OXFORD – Where does America put God? Historically, there has always been tension between the separation of church and state that the United States has enshrined in its Constitution and regular upsurges of religious faith, even religious extremism, that seek an outlet in the political process – or even seek to dominate it.
Nowhere is this tension more visible today than in the struggle for the political soul of the Tea Party. For, as the coalition on the religious right that dominated American conservatism since the 1980’s has begun to fall apart, some of the same Christian fundamentalist elements are seeking to absorb – some would say take over – the originally non-sectarian Tea Party.
The Tea Party emerged from a laudably grassroots base: libertarians, fervent Constitutionalists, and ordinary people alarmed at the suppression of liberties, whether by George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Libertarians, of course, tend to understand church-state separation: if you don’t want government intruding in your life, you definitely don’t want it telling you how to worship.
This anti-establishmentarian impulse is a time-honored tradition in America, where advocacy of separation of church and state – a radical view in the late eighteenth century – was driven by the experiences of religious minorities such as Quakers, Huguenots, and Puritans, all of whom suffered religious persecution in Britain and France.