Jonathan Kay on the Romance of the Tea Party

“In times of crisis, all societies instinctively revert to romantic backward-looking notions.” That’s Kay in the National Post, August 9, 2011, A16.

There is a religious strain in this instinct, he says. “It is imagined that the current trials result from the population deviating from some ancient revealed text, be it the Bible, the Koran, or the U.S. Constitution. This is why at Tea Party events, there is such a strong correlation between religious Christianity and fiscal conservatism: The small-government pastoral frontier society of America’s formative years is idealized as a sort of Eden.”

You can hear him chuckling. “The idea that an 18th century-style social contract can cure America of its 21th century ills is attractive in the way that all romantic political ideologies seem attractive in turbulent times.”

Well, call me a romantic. I’m a fan of that 18th century social-contract philosophy. In my opinion it is one of America’s strengths that Right, Left, or Tea Party, Americans still pay attention to it. And for goodness sakes! What is wrong with scouring old texts for political ideas? People still read Mill, Marx, Confucius, Cicero, and Aristotle. I hope they always will.

It isn’t the backwardness of the argument that most bothers Kay. It’s the religiosity. He is staggered by the idea that Tea Partiers consult religious texts on political matters. “Some conservative Christian activists even blur the line between the Constitution and the Bible by claiming that the latter inspired the former.”

Dear Jonathan, for decades now scholars have been investigating the idea that intellectuals of the European Enlightenment looked positively on the arguments for human equality and dignity in the Bible, and drew from the Old Testament ideas about ways to hold kings and judges to account. The simplistic idea that the Enlightenment rejected the Bible tout court is not universally accepted.

I found in my mail recently a notice from the medieval studies workshop at University of Chicago. Thy are accepting proposals for a session at the 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies, to be entitled: Christian Hebraism in the Middle Ages. The notice continues: Scholarship on Christian Hebraism (the Christian study of the Hebrew language and Jewish texts, including the Old Testament) generally focuses on the Church Fathers or European intellectuals of the 17-18th centuries. This panel seeks to reevaluate the state of Hebrew learning in the medieval Christian world.

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6 Responses to “Jonathan Kay on the Romance of the Tea Party”


  1. 1 David Stern August 12, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    As a political junkie I have been following the Tea Party movement pretty much from its inception. It is a fascinating phenomena. Experimenting with ideas, one could say it is a revolt against the post modernistic movement which has captured academia, seeped into society and seems to provide those who identify with the left political spectrum with a ‘philosophical’ base. Identifying with the Tea Party appears to happen as a revulsion to the results of this social and political manifestation. I consider Sarah Palin to be one of the interesting political persons to enter the world stage. She has charisma but it is of a different order to that which Obama expressed during his election. She obviously has huge potential but how that might work out in the event she becomes president remains to be seen. I really don’t think she is reactionary, in fact I believe she pragmatic, and think her political instincts are superb. As president her success or failure will be governed by who she can attract to work with her which is one of the reasons Obama’s administration has been such a failure.

  2. 2 Alastair Sweeny (@AlastairSweeny) August 15, 2011 at 11:54 am

    As Terence Corcoran deftly notes in the Financial Post, the Tea Party at its core a reaction to big government and stifling taxation, Taxation without Representation, I suppose:
    http://opinion.financialpost.com/2011/08/09/terence-corcoran-don’t-blame-the-tea-party/
    I really don’t understand where Kay is coming from. Is naming the movement after the Boston Tea Party romantic and backward looking?

  3. 3 Bryan Grim August 26, 2011 at 3:19 am

    Thanks for pointing this out! It seems people without religion (I’m assuming this of Mr. Kay) can’t fathom that the Bible (ie. God) gave man tenets to live by, and these can be applied to private AND public life. The whole notion of checks and balances of the government that were part of America’s constitution, and explicitly limiting government’s power came mainly out of the Christian view of fallen man; without these limitations, a republic could not survive because of the tendency of power to corrupt. We’ve lost that view in our society today, and you can see the result of that all around you in the corruption of government.

    If you want to read a great book on the influence of the Reformation on America’s founding documents, try David W. Hall’s “Calvin in the Public Square: Liberal Democracies, Rights and Civil Liberties”
    http://www.amazon.com/Calvin-Public-Square-Democracies-Liberties/dp/1596380993

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