There’s considerable buzz this week about a new Public Religion Research Institute study that seeks to identify American “libertarians” and differentiate them from other right-leaning affinity groups. The big headline is that libertarians are outnumbered significantly within the Tea Party (with which a majority of them don’t identify to the begin with) and within the Republican Party by people whose ideological underpinnings seem to be religious.

The numbers get a little slippery since PRRI’s methodology defines the “Libertarian,” “Tea Party” and “Christian Right” groups as distinct but overlapping groups (especially the last two). But it’s a handy corrective to those who think of “Tea Party” and “Libertarian” as synonyms. Yes, a lot of Tea Folk use libertarian “don’t tread on me” language and insignia. But they’ve come to the ideology of the hard dollar and the minimalist state via David Barton rather than Ayn Rand: via a belief that absolute property rights (and for that matter, the rights of the “unborn”) were divine endowments to America as an “exceptional” nation directed by Providence. So they don’t “get” the idea that they harbor contradictory attitudes towards government on economic issues and social issues. To most “constitutional conservatives,” the property-owner and the patriarch of a “traditional family” are equally endowed by God and the very structure of the universe with powers that are perpetually endangered by God’s enemies operating through a secular-socialist State.

So they can work hand-in-glove with actual Rand-style Libertarians on economic and role-of-government issues in good conscience, and indeed, the constant hope of liberal Christians and secular progressives that Christian Right types can be “wedged” via emphasis on non-cultural issues misses the divinization of markets so endemic to contemporary conservative evangelical thinking.

So don’t let the rhetoric fool you: systemic Tea Party hostility to government is just as likely (perhaps even more likely) to come from a religious as a secular perspective, and self-identified Libertarians who want to legalize drugs and same-sex marriage and porn and abortion are not necessarily in any sort of leadership position in the government-hating ranks.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.