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Tea party, religious right often overlap, poll shows

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 10:11 AM

A new poll shows that half of those who consider themselves part of the tea party movement also identify as part of the religious right, reflecting the complex - and sometimes contradictory - blend of bedfellows in the American conservative movement.

The poll released Tuesday, by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute, comes as the tea party's composition and potential impact is still under hot debate. Experts disagreed about what the poll meant, with some saying it reveals serious fissures between social and fiscal conservatives and others saying the two movements can find common ground on subjects such as limiting public funding for abortion.

Institute chief executive Robert Jones said the poll, which was funded by the Ford Foundation, aimed to clarify the relationship between the two groups.

"The way the data looks, if this is a marriage of convenience, it's one that would be against the law. The relatives are too close," said Jones, a self-described progressive.

The survey, which polled 3,013 people by telephone over four days in early September and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent, also found:

* The percentage of Americans who say they're part of the tea party movement is 11 percent - about half the size of the group who say they are "part of the religious right or conservative Christian movement."

* Fifty-five percent of people who say they are part of the tea party agree that "America has always been and is currently a Christian nation" - 6 points more than the percentage of self-described Christian conservatives who would say that.

* Among the differences between Christian conservatives and tea partiers is their source of news, with 39 percent of the former group saying Fox News is their most trusted source for "accurate information about politics and current events" and 57 percent of the latter group saying that.

The poll appears to ask the most detailed questions yet related to faith identity and the tea party. A Quinnipiac University poll last month asked basic demographic information, revealing that 20 percent of white evangelicals consider themselves part of the tea party movement. A Washington Post poll published Tuesday found more than half of all white evangelicals "support or lean toward supporting the tea party."

Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a national group that supports tea party candidates, said he sees a "real shift" among American conservatives "towards a focus on the proper role of government. And from that you could get a respect of a division between church and state."

Members of the tea party, including Christian conservatives, he said, would generally think George Bush's use of government money to subsidize faith-based institutions "was the wrong direction." They also might have a strong personal opposition to same-sex marriage, he said, but believe banning gay marriage "is not a role for the federal government."

"If we had a debate about religion it would be like your family Thanksgiving dinner table. Everyone would argue and passionately hold their own view, but in terms of public policy, the glue that holds us together is: What's the appropriate role for the government?" he said.

The new poll, however, showed large swaths of the tea party looking for a strong government role in hot-button social issues. Nearly two-thirds say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and 45 percent said there should be no legal recognition for same-sex couples.

Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University who has written extensively about the religious right, said there were repeated battles between social and fiscal conservatives in the 1990s.

"Now the word 'conservative' is accepted to mean generally small government in the economic sphere but an activist government on social issues," he said.

Right now, Rozell said, social conservatives aren't anxious about the emergence of the tea party because they are happy there is new energy among the conservative grass roots.

"They know what they can agree on, which is what they're against: Obama, Pelosi," he said.

A complicating factor is the difference in priorities among younger Christian conservatives and older ones, particularly on issues such as climate change and legal protections for gays and lesbians.

He also noted that it's not new for religious conservatives to feel uneasy about their place in the Republican Party. Many felt unsatisfied with both the Bush administration and 2008 GOP presidential candidate John McCain.

"This kind of coalition building becomes more complex if the Republican Party takes control of Congress," he said. "I can foresee the whole same scenario yet again, with new leadership telling religious conservatives to sit down, be quiet, your time will come eventually."

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