based on liberty, not so much on responsibility. Catholic theology argues that government and citizen are their “brother’s keeper” in a balanced and healthy way.

As an example the U. S. Catholic Bishops have supported universal health care, though not precisely the bill that finally passed. The tea party movement opposes all such ideas. And tea party activists take strong oppositional stands on issues like Social Security, immigration and the government’s involvement in correcting racial discrimination by businesses. Catholic theology promotes an idea called “solidarity” which addresses the concerns of Christians and the church for the common good and the political order. This principle, broadly misunderstood and misused, focuses upon the dignity of the human person.

sirico But there are also important Catholic voices that do not completely agree with what the U. S. Bishops have said about this subject. My good friend, Father Robert Sirico, the president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, believes a good deal of the tea party’s emphasis is close to the Catholic view called “subsidiarity.” Subsidiarity, which I agree with in general, favors doing things on a more simplified level. In short, governments should favor local solutions that remain in touch with real people and not complex, centralized organizations that often harm the real delivery of help to those who most need it. The debate here is not that government has no role in such issues but rather about how we should understand and define that role. Sirico adds, “I think the majority of people who are involved in the tea party movement prefer things to be done at the most local level.”

Many tea party advocates believe that government is overreaching in its present role in both education and health care. This is consistent with what Sirico also believes about subsidiarity. But, he is quick to add that many tea party advocates need a deeper understanding of Christian social theory as well. he says this is especially true with regard to the pro-life issue, which the movement has not taken a clear stand on.

Father Sirico has taught me a great deal over the last decade. He does once again on this thorny issue. He adds:

The thing Catholics could teach the tea party is that not every social obligation needs to be viewed with suspicion. We recognize that human nature is social as well as individual, and we balance these things out. To say I have an obligation to the poor is [to say] society has an obligation to the poor. It’s not to say that the government should be the first resort for those problems but I think some of the tea party are a little too quick to just dismiss social justice out of hand.

This is why I have so often learned more about Christian social theory from Catholics, especially Catholics like Father Sirico, than from my evangelical friends and sources. Evangelicals, until quite recently, almost never developed such a theology since they were so busy rescuing people from the sinking ship of this cursed world. This strikes me as a primary reason why they jump into movements like the tea party and never stop to ask the kind of questions that thoughtful Catholics are asking. By this I find another compelling reason to embrace missional-ecumenism.

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  1. Anthony October 23, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    I have to say, when I read your blog I feel so NOT alone regarding my theological instincts.
    In regards to this particular post, I want to thank you for introducing me to the idea of “Subsidiarity” as it gives me a way to identify my political sensibilities. To sum up, I do think that government should have a positive role in establishing the commonwealth, and I am not on principle opposed to welfare, and public education, etc, but what I don’t like to see, both regarding politics and business, is local flavor smoothed over by monolithic political and/or corporate systems.

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