The common view that the Tea Party movement is a rebellious, libertarian threat not only to the Republican establishment but also to traditional Christian conservatives is upended by a new survey that shows a broad overlap between the religious right and voters who identify with the Tea Party.
For example, nearly half (47 percent) of Americans who consider themselves members of the Tea Party movement also consider themselves part of the "Christian conservative movement," and among the more than 8 in 10 Tea Partiers who identify as Christian, nearly 6 in 10 (57 percent) also consider themselves part of the Christian conservative movement.
The biennial American Values Survey
, released in Washington on Tuesday, was conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and shows that two-thirds of Tea Partiers say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, while 45 percent say there should be no legal recognition for same-sex relationships. That is hardly the profile of a libertarian fringe and more closely reflects the Republican base.
On the other hand, just 11 percent of Americans identify with the Tea Party movement, as opposed to 22 percent who identify with the conservative Christian movement. So the Tea Party is perhaps not as large as it is vocal and visible in the media. Its political influence, however, is out of proportion to the raw numbers because Tea Partiers are angry and mobilizing for a November vote that many other groups are sitting out.
The survey was conducted on a random sample of 3,013 adults over 18 years old between Sept. 1 and Sept. 14.
Besides puncturing some myths, the research also confirms some assumptions about Tea Party followers: Notably, they tend to be white and male, Republicans and Southerners, and they watch Fox News and love Sarah Palin.
"On nearly all basic demographic characteristics, there are no significant differences between Americans who identify with the Tea Party and those who identify with the Christian conservative movement," write the authors, Robert P. Jones, head of PRRI and Daniel Cox, the institute's director of research.
Compared to the general population, for example, Tea Partiers more likely to be non-Hispanic whites (80 percent vs. 69 percent of Americans overall), and they are far more likely to be Republicans (76 percent are Republicans or lean Republican) and are planning to support GOP candidates (8 in 10).
They remain fans of Sarah Palin (80 percent favorable rating vs. mid-40s among the wider population), don't like President Obama (75 percent unfavorable) and find Fox News to be the most trusted name in news.
Indeed, 57 percent of Tea Partiers say they find Fox News to be the "most trusted source for news about politics and current events," significantly higher than Republicans overall (48 percent are Fox fans) or Christian conservatives (39 percent) or the wider population (23 percent, vs. 20 percent who favor CNN).
Some 43 percent of Tea Party followers come from the South, vs. 23 percent from the Midwest, 16 percent from the Northeast and 18 percent from the West.
In short, the profile of Tea Partiers can look much like that of some of their vocal leaders, such as Fox News personality Glenn Beck and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint.
Last Friday night, for instance, DeMint gave a rousing speech at a Southern Baptist church in Spartanburg, S.C., in which he managed to combine social and economic conservatism much as his base does.
The federal debt is "a moral issue," DeMint told pastors
at the gathering, and "politics only works when we're realigned with our Savior." For good measure he added that homosexuals and unmarried women who sleep with their boyfriends shouldn't be classroom teachers, and he said he gets support around the country when he makes such controversial claims. "They don't want government purging their rights and their freedom to religion," DeMint said of his Tea Party backers.
One interesting difference between evangelical Protestants associated with the traditional religious right and conservatives associated with the Tea Party movement is that the Tea Partiers are somewhat less likely to attend church than white evangelicals and they are less likely to see the Bible as the literal word of God -- though they score higher on both measures than the overall U.S. population.
But though less devout, Tea Party supporters are more likely to say that "America has always been and is currently a Christian nation" -- a view held by 55 percent of Tea Partiers vs. 42 percent of the general population and 43 percent of white evangelicals. This embrace of civil religion points to a strong nationalist element that is often evident at Tea Party rallies. DeMint's vow
to "take our country back," delivered to the Baptist congregation last Friday, was typical.
Tea Partiers are also far more likely than white evangelicals to believe that "minorities get too much government attention" (58 to 38 percent).
General findings from the survey also note that the economy remains the highest priority across all categories of voters, but the profile of the Tea Party movement suggests that moral conservatism and a Christian patriotism are also closely identified with the right kind of politician, one who will deliver on the movement's economic demands.
Among the general population, one finding that goes against the received wisdom is that 54 percent of voters say they are more likely to support a candidate who voted for health care reform. That includes 51 percent of independents and nearly 8 in 10 Democrats.