Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What should Catholic legal theory say to the "Tea Party" movement?

What does Catholic legal theory have to say, if anything, to the "Tea Party" phenomenon?  I realize that the New York Times is pretty quick to attribute ominous motives to any political movements that find considerable traction outside the 212 area code, but the destructive anger that seems to be building -- and the enthusiastic embrace of that anger by leaders of the movement -- is troubling.  I can think of a couple of lessons that Catholic legal theory could bring to the table: 1) blanket attributions of bad faith to our political leaders is a recipe for disaster; we are called to work together toward the common good, and a reflexive demonization of office-holders is not in keeping with our obligations as citizens; 2) references to the need for violence or revolution should not be made casually or except as a last resort; in this regard, does the rhetoric of Tea Party leaders reflect an awareness of the ideal toward which we, including our elected leaders, should be oriented -- i.e., a "civilization of love?"  This is not to ignore the potential value that the movement can bring, particularly with its focus on fiscal responsibility and its potential to cast a critical light on the corrupting potential of power.  But the substantive ends are not all that matters -- the tone of the conversation also matters if we are to promote, as the Church teaches, a "social life based on civil friendship."  Thoughts?


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I agree entirely with point 1-I just question whether the movement as a whole is guilty of this kind of rhetoric. Certainly some leaders of it are but the coverage of the movement in the media, conservative and liberal, focuses mostly on these leaders because it grabs readers. The Michelle Bachman's, Glen Beck's and Joseph Farah's, to the degree they are in any way leaders of the movement, are more fun to report and read about than the more level-headed.

With respect to #2, references to the need for violence have no place, but again I'm not sure they are invoked by the movement generally. But I think the use of rhetoric invoking the need for revolution in the context used by the movement (peaceful transformation of government, democracy, etc.) can reflect an awareness of that goal. I think like any movement, the Tea Party movement has its common-sense and level-headed members, and its paranoid, sinister members. The rhetoric of its actual leaders (the locals starting their own local movement) I think should be the focus, not that of the famous people who happen to speak at a rally, etc. I have no idea what their rhetoric is.

Posted by: John | Feb 17, 2010 12:15:37 PM


I highly recommend this blog posting - http://conservativedeist.blogspot.com/2010/02/tea-parties-and-conservatism.html - which I thought had a good discussion of the Tea Party movement.

I am curious why you this this anger is "destructive" rather than "justified"? (Though I do not doubt there is some of both running around.)

Moreover, the tea parties I have attended are mostly composed of ordinary people, angry at what they see as a president and congress who have ignored what is perceived as best for the country (mostly fiscal responsibility), and even in doing so, have refused to be transparent about what they ARE doing. There are very little calls for violence as an outlet to anger, and those that make those calls are not encouraged, and are often dissociated with the movement by the leaders of the tea parties, when they are asked. (The NYT, being the NYT, glosses over these in their interest in painting with a massively broad brush.) The majority of the statements I have heard and read, over and over, from the speakers at the tea parties is, "We are tired of this irresponsibility, paternalism, and big government. It's time to vote these people out!"

Finally, there is always a hint in the NYT and many other media that this is some sort of effort by the shadowy right-wing empire to lead the poor, uneducated, masses astray from what is best for them. Hence, the dichotomy between "the angry tea partiers" and the "embrace of that anger by their leaders." The leaders ARE members of the tea parties, the leaders and speakers often come from among the people at the parties, and the members listening comprise a massive cross-section of society. As you hint, the NYT does not like paternalism unless it is their particular brand of statist paternalism, and they are ever prepared to hurl the accusation, veiled or not, at anyone who challenges it.

Anger? Yes. Destructive? No, and it is one of the geniuses of our system that the anger is channeled into voting, activism, and protests, not violence.

Posted by: Jonathan | Feb 17, 2010 12:32:19 PM


As someone who reads Tax Notes Today as part of my profession--faithfully every morning--some sort of anger toward our public officials is justified. The federal deficit and debt is completely out of control...a fact policy wonks across the spectrum realize. That means either deep spending cuts or large tax hikes are on the horizon--or both.

Unless we want to become Euro-trash--with a valued added tax and marginal rates well above 50%--spending and entitlement must be cut. At this point, neither side has the political will to make tough (and prudent) choices on either the tax or spending front.

The Tea Party movement may indeed in some ways be immature--but I'd classify it more in terms of the means to achieve their goals than the so-called rhetoric. If they really want to be taken seriously, how about we put deep cuts in defense spending as well as raising the eligible age of Social Security on the table?

Perhaps the next topic for the Mirror of Justice blog ought to be whether Robert Hockett's "friendly fascist" post is in accord with Catholic Legal Theory. Frankly, the last time I heard anyone throw around the "f" word so blithely was from a couple of 19 year poli-sci majors on my undergrad campus.

Posted by: Don Altobello | Feb 17, 2010 8:34:50 PM