The Tea Party is at once a very traditional American phenomenon — generally known as a “Great Awakening” — and part of a global insurrection. In both cases, the status quo is portrayed as oppressive and corrupt, and the rebellion against it is highly moralistic and flows from religious sources.
There is a considerable scholarly literature about America’s Great Awakenings, most recently by the Nobel Economist Robert Fogel. He describes it thus:
A cycle begins with a…religious revival…followed by (a phase) of rising political effect and reform, followed by a phase in which the new ethics and politics of the religious awakening come under increasing challenge and the political coalition promoted by the awakening goes into decline. These cycles overlap, the end of one cycle coinciding with the beginning of the next.
Fogel writes of four Great Awakenings: the first inspired the American Revolution and the triumph of the ideal of human equality. The second, associated with millenarian convictions, inspired the generation of the Civil War and the women’s suffrage movement. The third, beginning at the end of the 19th century, embraced the notion of social sin, according to which personal misery was not necessarily due to an individual’s shortcomings, but a societal failure. This religious conviction fed into the period of the New Deal and its attendant social engineering. The fourth — current — Great Awakening started in the 1960s and was marked by a revival of enthusiastic religious practices and by “born again” conversions. It drove the Reagan Revolution, and inspires the Tea Party’s tax revolt, the attacks on entitlements, and a return to ethics of individual responsibility after the embrace of collective sin in the previous phase.
The Second Great Awakening was well described by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, and shaped his view of religion in America. The country was swept by an explosion of faith, spread by impassioned preachers claiming direct contact with the Almighty, and demanding that Americans rededicate themselves to the high moral calling of their religion. As it always does, the Great Awakening surged into public life, producing a new moralism in politics (the Temperance Movement, the Abolitionists, campaigns against the dramatic increase in illegitimate births, renewed concern for the poor and disadvantaged, and several utopian communities featuring a fusion of radical social experimentation and a highly personalized religion). A generation later, the passions, ideals, and language of the Great Awakening defined the Civil War.
Whether focused against British governors, slave owners, captains of industry, or bureaucrats of the nanny state, Great Awakenings combine religion and politics in ways that enrage the ruling elites. Many of the furious denunciations of the Tea Party — from accusations of racism to claims that the tea partiers are “religious fundamentalists” — come from members of the current Establishment, who have abandoned the (similarly “fundamentalist”) religious ideals that contributed so greatly to their own success. This further stimulates the newly awakened, who believe the members of the ruling elites have become corrupt, and abandoned the values that made America great.
Religious revival inspires social and political movements that change America. And not just America.
We are in the midst of a global religious expansion that goes hand in hand with a widespread political uprising against oppression and corruption. It is commonly assumed that the most dynamic faith in the global revival is militant Islam, but it isn’t. The blue ribbon goes to American-style evangelical Christianity. You might not know, for example, that a leading Chinese government economist recently wrote a famous study of market economies, in which he concluded that successful capitalist countries have successful churches, and thus that China should embrace religious organizations. As two sharp-eyed British journalists note in their recent book, God is Back, (Evangelical) Christianity is booming in the People’s Republic (and most everywhere else Christians are free to practice their faith), and the Chinese Constitution has actually been amended to make room for it.