Rep. Maxine Waters has become the latest to engage in what Michael Gerson calls the “unholy war on the tea party” (more on how I think the well-intended Gerson got it wrong in a minute). Here is what the California congresswoman said about the tea party:

“I’m not afraid of anybody,” Waters said at the summit in Inglewood, Calif. “This is a tough game. You can’t be intimidated. You can’t be frightened. And as far as I’m concerned, the tea party can go straight to hell.”

Ms. Waters then added in that winning way of hers that she is going to do what she can to send the tea party there. It’s become accepted for members of the Democratic Party to say anything they please about the tea party (the vice president compared them to terrorists). No slur is too awful.

In a way, this is a compliment to the tea party. These are the sorts of things people say when argument fails. But it is not very good for the political debate. It is also, unfortunately, often quite effective. Ironically, Michael Gerson’s defense of the tea party this morning reflects how effective these slurs have been.

Gerson mounts a solid defense against apparent charges that the tea party is Dominionist (this appears to be a Christian theology that calls for theocracy). I haven’t seen anywhere that Waters has made this charge, but apparently it is being made by many tea party critics. Gerson’s column is sort of interesting. But it is the wrong defense.

The thing to say about the tea party is that it is a secular movement based on ideas of limited government. It doesn’t embrace novel religious ideas because it doesn’t embrace any specific religion. I’m sure that many tea party members are devout believers, and I know from having attended several of their rallies that they are definitely patriots. The former–religion–however, didn’t strike me as key to this movement.

This is a movement that is concerned not so much with the nature of God but with the nature of government. The idea that the tea party somehow wants to expand government and make it theocratic–and you’d have to expand it considerably to make the U.S. a theocracy!–comes only from people who have no idea what the tea party is.

Gerson’s defense against the notion that the tea party wants theocracy is eloquent. But he should have said instead that people who think of the tea party as part of the religious right are way off base. We didn’t need a dissection of dominionism. We needed a simple statement that this is not in any way a religious movement. Michael, you should have gone to their websites and noted how absurd it is to mingle religion and the tea party (though, again, I don’t doubt for a second that many of the members are very deeply religious in their personal, non-activist lives).

If you look at their websites, you’ll find material on government, not God. Tea Party Patriots, for example, call on their website for “a Strong America Now,” which isn’t about religion but puts forth instead “a detailed plan to eliminate the deficit by 2017 without raising taxes.” Listed as “core values”: fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets.

Another website–The Tea–lists pretty similar items on its agenda: limited government, individual freedoms, personal responsibility, free markets, and returning political power to the states and the people.  

 The heated language of people like Rep. Waters and Vice President Biden shows that they are not ready to engage the tea party in the arena of ideas. It is the ideas-limited government, anyone?-that have made the tea party important almost overnight. Their ideas are inimical to the ideas of Rep. Waters. But she knows it’s not popular to argue for bigger government now. Hence the rhetoric.

They can’t afford to engage the tea party’s ideas–too many Americans share these basic values. So they call them names and hope to send them to hell. Get ready for more of this uncivil discourse. Without the heated rhetoric, the tea party’s enemies might have to discuss limited government and the free market.