By now almost anyone who watches cable news has heard about this week’s Research 2000/Daily Kos poll about the beliefs of the modern Republican Party. Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas said the responses show Republicans are “insane,” and variations on that theme seem to dominate the progressive media.

On the conservative side, Bill O’Reilly called the poll, and DKos, “a fraud,” and Brad Blakeman said R2K/DK haven’t “divulged” the questions or sampling data. In fact, both the questions and complete crosstabs are here.

I don’t think the poll shows the Tea Party GOP are “insane.” It shows that what’s left of the GOP are more a religious movement than a political party.

The results of the R2K/DK poll on Republican beliefs were provocative, if not always surprising. Former Republican Bruce Bartlett compiled this table showing some of the results:

R2K/DK Poll Table

In a blog post titled Why I’m Not a Republican, Bartlett added: “I can only conclude from this new poll … that between 20% and 50% of the party is either insane or mind-numbingly stupid.” Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein hints that the results show “a substantial portion of the Republican base is completely divorced from reality.” Mother JonesKevin Drum offers a “Cliff Notes version: Republicans are nuts.” Yesterday’s Abbreviated Pundit Round-up offered some other comments as well. As noted above, DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas said the results show Republicans are “insane.”

But “insane” misses the key to what remains of the Republican Party, and in so doing underestimates the political power of a movement that Gallup polling says represents only 28% of voters. Having purged their moderates, the Tea Party GOP are now as much a religious movement as a political party.

Two revealing questions

QUESTION: Should public school students be taught that the book of Genesis in the Bible explains how God created the world? YES 77%; NO 15%; NOT SURE 8%.

QUESTION: Do you believe that the only way for an individual to go to heaven is though Jesus Christ, or can one make it to heaven through another faith? CHRIST 67%; OTHER 15%; NOT SURE 18%.

These questions and their responses explain both the rest of the poll and the surprising power that remains in the Tea Party GOP. With only two exceptions – whether marriage is an equal partnership and whether women should be allowed to work outside the home – the other responses mirror the teachings of contemporary American Christian fundamentalism. Simply, while Democrats worry whether government is doing enough to help Fred, our archetypal average American …

the Tea Party GOP worry whether government is doing enough to please God as they imagine Him. That is grounded in their view of our nation’s history and our present conditions.

A self-contained historical narrative

I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home. My father was a Southern Baptist lay minister, and I attended Southern Baptist churches into early adulthood. If you listen past the pious anger, the narrative of modern fundamentalist Christianity runs like this:

America used to be great. We had prayer in public schools, nativity scenes on public property, the Ten Commandments on class and courtroom walls, and we taught God’s creation rather than godless evolution. Abortion and homosexuality were crimes, no one cursed on TV or in movies … and our nation enjoyed God’s blessing: social order and prosperity.

Then secular humanism and liberalism took over. Those people replaced God with science, sin with psychology, and prayerful devotion with prideful reason.

The problem is not capitalism; that’s the natural economic order created by God. The problem isn’t rich people; a handful are crooks but most are rich because they enjoy God’s favor. The problem is that liberals and secular humanists stole our government, broke our founding covenant, and turned our nation away from God … and our nation is being punished for it.

The solution is right there in II Chronicles: “If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from Heaven, forgive their sins, and heal their land.” God will return prosperity to average Americans, but not until we return America to Him.

We progressive Democrats discuss economic stagnation in terms of the drying up of natural resources like oil, the rebuilding and emergence of other industrial economies after World War II, the wealth-concentrating force of unbridled capitalism, and the unleashing of that force through the deregulation movement starting in the Reagan administration.

But the Tea Party GOP have a separate, self-contained narrative grounded in prosperity theology, the belief that “people who are favored by God will be materially successful, and also that materially successful people are successful because God favored them.” In their narrative, the hardships now facing average Americans are God’s punishment for what they see as moral decay.

Fervor and funding: force multipliers

Recognizing the Tea Party GOP as a religious movement is important, because it is key to understanding their continuing political force. Most progressive Democrats don’t become politically aware until their teen or early adult years. We pick up political concepts listening to parents or in school civics and history classes, but they come in bits and pieces and not as part of a coherent, unified package. Most of us are political autodidacts – self-educated – and that’s one reason we’re so prone to disagree on the priorities of issues and solutions.

Not so the Tea Party GOP. Many were taught a comprehensive worldview that purports to explain everything about the world, our economy, our history, our law, and our politics, starting in church nurseries and often continuing all the way through Christian graduate schools. That teaching is reinforced not only in churches, but also in church-based business, civic, and recreation groups and a separate media that includes both news and entertainment TV networks, radio stations, magazines, music, websites, and books.

A person can live wholly within that self-contained subculture, looking out at the broader culture only to criticize and condemn it. I was raised that way, and that was before many elements of today’s fundamentalist Christian subculture were in place. The comprehensiveness of that worldview, coupled with the intensity of religious fervor, create a unity and energy you don’t find in a secular political movement with the exception of the union movement of the early-to-mid 20th century.

Moreover, prosperity theology makes that religious movement an ideal fit for wealthy interests who want even more wealth for themselves. The wealthy needn’t worry about those followers demanding a bigger share of the pie if those followers believe the pie was baked, cut, and served by God. Thus those wealthy interests are only too happy to fund the teaching of prosperity theology and so-called populist movements like the Tea Party.

The fervor and funding are what the military call force multipliers. They enable a small minority – only about 28% of voters – to field mass rallies and drive the national dialogue, as we saw last year in the health care protests, and again this weekend with the coverage of the Tea Party Convention.

A serious and powerful challenge

This is the challenge we face. Whether we think the Tea Party GOP is “insane,” “nuts,” or “completely divorced from reality” misses the point. Because their core is now a religious movement – grounded in prosperity theology and thus able to attract funding from wealthy interests – their visible activism and hence their political weight is greater than their raw numbers.

We’ll talk more tomorrow about how we Democrats should respond, but one thing we should not do is dismiss religious people generally and Christians in particular as “insane” or “nuts.” First, the Tea Party GOP are not representative of all American Christians. Second and more important, almost 80% of Americans identify as “Christian.” If they feel excluded from the Democratic Party we’ll only swell the numbers of the Tea Party GOP.

We must recognize the significance of this poll. But we must not overreact.

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Happy Thursday!