The Tea Party as a Religious Movement: A Response

By June 4, 2010

(Cross-posted at Religion in American History)

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 so many 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 exercises—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?

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Current Events Popular Culture


  1. I’ll go ahead and state up-front that I have little interest in debating the relative merits (or righteousness) of Glenn Beck and/or the Tea Partiers. If you’re interested in doing so, please go elsewhere.

    Comment by Christopher — June 4, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

  2. I have seen a religious zeal among many LDS Glen Beck fans I know. In fact, there are some members of my own family who constantly talk all apocalyptic and reference Beck. They are convinced Glen Beck is a large part of “saving the constitution which is hanging by a thread.”

    So yes, there is religious attachments to this movement.

    Comment by Joseph Smidt — June 5, 2010 @ 12:56 am

  3. “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?”

    I’d say because people generally care more about their politics than their religion – often confusing the former for the later.

    Comment by Seth R. — June 5, 2010 @ 8:00 am

  4. Thanks for this, Chris; well written and informative.

    Comment by Ben — June 5, 2010 @ 8:21 am

  5. Right, Seth. That seems to be the case in this instance. But why? Many of these same politically-conservative religiously-evangelical Tea Partiers harbor no small distaste for Mormons and Mormonism in general—so why is the exception being made here?

    Comment by Christopher — June 5, 2010 @ 8:25 am

  6. Great post, Chris. Seth, it’s interesting because of the Romney example, where his religion seemed to play an important role in creating distance between him and the evangelical community when in plenty of ways, Romney ought to have appealed to that demographic (speaking in general terms). I think the question remains: Why does Beck get the pass? I don’t have any answers. Perhaps as a non-office seeker, his Mormonism is less threatening?

    Comment by Jared T — June 5, 2010 @ 9:19 am

  7. I don’t believe it is true that Glen Beck hasn’t gotten some flack for his Mormonism by evangelicals. There are a few that have very vocally called him out as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Criticism of his having given a speech one example of the consternation some feel about his religious affiliation. However, he taps into (using Mormon background tropes) both evangelical Christian and non-religious libertarian concerns about big government involvement in people’s lives. I believe in this instance it is a case of the enemy of my bigger enemy is my friend that has kept any wedge from forming. The reason he isn’t treated the way Romney is (other than not running for office) is because Romney is not seen as a purist; but a GOP establishment guy.In case you haven’t noticed the GOP leadership is considered part of the problem.

    As for the religious movement issue, the Tea Party isn’t particularly religious although it is made up of religious people. Those who actually are part of and participate know that there is a slow burn war going on between secular and social parts of the movement. Neither side really trusts the other; but they work together for a common goal. The only ones who label it “religious” are the liberals or outsiders who think just because it has support from religious people it must mean it is religious. I know many Tea Party activists who are pro-gay marriage and atheist for instance, although not in the majority.

    On the other hand, Mormon involvement is rather different. It does have religious overtones that Beck communicates. The over-riding political philosophy is leave us alone, very similar to the old Mormon motto of mind your own business. Because of the intersection of Mormon conservative political history and the Tea Party goals and grievances, it isn’t surprising there is a strong religious backing. That doesn’t mean it translates into other participants’ (or the group as a whole) reasons for involvement.

    Comment by Jettboy — June 5, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  8. Christopher,

    Can we discuss the question of how much of Glenn Beck is a deception and not real? Meaning, the man is tapping into conservative angst at liberalism and a black man as president, but there is much evidence that Glenn Beck is tapping this angst solely for material gain. He’s found, for himself, quite a gold mine (uh, no pun intended). He just has to continue the ridiculous talk and he gets loads of cash from a group of people who don’t seem to realize they are being played, their fears are being exploited just so that he can make an extra buck.

    I think the conservative angst is real (though my view is that conservatives are sore losers and really hate that they lost the 2008 election, which is why they are raging so strongly right now), but I don’t see how this movement is religious. Their angst is solely based on the fact that liberals are in charge. They had eight years of their own guy in office and they were silent through all his massive mistakes. If their own guy, or girl (say Sarah Palin) as president and everything else exactly the same, does anyone really think these Tea Partiers would be up in arms over their country’s direction? Heck no!

    The Tea Party has religious ties, but it’s not a religious movement. If conservative Mormons wish to consider it that, hey more power to them. They’re being played though, by the leaders of the Tea Party. Their fears are being exploited and enflamed.

    Comment by Dan — June 5, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

  9. Dan: but there is much evidence that Glenn Beck is tapping this angst solely for material gain

    I am no Beck fan but this strikes me as a ludicrous accusation Dan. No one will dispute Beck does what he does partially for financial gain (since it is his day job and all) but you have absolutely no way of backing up the incendiary allegation that it is solely for that reason.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 5, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

  10. I echo what Geoff said. I honestly believe Beck when he says that he would quit what he’s doing in a heartbeat if he knew someone else would carry the torch. He believes deeply in what he says and does.

    Comment by Jeremy — June 5, 2010 @ 5:53 pm

  11. Dan, do I have to tell you how ridiculously over the top, dishonest, and out of touch you sound? Not to mention blatantly violating the stricture laid down by the original poster in comment number one?

    Comment by Mark D. — June 5, 2010 @ 7:20 pm

  12. Of course, it is a religious movement. It is a movement committed to some of the most [edited for propriety]. This requires faith.

    It also has prophets. In the past they have been Robert Welch, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, Ezra Taft Benson and Cleon Skousen. Today they have Ron Paul.

    So, it is not a movement of the religious, but a religious movement itself.

    Comment by JJ Rousseau — June 5, 2010 @ 7:33 pm

  13. Wait…what got deleted? You guys are no fun.

    Comment by JJ Rousseau — June 5, 2010 @ 8:56 pm

  14. Dan,

    Can we discuss the question of how much of Glenn Beck is a deception and not real?

    I’d rather that we not, since it is tangential (and that’s being generous) to the questions at hand in this post and the previous posts to which it is referring.

    JJ Rousseau,

    I was not the one who edited your comment, so unfortunately I’m not sure what you even said. And while it irritates me that someone else is moderating my thread to that extent, I’d prefer that we keep comments on topic here (which the portion of your comment left above seems to do).

    Comment by Christopher — June 5, 2010 @ 9:28 pm

  15. Christopher,

    Your posts on this topic have been amazing. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. Too many Mormon intellectuals (left, center, and right) lack the spine to take on these issues in the way that you have.

    We tolerated slavery for 80 years in the name of civility. Sigh.

    Comment by JJ Rousseau — June 5, 2010 @ 9:50 pm

  16. Tea Party as a Religious movement? In certain sectors, possibly; over all, I don’t think so. According to polls and reviews across the board, Tea Party activists are mainly conservatives, who come from a variety of faiths and will at times express their religious beliefs. Even though they come from an assortment of religious backgrounds (including the Jello Belt), Tea Partiers, casting aside their differences, are united and motivated by two common concerns: Fiscal responsibility in Government, and to counter balance the tide of excessive Washington leftwingerism pushing the country into European socialism – and then who knows where?

    It’s a growing influential movement with growing political clout. And the #1 reason why many of today’s die hard extreme liberals and their biased news orgs are viciously attacking them in any way they can. Period!

    Comment by Patrick — June 5, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

  17. Yes, Patrick, I am sure that Sweden will be setting up concentration camps any day now.

    Why is it that only angry white people care of states rights and fiscal responsibility. Hmmm

    I am not worried about them at all. According to Madison, this is the very type of group the Constitution is set up to protect us against.

    Leftwingerism? I prefer socialism. It is an actual word.

    Anyways, it is a religious movement because of the nature of its ideology and the zealous nature of its followers. Most American political movements have had religious characteristics and most American religious movements have had political characteristics.

    Comment by JJ Rousseau — June 5, 2010 @ 10:25 pm

  18. Mark D,

    I may be over the top, but I am not dishonest.


    Fair enough. I don’t see the Tea Party as a religious movement because they don’t have one leader, they don’t have a centralized set of goals (I mean, they say they’re against Big Government, yet are mad if anyone dares attempt to cut their Medicare!), they’re very fractured. They have a deep distrust of the current political establishment (among both Republicans and Democrats), hence why they remove a fairly strong conservative, Bob Bennett, from their ranks. And I honestly believe that were they to have people they trust in office, they’ll stay quiet no matter how badly their trusted officials muck up. I base this on the fact that Tea Partiers love their Ronald Reagan, even though the man tripled our national debt and even increased taxes! They forgive him of those because he spoke for their ideology.

    Comment by Dan — June 5, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

  19. Yes, your Sweden Hyperbole is quite characteristic of the slandering left, as is your “angry white people” reference.

    Typical of socialist to cherry pick Madison (and Jefferson).

    We are happy you are not worried about Tea Partiers, for they will keep growing, so get used to it.

    Still don’t agree, and neither do the polls. It is not a religious movement.

    You can have socialism, sail due east…………there is an abundance of it’s fruits showing up in Spain, Greece, And the ANGRY faces in those understanding crowds. TSK, TSK.

    Comment by Patrick — June 5, 2010 @ 10:49 pm

  20. hehe. Why would I want you to go away? You all really freaking entertaining.

    Comment by JJ Rousseau — June 5, 2010 @ 11:01 pm

  21. Dan, I didn’t say you were dishonest, I said you sounded dishonest. It is possible that you are sufficiently out of touch with reality as to believe such incredible folk tales as conservatives are opposed to President Obama primarily because he is black, or because they are sore losers. Trillion dollar deficits and the likelihood of an eventual sovereign debt crisis couldn’t have anything to do with it no doubt.

    Comment by Mark D. — June 6, 2010 @ 12:09 am

  22. I agree that there are religious overtones to the Tea Party Movement, by the way. There tend to be religious overtones to almost any intensely emotional political movement, including the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, Prohibition, World War II, The Cold War, Israel, anything in the Middle East, and on and on.

    The religious overtones to the civil rights movement are so strong even today, that being black or Hispanic, for example, is a net electoral positive no matter which party you belong to. If Thomas Sowell was running for President, conservatives would vote for him with gusto, and he would get more votes among conservatives that he would if he were a run of the mill Caucasian. Marco Rubio is another example.

    Comment by Mark D. — June 6, 2010 @ 12:31 am

  23. Sigh. I should’ve know better than to actually believe that folks could abide by the request made in my first comment. I’ll go ahead and reiterate that initial request: Please go elsewhere if all you’re interested in doing in hurling insults at other participants and their political points of view. This is not the forum for discussing the relative merits of the Tea Partiers’ (or their critics’) platforms and positions.

    As for the bits and pieces of comments here and there that actually touch on the issue at hand—thanks for that input.

    Comment by Christopher — June 6, 2010 @ 10:11 am

  24. Christopher, I suggest you edit out blatant violations and all the responses thereto without mercy. I don’t want to respond to obvious slanders, but if the original comment is going to stand I find it hard to let it go without saying something. The real topic here is much more interesting.

    Comment by Mark D. — June 6, 2010 @ 11:02 am

  25. Sorry, Christopher.

    I , too, think you should edit all the comments that Mark disagrees with.

    Comment by JJ Rousseau — June 6, 2010 @ 11:10 am

  26. Chris H., when you use what you know will be inflammatory language to bait people into responding then you turn around and claim it’s just the other guy looking for censorship for opinions he doesn’t agree with, it’s disingenuous at best. Though I regret having acted without checking with Chris first, I’m glad I redacted the half sentence of insults you posted in your first comment or this would have been much worse. Besides, I thought you had sworn off blogging?

    Btw, thanks for the chips and salsa the other night. I do wish I’d gone for the colossal wing platter instead.

    Comment by Jared T. — June 6, 2010 @ 11:23 am

  27. Well, I have expanded the blogs that I have sworn off to include JI. While this will surely not be viewed as a loss to anyone, I am convinced that in dealing with these topics you all have no idea as to what you are dealing with.

    Comment by JJ Rousseau — June 6, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

  28. Whether it’s a loss or not I’ll leave to others to debate, but the point is that if you have something to teach someone (and I believe you do), you can do it in a way that is professional and kind-spirited and be the bigger man when someone else doesn’t do that themselves. Instead, you’ve chosen again and again to bait and insult and display the type of condescending attitude (and shotgun style) that you do in your last comment. I think it’s too bad.

    Comment by Jared T — June 6, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

  29. Jared, it was nice knowing you.

    Comment by Chris H. — June 6, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

  30. I have flirted with the idea the groups like the Tea Party are similar to the fringe of the environmental movement. It seems like Americans (perhaps all folks) have segments that are moved by the ideas of an imminent apocalypse. The prophets of doom aren’t itinerant preachers anymore, though. It is economic, political or environmental catastrophe that is upon us. And while there may not be a unified structure of religion that completely maps onto these groups it seems like there is at least a shared heritage of pessimistic dogma with certain strands of religious thought. But I haven’t really thought about it much, and consequently could be making very little sense.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 6, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

  31. J,

    I have long known what you think of me.

    Comment by Chris H — June 6, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

  32. You don’t have to go away pouting and saying goodbyes. I don’t have anything against you. In fact, as I hint at in my last comment, I think the nature of your research and experience is important, and I’d be interested to learn more. What I’ve taken issue over is your manner in communicating it, which as far as I can see on this thread has done practically nothing to advance understanding and instead has fostered ill feeling. And again, you’ve been around long enough that you know exactly what you’re doing. Most people would take it as a compliment when more is expected from them than of the average commenter.

    And for the record, I have always appreciated and thought quite insightful Chris’ observations about Beck since he first broke ground on this avenue of analysis last year. I don’t know what preconceived notions you have about me or my political feelings, but if you’re lumping me in with the “you all” of #27, I’m wagering you have really no idea.

    I was going to say see you on Facebook, but it appears you have defriended me. Oh well.

    Comment by Jared T — June 6, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

  33. Well, I am a tool.

    Comment by Chris H. — June 6, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

  34. Back to the original post–a central point that I don’t think has been commented on, is Chris’ difference with Daugherty’s take on what aspect of Mormonism is informing Beck’s involvement with the Tea Party movement. I agree that the prophetic voice being invoked is better characterized as that of Ezra Taft Benson than 19th century prophets.

    Comment by Jared T — June 6, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

  35. Chris H., I hope you really don’t swear off the JI; you know you have friends here. And we don’t think you’re a tool.

    Comment by David G. — June 6, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

  36. Hey, I am calming down. Good to have a clearer sense of things.

    Comment by Chris H. — June 6, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

  37. Sigh. In response to the comments on topic (there’s at least a couple, I think):

    J. (#30)

    I have flirted with the idea the groups like the Tea Party are similar to the fringe of the environmental movement. It seems like Americans (perhaps all folks) have segments that are moved by the ideas of an imminent apocalypse.

    That’s an interesting comparison, and while I don’t feel qualified to engage it in a thorough manner, I’d love to see someone else tease it out a bit.

    Jared (#34)

    Thanks for speaking to that particular point. I assume Daughtrey and others making the link between Tea Partiers and 19th century Mormons are reacting to the Tea Partiers’ occasional use of JS’s supposed White Horse Prophecy (or at least repeated elements of it). But the WHP, of course, has a history of its own, and the manner in which Mormon Tea Partiers are using it appears to be filtered through the lens common to mid-20th century Latter-day Saints (like ETB) who linked the imminent destruction of the constitution with socialism and totalitarianism.

    Comment by Christopher — June 6, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

  38. Christopher,

    The very nature of the Tea Party inspires anger whether from them or toward them. Their leaders live off of inciting contention, so forgive me if I failed to stay right on the topic.

    Comment by Dan — June 6, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

  39. J Stapley: I have flirted with the idea the groups like the Tea Party are similar to the fringe of the environmental movement. It seems like Americans (perhaps all folks) have segments that are moved by the ideas of an imminent apocalypse

    Both movements moved by the idea of an imminent apocalypse, absolutely. Runaway global warming on one hand, sovereign debt crisis on the other. I don’t agree with the characterization of the Tea Party and its sympathizers as a fringe movement, unless 36% of the American public counts as a “fringe”.

    Comment by Mark D. — June 6, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

  40. Christopher,

    Coming at this from a somewhat historical perspective, it seems that conservative movements have always represented a coalition of groups whose self-interest or perceived self-interest lies in the preservation of the status quo, non-governmental intervention, and order. I really think that the current Tea Party Movement is a similar phenomenon: a group of people who feel (in alphabetical order) politically, racially, or religiously disenfranchised by the current Obama regime and the Democratic Congress. One of these groups is a certain subset of Mormons who feel under attack because of their views on gay marriage and the Divine origin of the Constitution. Another group is a certain class of libertarian that wants the government to leave their money alone–generally those in the upper or upper-middle classes or who have thoughts of upward mobility. I think that Beck does a pretty good job weaving the interests of all of these different groups together–including this subset of Mormons, who I think you correctly identify as intellectually indebted to Ezra Taft Benson and Cleon Skousen. Beck masterfully focuses on the things about which they can all agree on or at least are not willing to fight over. I have recently been thinking about Beck’s attacks against Progressivism especially since I am doing some research on Warren G. Harding right now as the response to Wilsonian Internationalism.

    Comment by Joel — June 7, 2010 @ 10:49 am

  41. That makes sense to me, Joel. Thanks for weighing in. So is this largely a matter of Beck’s unique ability to “weav[e] the interests of all of these different groups together”?

    Comment by Christopher — June 7, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

  42. I think that Beck is able to do this through his own sense of righteous populism. He simplifies complex problems and invites his viewers to trust his sincerity. He and the Tea Party Movement promise all parties an outlet for general dissatisfaction with the current government and all of the myriad of issues that undergird this dissatisfaction.

    Comment by Joel — June 7, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

  43. Ask most Baptists whether Mormons are “mainline Protestants” and – after explaining what that is – the typical answer is skepticism that Mormons are even Christian.
    I would think that if the linchpin of the argument is that glen Beck is striving against a straw man notion about Mormon acceptance, the article above is flawed. However, given the fact that the general public is unaware of the cryptological message he delivers to believers/fellow-travellers (not to mention assorted nut jobs [ed.]) then there seems to be a more cogent argument that places him in a more interesting dialectic with society as a whole than either the polarist (red/blue state) or ideologist interpretations permit.

    Comment by Dave Wood — August 8, 2010 @ 8:27 pm


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