One month ago, it looked as if the U.S. Tea Party movement begun in 2007 by disillusioned political conservatives and quasi-libertarians was fading from mainstream national and Catholic consciousness. Tea Party-backed Congressional candidates were defeated by “establishment” Republicans in Idaho, Kentucky, and South Carolina primaries. Tea Party candidates in Georgia did not advance to the summer GOP runoff. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) were expected to easily defeat their Tea Party challengers.
Then, on Tuesday, June 10, Tea Party-backed Dave Brat—an economics professor who “currently attends a Catholic church” and claims that his Christian faith “shape[s] his Tea Party politics,” as Time Magazine put it—defeated Eric Cantor (R-VA), current Majority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, in a Virginia GOP House primary (for more on Brat, see Elizabeth Stoker’s recent Political Theology Today piece “Christo-Capitalism or Capitalanity? David Brat’s Political Theology”). Given this significant political development, and in light of both a recent Catholic University of America conference and Commonweal Magazine book review, some people are likely to question whether the Tea Party movement and proposals inspired by its libertarian-leaning ideology are compatible with Catholic Social Teaching (CST).
In the last few years, several Catholics have attempted to answer this question (e.g., Paul Ryan, Samuel Gregg, Catholic theologians, Gerald J. Beyer, Robert Christian in OnFaith and Millennial Journal, Charles M.A. Clark, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops). While these reflections all utilize post-conciliar CST resources, none directly engages what is widely regarded as the conciliar document most important to post-conciliar Catholic theological ethics: Gaudium et spes (GS). As such, this essay seeks to contribute to the lacuna in Catholic discussions about the Tea Party by offering reflections on the movement in light of GS.
THE TEA PARTY MOVEMENT
In order to assess the Tea Party movement in light of GS, it is first necessary to identify key characteristics of the movement’s philosophy. Although the Tea Party’s relatively unstructured nature makes its worldview somewhat of a moving target, it is nevertheless possible to identify in the movement six key ideological principles:
Radical Individualism: The Tea Party movement generally refutes the notion of non-familial, non-voluntary social obligations. The movement also believes that individual success is largely achieved independent of social structures. Such individualism is particularly inspired by what Aaron Barlow and David Hackett Fischer call “borderer” or “borderlander” individualism (see Jane Smiley’s short article for a summary), as well as the selfish, Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Negative Individual Rights: The Tea Party disproportionately embraces the concept of “negative” rights which ensure that individuals are unharmed and otherwise generally unbothered. Additionally, the movement generally resists the existence of “positive” human rights to those things constitutive of human flourishing. This is best illustrated by the movement’s adaptation of the Gadsden Flag’s “Don’t Tread on Me” mantra.
Limited Government: Often with reference to the Constitution, one of the clarion calls of the Tea Party movement is for limited government in the face of a federal government perceived to be “too big” in size, scope, and influence.
Fiscal Responsibility: In concert with its advocacy for limited government, the Tea Party movement is generally characterized by fiscal responsibility. According to the Greenville Tea Party, this generally “means not overspending, and not burdening our children and grandchildren with our bills.”
Low Taxes: The Philadelphia Tea Party Patriots asserts that “a more fiscally responsible government will take fewer taxes from our paychecks.” This sentiment is paradigmatic of the movement in general, and although the Tea Party recognizes the need for some taxes it consistently advocates for lower taxes under the acrostic “Taxed Enough Already.”
Laissez-Faire Capitalism: Concurrent with—and perhaps due to—the abovementioned Tea Party characteristics, the movement advocates for unfettered free market capitalism. Although this absolute faith in the free market is most often manifest in resistance to governmental economic interventions, adherence to this principle also causes many Tea Party members to resist labor unionization and ignore ethical dimensions of human work.
THE TEA PARTY MOVEMENT VIS-À-VIS GAUDIUM ET SPES
Given this outline of the Tea Party movement, it is now possible to consider its key ideological pillars in light of GS.
Radical Individualism: GS affirms the dignity of each individual person (12). At the same time, GS insists that individual and social welfare are inexorably connected (25). Moreover, GS recognizes that all persons have “social obligations” to one another and the common good (30, 32). As such, GS does not support the Tea Party’s abovementioned sense of individualism.
Negative Individual Rights: GS declares that persons have both negative and positive “rights and duties [which] are universal and inviolable” (26). As such, the Tea Party’s imbalanced emphasis on negative rights is inconsistent with GS.
Limited Government: GS condemns unnecessary government involvement in the lives of individuals and other groups. Concomitantly, however, the text affirms the legitimacy of government intervention when individual rights or the common good are compromised. Thus while GS seems to affirm part of the Tea Party’s political philosophy, the document’s nascent formulation of subsidiarity—explicated in art. 86—conflicts with the Tea Party’s categorical call for limited government.
Fiscal Responsibility: GS calls for prudence with respect to public spending (52). In theory, then, GS might be generally said to support the Tea Party’s call for fiscal responsibility. Given disparate prudential assessments of what constitutes fiscal responsibility, however, it seems unlikely that theological ethicists guided by GS will often agree with many Tea Party determinations of fiscal responsibility (Cf. above links to Paul Ryan and Catholic theologians).
Low Taxes: Like even some of the Tea Party’s most fiscally conservative members, GS recognizes the existence of “just taxes” (30). However, GS does not make an unconditional call for low taxes. Moreover, the aforementioned disparities between what GS and the Tea Party understand to be due others makes it seem unlikely that the Tea Party and Catholic theological ethicists guided by GS will often agree about what amounts to just taxation.
Laissez-Faire Capitalism: GS denounces the type of unqualified free-market capitalism generally espoused by the Tea Party movement (65). Additionally, GS affirms both workers’ rights to unionize and ethical dimensions of human work (67-8)—positions that often conflict with many Tea Party members’ economic sensibilities.
The Tea Party movement’s understandings of and firm commitments to radical individualism, negative rights, limited government, and laissez-faire capitalism have been shown to be at odds with GS. Additionally, although GS might be said to theoretically support the movement’s general understanding of fiscal responsibility it seems unlikely that Tea Party members and Catholic theological ethicists guided by GS will often agree about what particularly constitutes fiscal responsibility. Similarly, although the Tea Party and GS generally recognize the legitimacy of just taxation, it seems improbable that persons inspired by the latter will concur with members of the former about what level of taxation is in fact just.
In sum, then, the ideology of the Tea Party movement is generally inconsistent with—and very often directly opposes—the seminal conciliar document on Catholic theological ethics. Unfortunately, I fear that some Catholics who support Brat and identify with the Tea Party movement will ignore this reality and (continue to) try and justify an a priori political ideology with selective appeals to disjointed elements of post-conciliar CST. As the saying goes, however, I suppose only time will tell.
Daniel R. DiLeo is a Flatley Fellow and Ph.D. student in theological ethics at Boston College. He writes regularly for Millennial Journal.