This week’s commentary developed out of my remarks at Acton on Tap. My years of studying and reading about the civil rights movement at Ole Miss and seminary aided in the writing of this piece:

Will Tea Parties Awaken America’s Moral Culture?

Tea parties are changing the face of political participation, but critics of the tea party movement point to these grassroots upstarts as “extreme,” “angry,” “racist” and even “seditious.” Yet The Christian Science Monitor reported that tea party rallies are so orderly police have given them more latitude than other protest groups. Are tea parties really seditious or do they instead invoke a genuine American tradition of protest—such as when civil rights leaders too made appeals to the Founding Fathers?

With knee-jerk charges leveled against tea party rallies, it may be prudent for organizers to think more carefully about the message and images they express. Dismissing out of hand the most common charges, however baseless, could prove costly for a movement of real opportunity aiming to transform the culture.

Naturally, tea partiers have borrowed from the symbols of the American Founding, but the civil rights movement may offer an even greater teachable moment. One clear reason for this is that tea party movements need to awaken the moral culture of politics and public discourse. A grave danger on the road to that goal is getting stuck in the rut of partisan politics and rhetoric.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s. movement was so successful not just because of his commitment to non-violence and the justice of his cause, but also because his words and actions consistently looked to expand the number of people who sympathized with the civil rights movement. He understood the importance of symbols and crafting narratives to reach those outside his crusade for justice. King hardly ever focused on specific legislation or public figures but appealed to greater universal truths and posed deeply moral questions to the Republic.

In his heralded “I Have a Dream” speech, King made no mention of contemporaries, save for a reference to his children and the governor of Alabama. King instead focused on Scripture, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and President Abraham Lincoln. King knew those were powerful symbols for all Americans, and that a massive audience—not just those already in agreement with his ideas—was his target. He borrowed widely from the narratives and promises of America to appeal to this country’s better nature. King’s movement was so transformative, Washington was forced to take notice, and even President Johnson quoted the movement’s anthem “We Shall Overcome,” when he addressed a joint session of Congress in 1965.

King was also a moderating force in the civil rights movement. His non-violent tactics and insistence on not breaking federal court orders, except in extreme cases, were at odds with more radical black leaders. His appeal was also a Christian one that found resonance in the wider American culture.

Tea Party groups should learn from King’s actions precisely because their participants are law abiding and peaceful. There are fundamental truths to their claims, too, because they invoke the better nature of our government given to us by our Founders, just as King did.

Rallies that depict President Barack Obama as totalitarian or as Adolf Hitler undermine the moral witness of tea parties. Tea partiers who show up with semi automatic rifles strapped to their back in open-carry firearm states do likewise. Just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

Like King’s and other transformative movements, the tea party cause should be focused on winning converts and influencing those who may be opposed to them. All of this may seem difficult without a national leader, but part of its strength is drawing from the already countless leaders who have graced American history. While tea party advocates shouldn’t moderate on principle, they should reject tones of excessive anger and fear.

President Ronald Reagan, for example, was adored not just for his ideas about limited government and freedom, but also because of his sunny personality and optimism. This quality helped Reagan push those ideas back into the mainstream.

Like Reagan, King too was an optimist and embodied a vision. In his 1963 book Strength to Love he said to those seeking justice: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” There is no better truth for tea partiers to build upon.


  • http://libertarianchristians.com Norman Horn

    I don’t know, perhaps they will. Another question is, will Teo-cons stop supporting aggressive wars against people halfway across the world that have done nothing to them?

  • Roger McKinney

    Norman, I agree. I can’t get on board with a group that wants to fight everywhere in the world and always expand the military while closing the borders to poor immigrants. The tea totalers don’t want smaller government and greater freedom; they want to use the power of the state to accomplish their own agenda.

    BTW, I heard that some of the Arizona law protesters dubbed themselves the Tequila Party.

  • Patrick Powers

    While I am too busy to be a Teaparty activist, I have attended a rally in my home town and follow the #teaparty hashtag on twitter. Nothing in either of these venues even hints toward dangerous foreign expeditions.
    The group tends to be very middle class, moral (many but not all) Christian, pro-life, family oriented people. They are angry over the expansion of government into industry, esp. the bailouts, GM and Healthcare. They attract politicians who want to reform education, the budget process and a general return to our Constitutional roots.
    Never in my life time, have I seen so much government sponsored opposition, verbal and sometimes physical, to a to an essentially peaceful but meaningful movement. Teaparty people can be found in life’s normal and productive endeavors. “Teabaggers” is a term more closely associated to Nancy Polosi’s San Francisco neighborhoods.
    It is too early to say that the Teaparty movement will morph into a true political party. But, they are becoming a focal point for those who seek a government more nearly identified wit our Constitutional roots than currently in power.
    There were Black politicians at the rally I attened and received very positive reception. I spoke with one, and was impressed by his articulate arguments…one might consider a discussion with Alan Keyes or Walter Williams, for a sense of context.
    For those looking for Teaparties to become a moral movement, they may find themselves disappointed. Those who look to big government to provide a road to Utopia have a right to fear the movement.

  • Neal Lang

    “I don’t know, perhaps they will. Another question is, will Teo-cons stop supporting aggressive wars against people halfway across the world that have done nothing to them?”

    How quick they forget 9/11!

  • Neal Lang

    “Norman, I agree. I can’t get on board with a group that wants to fight everywhere in the world and always expand the military while closing the borders to poor immigrants. The tea totalers don’t want smaller government and greater freedom; they want to use the power of the state to accomplish their own agenda.”

    I do not know of a single Tea Party spokesman who wants to end LEGAL immigration. We are supposed to be a government of laws. Since when does ignoring the law become a badge of honor? The primary responsibility Constitutional of the Federal Government is National Security. Those Patriots that make up the Tea Parties understand this. Why don’t you?

    “BTW, I heard that some of the Arizona law protesters dubbed themselves the Tequila Party.”

    Did you notice that your preferred folks attacked the police when they protested, unlike the peaceful, law-abiding folks from the Tea Parties. BTW, over 70% of the LEGAL immigrants in Arizona support the crackdown on these criminals.

  • Patrick Powers

    A recent poll of TeaParty participants can be found at http://www.rove.com/polling_notes/0000/0098/PNN_5-6-10.pdf

  • Roger McKinney

    Neal: ” do not know of a single Tea Party spokesman who wants to end LEGAL immigration.”

    You’re right on that. But would they support expanding legal immigration enough to allow most of the illegals to become legal? I doubt it.

    Neal: “We are supposed to be a government of laws. Since when does ignoring the law become a badge of honor?”

    It becomes a badge of honor when the law being violated is a bad law, bad in the sense that it violates natural law. Immigration restrictions of any kind, except to keep out criminals, violate man’s natural right to pursue an honest living for himself and his family. The vast majority of illegals in the US want nothing but that.

    Neal: “Did you notice that your preferred folks attacked the police when they protested…”

    I don’t support the opposition to the Tea Partiers, either. They’re nothing but socialists. I just thought the name Tequila Party was funny.

    I’m pretty familiar with Tea Party people. Most of my extended family are Tea Partiers. Yes, the specific agenda of the rallies are about limiting government in certain areas, but I also know that most are Republicans and they think like Republicans: they want less state intervention in certain aspects of the economy and more in other areas. One poll I heard about said the Tea Partiers wanted the guv to spend more on stimulating the economy and creating jobs. That’s typical Republican thinking. They are also the same people who never want to leave Iraq or Afghanistan. They want a strong military. For what? So that the US can impose its will on all other nations. Why not leave the rest of the world to cook and eat each other?

  • Tom Grey

    Actually, I hope the TeaParty folk take over the Republican party, district by district, all over the US.

    Yes, most TeaParty folk, like most Reps, do NOT want the US to leave Iraq too soon, and allow terrorist killers to take over after we’re gone. Do you really want more Killing Fields in the Mid East? Ron Paul, for all his many good points, is wrong on this.

    And Bush was right, and good — American led capitalism & human rights is far better than realistic alternatives.
    But Bush was wrong to support the increase in big gov’t domestically, especially during the (overly?) low unemployment post 2003 recovery years.

    On ‘unlimited legal immigration’, the provision of gov’t paid services to all must be ended before I’d agree restrictions on immigration are immoral.

    The biggest problem of “social justice” is that, in its name, innocent successful responsible workers are punished by higher taxes to redistribute to the poor, including the lazy and irresponsible and careless. How can that be justice, to punish the innocent and reward the guilty?

    The moral culture must be based on non-violence, on peace.
    And taxes are NOT collected by peaceful, voluntary methods. Just try not paying the IRS to see … “the violence inherent in the system” of tax collection.

    The gov’t force sector is getting too big relative to the private peace sector.

  • A.L. Roberts

    This article is why I love the Acton Institute. They make me think in ways I never would have otherwise. Good article!

  • Roger McKinney

    Tom, I disagree that leaving Iraq and Afghanistan would open the flood gates to terrorists coming to the US. After all, the worst terrorist attacks in US history took place before either war.

    Where I disagree with Republican party is that Republicans seem to think it’s perfectly OK to bankrupt the country by going to war, just not with welfare policies. Spending on war, the war on drugs, and the war on illegal Mexicans is bankrupting this country and tearing Mexico apart. But Republicans don’t care. They are as much a part of this country’s economic ills as are the progressives.

  • http://vankesterenhyundai.ca Dave

    We as conservatives (and hopefully Christians) must remember that the only hope for American moral culture to be “awakened” is the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must remember that all legislation is legislated morality, and all moriality is based on some religion. In America our religion has changed from Christianity to polytheism or humanism if you will. By supplanting Christ as the head of our nation to other religions or by putting man at the head of our nation, our morality has changed. It has changed from a God’s Law society to Man’s Law society, and history has shown that no society can survive once this transition has taken place. What happens next is a morality that is chaotic, reletavistic, and destructive to a society. When every man does what is right in his own eyes, society cannot function properly. There is no order in a society when everyone is doing whatever they feel is right. Morality cannot be relativistic, it must be objective from ourselves. We are endowed by our Creator (Jesus Christ)certain unalienable rights. These certain unalienable rights do not come from man, but from God. We as a whole in America do not believe this any longer, we do not believe that we owe our alegience to God but to man or government, and as a result of our religion changing, our morality has changed, and it should surprise no one that we are now legislating immoral laws that will eventually cause the demise of a nation. Now having said all that, we should not believe that “Tea Parties” or any other group can change a nation’s morality. Only the Gospel can do this. What we are witnessing in Congress is the ideology that society can be changed by law or with the right legislation a perfect society can be created. This of course is pure nonsense. Man cannot be changed by law, infact this is not even the purpose of law. Law is to be used to create an orderly society, a society that can function, and create a haven for liberty. Law is to be used to restrain evil, and to punish wickedness, NOT to save people or a society. A nation’s morality will be awakened when we as a society look back to where we have fallen and take back the beacon of liberty that has given us such a great society in the first place, not man, and government, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and His Law.