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October 5th, 2010
10:00 AM ET

Our Take: The Tea Party's surprisingly powerful religious side

Editor's Note: Dr. Robert P. Jones is the CEO and Daniel Cox is the Director of Research for Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization conducting research at the intersection of religion, values, and public life.

By Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox, Special to CNN

Much has been made of the emergence of the Tea Party movement on the American political scene in the past two years. The group has flexed its muscles in a few important Republican primary campaigns, ousting relatively popular incumbents.

But how much is actually known about the Americans who are part of the Tea Party? Much of the media coverage has followed the Tea Party movement’s own narrative, which describes it as a grassroots group of libertarian-leaning and independent-minded Americans who have grown disgusted with Washington - a group not beholden to either party, willing to buck conventional politics to get things done.

Our 2010 American Values Survey, released today, turns much of this received wisdom on its head, while confirming a few salient facts.

As expected, Americans who consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement are significantly more non-Hispanic white than the general population (80 percent vs. 69 percent of Americans overall).

They are conservative, strong supporters of small government. Eighty percent have a favorable view of Sarah Palin, and 57 percent say they trust Fox News most to give them accurate information about politics and current events.

But there are four persistent myths out there that just aren’t supported by the numbers. Here they are:

Myth #1: The Tea Party movement is distinct from previous conservative movements like the Christian Right.

Fact: Among Americans who consider themselves a part of the Tea Party movement, nearly half (47 percent) say they consider themselves to be part of the religious right or conservative Christian movement.

Among Christians identifying with the Tea Party movement, 57 percent identify with the conservative Christian movement. Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement are more likely than the general population to be white Christians (70 percent vs. 57 percent), with an outsized presence of white evangelical Protestants. Forty-six percent report attending religious services at least once per week, significantly above the 36 percent in the general population.

Myth #2: The Tea Party movement represents a large portion of the U.S. population, rivaling the size of previous conservative movements like the Christian right.

Fact: Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement make up just 11 percent of the adult population - half the size of the current conservative Christian movement (22 percent).

Myth #3: The Tea Party movement is largely a political libertarian group that believes in maximum freedom for individuals.

Fact: Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement are mostly social conservatives, not libertarians on social issues. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and less than 1-in-5 (18 percent) support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.

Myth #4: The Tea Party movement is an independent political force, whose members do not have close ties to either political party.

Fact: Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement are largely Republican partisans. More than 3-in-4 (76 percent) identify with or lean towards the Republican Party. More than 8-in-10 (82 percent) say they are voting for or leaning toward Republican candidates in their districts. And nearly three-quarters of this group report usually supporting Republican candidates.

This much is now clear: a majority of Americans who identify with the Tea Party are old-style Christian conservatives in new clothing: they now quote the Declaration of Independence more than the Bible (although some do both), and attend rallies led by Glenn Beck instead of Pat Robertson.

The Tea Party has certainly made an impact in the 2010 election, but in thinking about who they are and what they stand for, it’s a mistake to consider them a wholly new and original force. For anyone who understands the facts, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that we’ve been to this party before.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox.

The third biennial American Values Survey was conducted by Public Religion Research Institute and funded by the Ford Foundation, with additional support from the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Results are based on telephone interviews conducted among a national random sample of 3,013 adults (age 18 and over) between September 1 and September 14, 2010.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Culture wars • Faith Now • Opinion • Politics

soundoff (149 Responses)
  1. warrior63

    Why is everyone so shocked? The Christians are American's too you know. They feel misrepresented among the Republicans so they have sought out another way to voice their opinion. That is all this is. I think many people feel a sense of fear of them, the liberals and left leaning political people. If the Christians did win, I don't think it mean be the whole country would revert to a puritan life. That is just not possible, its a total impossibilty. God gave everybody a free will, we are not robots. People chose to live their lives as they see fit. Christians can not force American's to live like them., that is not possible. Christians feel misrepresented and are trying to find a politician that would represent them without being bought into the Washington DC mix. For your info, I am not a tea party member. I am a Democrat., and I don't agree with some of the Democrat's party mandate. I am a conservative Democrat. I like how the Democrat's try to help the people with little or no money. I can't stand how the Repubicans turn their noses up at people less fortunate then them. I switched parties several years ago from being a life long Republican. There are lots of Christians who became furious with the Republicans and left them., that is what the Tea Party Movement is about. Its full of mostly previous Republicans who switched parties and didn't want to go Democrat because of how liberal they are.

    October 17, 2010 at 2:09 pm |
  2. TIM

    SARAH PALLIN IS A QUITTER,LIAR,GOLDDIGGER,RACIST TEA PARTY CANDIDATE . i can not wait to ask her the tough questions about her self.

    October 15, 2010 at 9:23 pm |
  3. Sam

    I'm from Texas. My parents are bigots. They loved George Wallace, Ross Perot, and now, Sarah Palin. They love the tea party and Sarah Palin and will vote Repubilcan, AGAIN. So?

    October 13, 2010 at 2:27 pm |
  4. Sam

    They all voted Republican last time and they're all going to vote Republican again next time, only louder.

    October 13, 2010 at 2:25 pm |
  5. sixkiller

    A study that demonstrates a socially and economically conservative group to have the demographics typical of socially and economically conservative people. Wow, just blow me down with mediocrity.

    October 13, 2010 at 4:38 am |
  6. Jack

    Yes, It is supported by the religous right and by closet bigots, which every 3rd party movement attracts.

    This is the problem with 3rd Party movement; mainly a very diverse group of disgruntled people that come together with no clear objective, but to vent their frustration

    October 11, 2010 at 4:25 pm |
  7. Angie

    Tea Party Religious? Tea Party was funded by corporation money from the Koch chemical corporation OWNERS the Koch billionaire brothers who inherited the Koch chemical corporation from their father who inherited the Koch chemical corporation from his father. The Tea Party was started from the TOP down which proves it is a corporate movement not the grassroots movement Republicans and CNN claim it is. Tea Party Religious? Are we going to start seeing their members praising the Koch corporation chemical as their GOD now with the Koch billionaire brothers as their prophets?

    October 7, 2010 at 2:16 am |
  8. Marcus

    I had a great time with all of you yesterday – But I have to go back to my business today, continue creating evil profits so that I can continue to create jobs (keep the employees that I have) and pay taxes... so that Bob and James can eat their Gov't Cheese...

    Have a wonderful, super day full of Obama's hope, change and magic unicorn pixie dust...

    October 6, 2010 at 11:35 am |
    • Bob

      Ahh, the final retort of a man who has been ground into pulp intellectualy. The flippant "I'm done" statement.

      For the Obama thing, I have no love for the man, but stating that we can accurately measure his effects as of a year of getting in is laughable and betrays your ignorance on the subject.

      Will Obama's ideas hold water? No idea. However, I do know that anyone who pre-emptively says they have is either a moron or is intentionally trying to mislead people.

      Those are the facts son. I mean, you're probably older then I am. But Intellectually you're a child to me. Deal with it son.

      October 6, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
  9. nord

    Does this mean that the religious right is splitting away from the Republican Party? Might be a good thing in the long run.

    October 6, 2010 at 10:09 am |
    • Sam

      Nope. They can't win wthout the religious right wing nuts and they know it. IIn fact, the Republicans have been targeting southern rednecks since the 70s to win the racist vote (See: Nixon's southern strategy). The south used to be majority Democrat, butThat's why they make up issues lke flag burning amendments and demonize anyone who disagrees with them.

      October 13, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  10. A.Barry

    If I have the option of giving my money to an evangelical preacher to fund their fraudulent lifestyles or the government, I will give it to the government every day. The government might waste 40% of it, but they will still spend 60% of it on something good for our citizens. For those of you that dislike big government, weather you are tea partiers or self righteous individuals, you do not have to accept student loans to go to college, or FHA to buy your first home, or social security for your parents, or Medicare for the elderly. We have one of the cheapest governments in the world. When there is no government Katharina happens, Wall Street happens, your house burns down because you cannot pay your fire bill. Yes reform is needed, but extremism is not the answer.

    October 6, 2010 at 4:47 am |
    • Marcus

      WOW first of all... We don't get to CHOOSE to give money to the government! It's taken! Taken in taxes and fees by people without accountability and wasted in bloated bureaucracy. Second, there are far more corrupt politicians than there are fraudulent "evangelical preachers." At least, I can choose which ministries I want to support with my money... I don't get to choose which wasteful programs my tax dollars are wasted on... It's just a hunch, but I'm willing to bet that you are a tax taker and not a tax payer... and I mean income tax not sales tax, car tax, and other nominal taxes. I bet you get big fat tax returns without ever paying income taxes...

      You're right... I don't have to take student loans and FHA mortgages... But isn't it my money funding those programs?

      What is Katharina? did you mean Katrina? if so, we did have government – remember??? remember New Orlean's Mayor? That fool got re-elected.... Oh but I bet you only blame Bush and Brown right???

      October 6, 2010 at 10:49 am |
  11. Linda

    These people are just the Klan repackaged. Stop calling it a "party", it's a collective illness.

    October 6, 2010 at 2:01 am |
  12. Chappyricky

    Andrew Messenger.......You got it!

    October 6, 2010 at 12:23 am |
  13. Chappyricky

    George W. Bush preemptively attacks a sovereign Islamic nation and you ask which would be better??????

    October 6, 2010 at 12:22 am |
    • NL

      Does it really matter that it was an Islamic nation? Anybody else doing something like this and we would be the first to protest to the UN, maybe even send in troops to support the attacked party. What a horrible chapter this will make in our history.

      October 7, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
  14. Chappyricky

    Bob ((Which would you rather have: A Christian president? Or a muslim one?))
    What is Great about this nation is the religious views of the president do not matter.
    The president is not a dictator; ask George W. Bush?

    October 6, 2010 at 12:19 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.