In December 1774, a group of young Presbyterians from the tiny hamlet of Greenwich, New Jersey had a tea party. Actually, the event is probably better described as a “tea burning.” When a British brig filled with East India tea docked at the port of Greenwich (an official British customs port) the young Calvinists, obviously protesting the dreaded Tea Act and copying a similar event that occurred the year before in Boston, seized the tea from storage and burned it in the town square. As I tried to argue in The Way of Improvement Leads Home and hope to argue in a currently stalled book project titled “The Greenwich Tea Burning: History and Memory in a New Jersey Town,” it is not insignificant that these tea burners were Presbyterians. Middle Colony Presbyterians were at the forefront of the Revolution in this region. Whether it was John Witherspoon at Princeton, so-called “Presbyterian Parties” in New York and Pennsylvania, or ordinary Calvinists like Philip Vickers Fithian, the Revolution can be legitimately interpreted as a “Presbyterian Rebellion.”
But the more I think about the Greenwich Tea Burning, the more I wonder just how “Presbyterian” this event really was. While it is true that almost all of the participants were affiliated in one way or another with the three Presbyterian churches in the region, what they did that December evening seems to be motivated more by traditional Whig ideas about tyranny and liberty than any sort of Christian public theology–Presbyterian or otherwise. I thus wonder if the so-called “Presbyterian Rebellion” was little more than a political rebellion carried out by members of a religious denomination who had drunk deeply from the Whig/Enlightenment well and simply baptized this Whig thought by claiming that God, in his providence, promoted it.
I still need to think through a lot of this, but this whole idea of a Christian tea party came to mind today after reading Sarah Posner’s essay on this past weekend’s Values Voters Summit. (See my take on the event here). Posner describes the way the Christian Right has been promoting “tea parties” as a way to protest the policies of the Obama administration. In fact, tea-party-type protests against the current administration seemed to have played a more prominent role at the Values Voter Summit than traditional Christian Right hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage.
So I wonder: Just how “Christian” are these tea-parties? It seems like a lot of Christians are involved in them, but do they get involved out of some sort of well-thought-out Christian understanding of public life.? The last I checked there is nothing in the Bible that condemns socialism or universal health care. On the other hand, there is a lot in capitalist thought that condemns socialism and a lot in libertarian thinking that condemns universal health care.
Or let’s take another example. The Bible says more about Christians submitting to governmental authority (see Romans 13 for example) than it does about rebelling against governmental authority. Whig political thought and Lockean liberalism says more about rebelling against governmental authority than it does about submission to the authority of government. You could argue based upon Whiggism or Lockean liberalism that a revolution against unjust taxation is morally legitimate. But can you make the same argument from the Bible?
If Posner is right, and conservative Christians are hitching their wagons to the tea-party movement, it forces me to ask whether they are motivated to do so by Christian convictions or convictions that stem from other sources. The members of the Christian Right who Posner interviewed believe that their involvement in this kind of protest movement is Biblical. But if you go back to the age of the Revolution there were a lot of Christians who misused the Bible to justify rebellion. (See the work of Mark Noll in this area).
In the end, it seems that the decision by Christians to promote the so-called tea party movement repeats the same old mistake that Christians made in the years leading up to the American Revolution, namely confusing Biblical teaching on government and public life with the popular political ideals of the day. Presbyterians promoted the Greenwich Tea Burning, but one would be hard pressed to say they were motivated by any Presbyterian principles beyond a certainty that God was on their side. In the same way, it seems that the Christian Right’s turn to tea parties to protest the policies of the Obama administration is little more than libertarianism and capitalism baptized by a Christian view of providence.