Gary Younge, a feature writer for the Guardian, has written that the Tea Party is “not a new phenomenon. It’s simply a new name for an old phenomenon – the American hard right.”  A disparate, loose group of previously unnamed ideas and motivations, with a boat load of money and its own TV channel.

The relationship between these organisations [The Tea Party Express, FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, Tea Party Patriots] and the base of people who call themselves Tea Party supporters is episodic and erratic. They show up in different places where they sense an opportunity for a breakthrough, throw money at it, attract media attention for it, and then see what sticks.

Which is the point that Terry Mattingly (aka tmatt or editor) at Get Religion is hinting at in his recent post on a story at WaPo about Rick Santorum’s presidential bid water-testing.  Mattingly writes:

White House speechwriter Michael Gerson used to say that, during the first term of George W. Bush, there were tensions between the GOP’s small-L libertarians and what he called the “small-c” Catholics, who wanted to use new methods to accomplish old goals of social justice. In other words, Big-C Catholics like Santorum working with evangelicals and others who had similar goals.

Now, before you click comment to dissect Santorum, let me ask that you focus on the actual journalism issue here — the “tea party” label. What does it mean now? Rebels against the GOP establishment? Folks who want to slash the budget? Libertarian networks in which lots of church people are now active, since that’s where the momentum is these days?

So how was Santorum a tea-party guy before there was a tea party if much of his agenda has, essentially, been rooted in his Catholic beliefs? How does a small-c and large-C man from the Church of Rome end up as a tea-party patriarch? Does the word simply mean “rebellion” now?

I’m asking a journalism question: Do these words — tea party — have any meaning?

For months, news outlets and religion writers have been observing how the religious right has worked to play gatekeeper of the Tea Party label, offering insider status to outsider Tea Party candidates.  Wrote Jeff Sharlet, journalist and founder of The Revealer, before the midterms about Jim DeMint’s efforts to redirect Tea Party enthusiasm:

DeMint holds the key to the capital for outsider candidates like Alaska’s Joe Miller and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell. And the price of admission he’s charging is fealty to his religious vision of the Tea Party as a new “Great Awakening.”

To answer Mattingly’s question, what “Tea Party” may have meant to those who responded to Rick Santelli’s slander of underwater mortgage holders from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is not what it means to the media (or the WaPo profiler of Rick Santorum), nor what it means to Republican power brokers who have a stake in harnessing that response for their own gain.  Libertarians or culture warriors?  That’s no longer a distinction analysts can make about the Tea Party.  As Younge wrote in November after the midterms:

It is difficult to imagine a candidate earning the Tea Party label who is not against gay marriage or abortion, for the simple reason that no such candidate could exist. White Christian evangelicals still formed one of the most crucial bedrocks of last week’s Republican success – comprising 25% of the electorate and giving 79% of their vote to the GOP. That’s far more clout than black and Latino votes combined give the Democrats.

Regarding big-C and small-c Catholics, Mattingly reads Gerson’s observation wrongly.  “…The “small-c” Catholics, who wanted to use new methods to accomplish old goals of social justice. In other words, Big-C Catholics like Santorum working with evangelicals and others who had similar goals.”

Catholics like Santorum, a staunch anti-abortion advocate, have little interest in social justice issues as the left would describe them.  Since the 1970s, American Catholics have been torn between their support for social programs like welfare and their alliance with evangelicals against abortion, choosing their party by their side in the culture wars.  That evangelicals strategically and successfully became more inclusive of other denominations in their efforts to make abortion illegal — and virtually drowned out any progressive religious voices — is perhaps best evidenced by another potential 2012 presidential candidate, Mormon Mitt Romney.