A few months after Barack Obama was sworn in as president, the American Family Association (AFA) began blasting its members with e-mails promoting events called "TEA parties."
Opposition to Obama had coalesced quickly among the far right, and the AFA--which loathes Obama because of his support for legal abortion, gay rights and other social issues--was fast to join the cause.
There was one problem: The acronym TEA stood for "taxed enough already," and the movement consisted primarily of secular far-right activists unhappy with issues like government spending, the national debt and health-care reform. The social issues that are the obsession of the AFA and its Religious Right allies were nowhere on the plate.
Nevertheless, the AFA continued to push TEA party events. Soon the Family Research Council (FRC) had joined in as well. More than a few eyebrows were raised. What was going on? Was this some new effort to forge a coalition between the Religious Right and the anti-government, low-tax, libertarian crowd?
Some analysts speculated that the TEA party movement would quickly fade. That proved not to be the case, and as summer came on, members of Congress found themselves facing howling, unruly mobs at town hall meetings. The TEA partiers had crashed the events and were stirring up populist anger over what they considered creeping socialism in America.
More than a year after Obama's election, it's clear that a backlash is firmly in place. The TEA party banner has become a rallying point for any number of right wingers unhappy with the direction of the country. They've even taken credit for Scott Brown's surprising U.S. Senate victory in Massachusetts.
The conservative base is fired up, and it looks like the TEA party movement is leading the way. And that has captured the attention of the Religious Right.
For the Religious Right, the new right-wing populism couldn't have come at a better time. Faced with the Obama presidency and a hostile Congress, Religious Right leaders have seen their influence in the nation's capital wane. At the same time, these groups have been hit by the same economic downturn that has wracked the country.
Can the Religious Right harness the power of the TEA party movement to boost its fortunes?
Bill Berkowitz, a journalist who has covered far-right political movements for decades, isn't sure how things will shake out--but recommends keeping a close eye on developments.
"I think that the Religious Right is hopeful that at least some aspects of the TEA party movement will embrace its social agenda, but that's no slam dunk," Berkowitz told Church & State.
Berkowitz noted a recent TEA party manifesto called the "Contract from America" slights social issues and pointed out that former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, whose group Freedom Works is considered a leading force for the TEA partiers, sticks to economic issues.
But that doesn't mean the Religious Right will give up, Berkowitz says.
"My guess is that the Religious Right will try to organize its own TEA party supporters and insinuate its issues into that wing of the movement like the AFA did last year at this time," Berkowitz said.
There is some evidence that this push is already under way. At last year's "Values Voter Summit" sponsored by the FRC, a special session was held on how to host a TEA party event, led by an AFA staffer. In addition, special sessions were held on topics like health-care reform, the deficit and bank bailouts--not typical FRC fare.
In February, a longtime Religious Right activist who has worked behind the scenes with groups like the Christian Coalition and the FRC told journalist Sarah Posner that the TEA party movement will fail unless it incorporates Religious Right themes.
Allen Hardage, who currently runs a Web site called tvTownhall, told the Web site Religion Dispatches, "You cannot restore this country to the Founding Fathers' vision and exclude the fact that they understood our rights and ability to grow as a nation from our reverence to God. …