The current volatile American political climate is hardly the first time in living memory that anti-government rhetoric, sentiment, and stances have come to the fore of public discourse. Even more directly than similar anti-incumbent political fervor in 1976 and 1994, Americans have been confronted with factions that openly considered their own federal government an enemy. From the disastrous showdown between government agents and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas in 1993 to the militia movement in the 1990s that, arguably, culminated in Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 destruction of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, deep anger, resentment, and suspicion directed at the federal government have boiled over in tragic ways.
Although it is not an aspect that tends to be underscored in reflections on Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple ministry and the community’s shocking end, Jones’ fear of “the System,” a representation of the U.S. government as the tyrannical Babylon of Biblical apocalypse, was a decisive factor in the direction the group took that, as too often has been the case, wound up putting them in a critical conflict that led to a catastrophic reaction.
While the current “Tea Party” movement is both too geographically diffuse and focused on congressional reform through party primary challenges to make a very exact analogy with Peoples Temple – or even the militant anti-government groups of the 1990s – there are several ways in which the Tea Party’s rhetoric and political concerns eerily echo those of their more strident ideological brethren, including Jim Jones. What’s interesting, however, is that while those various descriptions of the governmental threat are very much of a piece with each other, the Tea Party and Peoples Temple are on opposite sides from one another on several issues where they share concerns.
Where the Tea Party movement and Peoples Temple have the most obvious connection is in the depiction of the federal government – at least as it is constituted at the time – as an inherently evil force that, in fact, presages or already fundamentally manifests a fascist takeover of the United States. According to Rebecca Moore’s A Sympathetic History of Jonestown, Jones was deeply distressed by the execution of the accused spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for which he blamed an “inhuman system” (p. 150). Later this system came to include Christianity, whose God allows racial and economic injustice to continue. He wrote and produced a play illustrating the arrival of fascism in the U.S., where blacks and liberals are incarcerated (p. 158) and claimed there were at least as many Nazis in the country in the 1970s as there were in Germany in 1923 (p. 168). By the same token, evocation of the Nazis is commonplace in the Tea Party’s portrayal of the initiatives of President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, particularly in response to the campaign to reform health care that resulted in 2010’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. In the long months of debate over the reforms, many Tea Party-allied protesters and ralliers insisted that the bill instituted a eugenics program comparable to the one created secretly to cleanse Germany of individuals deemed “unworthy of life.” In fact, the single most devastating pronouncement against health care reform came from Tea Party heroine Sarah Palin’s Facebook post that expressed fear that her son Trig, who suffers from Down Syndrome, would have to stand in front of “Obama’s ‘death panels’,” who would determine if he were “worthy of health care.” Palin concludes, “Such a system is downright evil.”
This brief comparison alone offers some intriguing points of contrast. Whereas for the Tea Party, government intervention is evil when it interferes with the capitalistic free market – as was the assertion about health care reform – for Jones, capitalism itself was an aspect of the tyrannical System from which he strove so hard to help others escape. Tellingly, the Tea Party movement’s rhetoric literally does not distinguish between Nazi fascism, Soviet-style Communism, and the liberal interventionism that has been the Democratic Party’s trademark since the days of the New Deal. It is all “socialism,” a system that will by design take over the lives of its citizens and enslave them. By contrast, Jones and Peoples Temple lived – and died – for the “Cause,” the efforts to bring about a socialist paradise on Earth. To Jones, socialism was the true expression of love and God both, and “Divine Socialism,” as enacted by Peoples Temple, would in time sweep away capitalism from the earth. Not surprisingly, though, in the aftermath of the suicides, establishment commentators such as Michael Novak attributed the evil that brought about those deaths to socialism, and more specifically its inherent “suffocation of the individual.” Sarah Palin and her Tea Party cohort would surely wholeheartedly agree with such a sentiment, especially in as much as Jones’ socialist Principle also vilified the core beliefs of the mainline Christianity that political conservatives such as Palin assert are central to American life and government (Moore, p. 180).
The suicides raise another issue where Peoples Temple and the Tea Party have a complicated relationship: violence. While there has not been an outbreak of outright violence at any Tea Party rally or protest, the intimations are most definitely there. Signs and t-shirts advocating not only defiance of the federal government but the possibility of armed revolution have been a defining aspect of those gatherings. They proclaim, “We came unarmed . . . this time,” as well as repeat Thomas Jefferson’s famous statement, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Some individuals not necessarily associated with the Tea Party movement but certainly ideologically of a piece with it appeared armed with handguns and automatic weapons at town hall forums on health care where the president himself was in attendance. Several Tea Party rallies have explicitly promoted gun rights as a check on government power by encouraging people to bring as many guns as possible. According to an article at Truthout.org from January 3 of this year, one protestor who wore a Tea Party shirt at a rally in New Mexico “said his loaded gun was a ‘very open threat’ to anyone who might ‘try to take over the country completely as a socialist communist [state].’” The Republican nominee for Senate in Nevada, Tea Party-affiliated Sharron Angle, suggested as much herself when she warned that “Second Amendment solutions” may be necessary if there is not sufficient changeover in Congress after the 2010 midterm elections.
By contrast, until the ill-fated day of Representative Leo Ryan’s intended departure from Jonestown, violence in the Peoples Temple community was arguably pervasive yet abstract and symbolic. Jones routinely underscored the deadly threat of the outside world, most notably the nuclear danger that prompted the moves to Ukiah, California and to Guyana. He also an asserted that torture awaited any defectors once they left the safe confines of the community (Moore, p. 158). At the same time, however, the acculturation to violence within Peoples Temple through the regular rehearsal of the White Night revolutionary suicides and the emotionally aggressive (many would say “abusive”) “catharsis sessions” had the effect of normalizing the threat of violence from within. Whereas the fear of government interference in their lives has prompted Tea Party members to take a defensive stand directed outwardly against governmental representatives, including the president, the response of Peoples Temple was to use external threats as a means of social solidarity and, ultimately, an excuse for separation from the social-economic system they opposed. Still, while Jones and his ministry resided in California, he fairly actively engaged in politics, supporting and being supported by prominent figures in both parties in ways that Tea Party activists, who have successfully challenged even some of the most conservative Republicans in Congress for not being conservative enough, would never tolerate.
Perhaps, then, it is ironic that the murder of Representative Ryan, otherwise uncharacteristic of Peoples Temple’s anti-governmentalism, became the catalyst for the deaths of 917 other people. Yet it is also the point at which the Tea Party’s reactionary stance and Peoples Temple’s revolutionary one most likely overlap. For the Ryan murder, while occurring in a very different context than that which gives rise today’s anti-government rallies, is a chilling example of what that major party candidate for U.S. Senate called a “Second Amendment solution” to the perceived threat of federal intrusion into a cherished and, some would say, divinely ordained lifestyle. As much as the Tea Parties and Peoples Temple are to be found on the opposite ends of the spectrum on many issues, those issues themselves do in fact draw the two movements together. They are both examples of principled citizens highly motivated to right the wrongs in society perceived to have been perpetrated by the American federal government – by any means necessary, it is suggested. For all their differences, this may be a case where the maxim is true: sometimes the extremes are closer to each other than to the center.
(Dereck Daschke is chair and associate professor of Philosophy & Religion at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. He is co-editor of New Religious Movements: A Documentary Reader  and A Cry Instead of Justice: The Bible and Cultures of Violence in Psychological Perspective . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)