If the recent analysis by the New York Times on the success of the tea party movement is correct, the influence of this movement favoring limited government and low levels of taxation may have a decided impact in the upcoming elections, particularly in holding the Republican leadership’s feet to the fire on a variety of related issues.
The influence and more especially the authenticity of the tea party movement also is being debated in religious circles, where some writers have expressed a skepticism as to how the evident religious sentiments expressed by many (but not all) tea party activists can be compatible with the undeniable Christian obligation to tend to the needs of “the least of these my brethren.”
Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, said in critique of the tea party approach, “Much as we might like otherwise, the Catholic argument is that government and citizen are equally expected to be our brother’s keeper.”
One of the leaders of the evangelical Left, Jim Wallis, renders what I think is a wholly inaccurate image of tea party folks when he says, “When government regulation is the enemy, the market is set free to pursue its own self-interest without regard for public safety, the common good, and the protection of the environment — which Christians regard as God’s creation. Libertarians seem to believe in the myth of the sinless market and that the self-interest of business owners or corporations will serve the interests of society; and if they don’t, it’s not government’s role to correct it.”
From my conversations with numerous supporters of the tea party movement from around the country, these comments fail to grasp the essential point of what this movement is about, and why religious people are attracted to it.
I have no doubt there are people on the fringes of the tea party movement who hate government. Most of these, however, I would suggest hate government the way most of us “hate” the dentist — that is, we are not in favor of abolishing dentistry; we just want to make sure it hurts as little as possible and does not do permanent damage.
It is not that tea party folk believe in “the myth of the sinless market.”
It is that they, and most believers, indeed most Americans, believe that politicians and bureaucrats are not immaculately conceived and require limits to their interventions.
And so we come to what may be the real deficiency of this popular movement — it has yet to define a set of clear principles that permit it to consistently outline its view of society and the proper role of the state.
Such a set of principles exists within both the Roman Catholic and Reformed Protestant traditions and are known respectively as subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty. Each term in different yet complementary ways states that needs are best met at the most local level of their existence and that higher orders of social organization (that is, mediating institutions and the public sector) may only temporarily intervene into lower spheres of social organization in moments of great crisis. This intervention by higher authorities should happen to assist, not replace, local relationships.
In his monumental encyclical “The Hundredth Year” (Centessimus Annus), Pope John Paul II outlined the principle of subsidiarity and demonstrated an understanding of the reaction that can occur in the social sphere when the limits of the state are not clearly maintained. Although written almost two decades ago, his cautions and observations could have been penned today:
By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care.