Tea Party wants liberty…and karma??

People hold flags during a Tea Party Protest in Freedom Plaza April 15, 2010 in Washington, DC

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

“What do tea partiers really want?” is a continuing (online) parlor game, and now Jonathan Heidt weighs in. Writing in the Wall Street Journal’s Saturday Essay, Heidt — a University of Virginia professor — opines that Tea Party members can be divided into two main groups: those who want libertarian-style liberty, and those who want “karma.”

As Heidt sees it, the “liberty” folks want to have the freedom to live their lives as they wish, so long as their freedom doesn’t inpinge on others’. The folks who appeal to karma, however, are those who want the traditional American playing-field righted: they want the government to stop punishing the productive, rules-following and economically successful members of society while coddling and rewarding those who break the rules or fail economically.

Heidt doesn’t cite a source for his understanding of American-style karma, perhaps supposing it’s lost in the mythical past of our nation’s founding. I can suggest a source, however — one that was familiar to the Founders as well as to Christians of every generation since. It’s found in St. Paul’s second letter to the believers at Thessaloniki (2 Thess 3:6-13), in which he instructs them on how to live as followers of Jesus Christ:

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it.

On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”

We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right.

This statement is one of the core teachings of Christianity regarding daily life, and lies at the heart of what Max Weber dubbed the “Protestant work ethic.”  The American belief that one must take personal responsibility for one’s actions, and that liberty allows one the freedom to succeed — or to fail — based on one’s behavior, has been a core U.S. value until, perhaps, quite recently.

I agree with Heidt that much of the anger of Tea Partiers — as well as that of millions more who don’t think of themselves as Tea Partiers — stems from the belief that government, led by the Federal government, has in one or two generations radically changed the fundamental equation of liberty. It used to be that at every level of society, people were taught from childhood to work hard, play fair, “keep your nose clean,” and things would work out well for you.

St. Paul the ApostleOne important aspect of St. Paul’s teaching has been forgotten, however, and into that gap the government has stepped. Paul was writing to a community of born-again, Holy Spirit-filled Christians whose love and care for one another — especially for the poor among them — was remarkable in the ancient world. Tertullian’s comment, “See how they love one another,” was understood as proof that yielding oneself to the leadership of King Jesus resulted in a moral transformation visible to believer and unbeliever alike.

Though not every American has professed faith in Jesus Christ throughout our history, the nation has been known as one that believes and practices its Christian faith. The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “Upon my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention.” More recently, English writer G. K. Chesterton described America as “a nation with the soul of a church.”

One thing that American had in common with St. Paul’s congregations was that people looked out for one another — they made sure the less-fortunate were helped, as fellow-heirs of Christ. I’m not talking about perfection here, but the general attitude of Americans. One recalls that in Little Women, the March family — though not wealthy themselves – provided food and other assistance to neighbors worse-off than themselves. (Our nation still exhibits this Christian charity every year as we hurry around the world to every disaster, bringing all types of help and not asking for anything in return.)

In the Great Depression, however, President Roosevelt decided not to rely on established networks of charity and relief to relieve the suffering of unemployment and poverty. Instead — with the support of Congress — he established new governmental programs to take over the charitable function. These programs, which included make-work jobs as well as Social Security, were not authorized by the U.S. Constitution. In the 1960s, President Johnson expanded Roosevelt’s New Deal with his own War on Poverty and Great Society, which included welfare and Medicare. All these programs used tax dollars, not freely given contributions, as funding. And these programs extended the de facto authority of government into the lives of every citizen, needy or not.

As a result of the New Deal, Great Society and Every citizen is now eligible for some type of tax-borne governmental assistance program. And while the government has yet to produce the document that authorizes its action, the government now compels every citizen and permanent-resident alien to enter and pay taxes to the Social Security system.

It’s this extra-constitutional, ever-growing, government intrusion into the daily fabric of our lives that has finally angered millions of Americans, who still believe everyone should play by the rules while doing their best to help others less fortunate. The tipping point has been reached, and Americans want to tip it back — now.Tea Party Sign: If You're Not Outraged, You're Not Paying Attention

Heidt’s closing paragraph is a good summary of what many Americans are looking for, in the November 2nd election and beyond:

The rank-and-file tea partiers think that liberals turned America upside down in the 1960s and 1970s, and they want to reverse many of those changes. They are patriotic and religious, and they want to see those values woven into their children’s education. Above all, they want to live in a country in which hard work and personal responsibility pay off and laziness, cheating and irresponsibility bring people to ruin. Give them liberty, sure, but more than that: Give them karma.

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