The XX Factor

Is Palin the Next Great Awakening?

Sen. Jim DeMint solved a puzzle for me this week. In trying to decipher the exact nature of the Tea Party, the press has remained confused about a fundamental question: Why don’t they care about the usual culture war issues? Are they primarily libertarians or social conservatives? In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network , DeMint offers a third view. The interviewer, David Brody, asks DeMint if he is concerned that the Tea Party crowd seems to care more about fiscal issues than social ones. DeMint answers:

No actually just the opposite because I really think a lot of the motivation behind these Tea Party crowds is a spiritual component. I think it’s very akin to the Great Awakening before the American Revolution. A lot of our founders believed the American Revolution was won before we ever got into a fight with the British. It was a spiritual renewal.

Religious revivals are often equated with great awakenings. But in his excellent 1978 book, Revivals, Awakenings and Reform , William McLoughlin argues that they are pretty distinct. Religious revivals are mass movements associated with some theology. Awakenings are mass movementsin which some segment of the culture becomes convinced, with some apocalyptic certainty, that the system is broken and has to be set on a new course. They share a providential idiom with religion and have revivalist overtones, but they are not explicitly religious.

It’s giving the Tea Party too much credit to call this a great awakening. But that’s the nature of it. Its fiscal and social wings are not distinct, but rather two sides of the same basic mistrustful instinct. The more radical wing of evangelicals-the ones who home-school and live off the grid-have already perfected this marriage of ideas, making taxes a sin almost equal to abortion. This is why Sarah Palin is such a perfect spokeswoman for the movement. With her frontier biography and her loose evangelese, she perfectly combines all their obsessions in one.

Palin herself picked up the reference at the Women of Joy conference last week: “I beg you, Women of Joy, to bring light and be involved, loving America and praying for her. Really, it is our solemn duty. Praying for true spiritual awakening to overcome deterioration.” (Quote thanks to Greg Sargent .)