God, Government Power and the GOP

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Tea Party hero Sen. Ted Cruz would likely agree with the proposition that the U.S. government under President Barack Obama has become an unholy behemoth, arrogating power and trampling on liberties it’s supposed to protect. But for Cruz and his congressional fellow travelers, the danger manifests mainly as Obamacare and similar initiatives that inspire “dependency.” Merkel and other geopolitical allies, however, see the threat in the broad sweep of U.S. spying programs.

This contrast is starkly apparent in today’s New York Times, which leads with stories about new GOP strategies to undo the Affordable Care Act and growing anger over reports of U.S. surveillance of friendly states.  In some ways it’s puzzling that the latter story isn’t also a rallying cry for the Tea Party Movement—Edward Snowden’s revelations suggest that the N.S.A. is disinclined to heed either citizenship or national boundaries in its voracious consumption of digital data, which should provoke anyone, at home or abroad, who harbors a gripe against Really Big Government.

Tom Edsall’s summary of recent surveys of rank-and-file Republicans suggests several reasons for this lopsided angle on what counts as overreaching by the Executive Branch. Among the overlapping constituencies of libertarians and religious conservatives who compose the Tea Party Movement—and who collectively account for the overwhelming majority of Republican voters—concerns about race, immigration, cultural influence and constraints on capitalism all crystalize in the opposition to Obamacare. If anything, the fear and isolationism that underlie these concerns tend to abet rather than challenge the trends supporting the growth of the surveillance state.

I’d argue that even deeper still lies the Reformation belief in the Two Kingdoms—a worldly dominion where God’s surrogates rule by means of the sword and a spiritual realm where salvation occurs through God’s intervention. In other words, the notion that the business of government must be limited to the exercise of force is the flipside of the idea that human societies can only be redeemed through the work of divine grace.

Given this bit of context, tolerance for surveillance and strident opposition to a program aimed at national social improvement isn’t so surprising in a political movement with deep roots in America’s Protestant religious consciousness.

All of this is more than a merely academic concern for the genealogy of contemporary American politics. As is apparent in the pair of headlines leading the news in today’s Times, the priorities—and omissions—of the GOP’s Tea Party faction shape events well beyond our national borders. Analyzing the religious impulses that animate the movement is essential to understanding its likely trajectory, but the Times and other mainstream news media remain timid about making these connections. That must change.

About Nick Shindo Street

Nick Shindo Street was most recently Senior Writer at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, where he reported on Pentecostal and charismatic religious movements in the global South. Previously, he served as a contributing editor for LGBT issues at Religion Dispatches and as a contributing writer for the Jewish Journal. His reportage on science, religion, sexuality and culture has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Global Post and L.A. Weekly. He is a student at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles.
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